Monday, August 3, 2015

A Hawsepiper's Guide to Applying, Studying and Testing for Master and Mate 500/1600

Now that I have had a few days to decompress and recover, here is my best advice for anyone working on that next upgrade.

Pre-requisites and Approval to Test:

The very first step in this process is to submit an application to the U.S. Coast Guard (National Maritime Center, via your Regional Exam Center). An evaluator at the NMC will determine that you have the required sea time on appropriate tonnage and routes and that you have completed all of the required endorsements. (Find the quick-and-easy guide to any license or rating in the NMC checklists).

At a minimum, and only prior to Dec. 31, 2016*, this will include: Bridge Resource Management, AB (Special, Limited or Unlimited)/Able Seafarer-Deck; Lifeboatman (the qualifying course is called Proficiency in Survival Craft or PSC-Lifeboatman), Rating Forming Part of a Navigation Watch (RFPNW) Assessments, Radar Observer Unlimited, STCW Basic Safety Training or Basic Training and Advanced Firefighting.

You have choices for these courses. For instance, if you take Basic and Advanced Firefighting together, you don't need to repeat two days of Basic Firefighting in the STCW Basic Safety Training.

Most schools will offer a discounted rate and allow you to take only the segments you need -- in this case, Personal Survival Techniques (Water Survival) Personal and Social Responsibility and CPR/First Aid (if you do not already have a current certification, and most working mariners will).

If you have a special circumstance -- for instance naval sea service, service as an Army Watercraft Operator or sea service on a submarine -- it may be worth your while to hire a license consultant. A search for "license consultant" on will yield a handful of names of folks who have done good work for mariners in the past.

Apply for every permutation of the license you believe you may be entitled to.

For instance: if you are shooting for Master or Mate OSV, check your sea time and see if you might also qualify for Master or Mate (non-trade restricted). Master 500 or 1600 will get you STCW II/2, but  Mate requires assessments**. (Master will too, once they are published).

Your evaluator will approve you for only what you ask for (and sometimes not that, if she's not paying attention ... or at least that's my experience).

Also consider this: If you qualify for Master 500 or Master 1600, you also qualify for Mate of the same tonnage. Apply for both, because there is no path from Master to 3rd Mate Unlimited, but the Mate 500/1600 test is the same test for 3rd Mate and if you pass it once you can upgrade with only sea time on appropriate tonnage.

Other advantages of knocking-out Mate while testing for Master (or vice-versa, if qualified) include:
  • the material is largely identical, only presented in different proportions and with a different emphasis; study once, pass both.
  • as noted, after Dec. 31, 2016, the pre-requisites for either license become considerably more onerous (and expensive).
  • mate upgrades with seatime to 1600 GRT or non-trade restricted 3000 GT after one year of sea service (upon application, of course); master takes two years.
Regardless, your first (and probably second and perhaps even third) billet with the new license (whether you hold master or mate or both) is, with a probability exceeding 95 percent, going to be as a mate.

To save on evaluation and issuance fees, you may submit your AB application simultaneously with your application for master or mate (or both) and request the NMC to issue it all at once. Another tip for saving on fees: make the new issuance your renewal.

Once you have your Approval to Test:

Congratulations! Your letter is good for a year. If you haven't been studying, it's time to start.

Lapware, Captain Joe's, Hawsepipe, Murphy's books, Upgrade U ... where to begin?

The biggest problem with Lapware (which a lot of folks have used very successfully) is that it requires a good internet connection, which might be a barrier if you are studying during your hitch.

It's also expensive, $150 for the first month and $100 per month thereafter. Captain Joe's ($89.99 one-time purchase) offers reference materials and comes on a CD, so that's a pretty good, comprehensive option. The Hawsepipe ($94.95 one-time purchase, good for a year) thumb drive, likewise.

My advice: keep it simple and keep it accessible. For IOS users, this means Upgrade U ($29.99), which is comprehensive and easy to use and available for both iPads and iPhones.

For Android users, you'll have to cobble together several apps to achieve the same result. The ones I used were: CaptainQuiz Deck ($4.99) for Deck General, Deck Safety and Nav Gen, and Rules of the Road Pro (99 cents) for Rules (also includes tips and some reference materials).

Note that the CaptainQuiz does not include reference materials -- it is current questions and answers only, from the Coast Guard database. This is helpful, but to understand the material you'll need either hardcopies (or digital versions -- usually free) of the CFRs, Bowditch, etc.; or you'll need to purchase one of the other prep packages (such as Captain Joe's or Hawsepipe, or Upgrade U).

Speaking of reference material, familiarize yourself with CFRs 33, 46 and 49. You will use these your entire career, and you also will need to know how to find information in them in the test room (where they are provided as "available resources").

As soon as you have your approval to test letter, or even before, begin using the applications of your choice above to study rules, deck general, deck safety and nav general.

Mastering Terrestrial Navigation:

Terrestrial Navigation, or T-Nav, is the big, ugly strainer that filters-out those who would like to run bigger boats and those who will be allowed to try. The module itself is called "Navigation Problems: Near Coastal (or Oceans, as applicable). T-Nav problems also show up in the Nav General module.

As I may have mentioned in an earlier post, it involves some math.

I know a couple of guys who taught themselves all or some of the t-nav calculations and formulae; my hat is off. Sincerely. For the rest of us mere mortals, I strongly recommend a prep course or a tutor. If you would like to know who I used and how to get in touch him, e-mail me or send me a message.

Because he absolutely rocked, and he didn't teach answers, he taught theory and process -- processes I can use for the rest of my career.

Plan on spending $2000-$3000 and three weeks, including evenings and weekends, learning and practicing.

Your plots will include t-nav problems, so plotting should be part of your test prep and is usually included in a prep course. Plotting, like most things in life, gets better with practice, so practice. A lot.

Your t-nav test prep course probably won't include a whole lot of rules, deck safety, deck gen or nav gen (though my instructor did spend a couple of hours reviewing each and teaching things like stowage factor, dewpoint and relative humidity, and stability -- and we completed a rules test each morning). So, again, study that stuff before you get to class.

Here's what you'll need for t-nav and plotting:

American Practical Navigator (Bowditch 1981, Vol. 2). Get the larger, hardcover version if you can find it (used is fine!); it's the one that will be in the test room and, for my middle-aged eyes, some of the tables were much easier to read. Everything else, including page numbers, is the same in the soft binding.

The 1981 Nautical Almanac, and 1983 Reprint from Tide and Current Tables and 1983 Reprint from the Light Lists. All available here, and elsewhere.

It should go without saying, but I'll say it anyway ... for the purposes of testing, and for test prep, you must use the 1981/1983 versions of the publications listed above. In practical application, the current versions work the same way, but all of the Coast Guard's test questions are based on the years above, and they continue to be reprinted for only that purpose.

Navigation Rules, August 2014, available here and elsewhere. (This really isn't a t-nav specific resource, but you should have it anyway.)

TI-30XA Calculator (some scientific calculators are not approved for use in the test room; this one is), available here.

Plotting tools: Parallel rulers (15-inch or 24-inch really are handy); triangles (if you don't know how to use these, learn, because they make life so much easier and angles so much more accurate); two ultralight dividers (one for use with a pencil lead, one for use with divider points only); draftsman's erasers; mechanical pencils.

A set of training charts (Block Island Sound, Long Island Sound and Chesapeake).

Maneuvering boards -- two pads,probably. Available here.

Other useful items include: Post-It Notes, sticky page tabs, several college-ruled notebooks, and 4-color highlighters.

Scheduling a Test and Testing:

Mariners are free to schedule exams at any Regional Exam Center. I tested at REC Houston, and while I assume most RECs are similar in layout and procedure, I can only vouch for my experience.

You may schedule the exams anytime after you are approved to test (within 12 months, obviously). You may do this online at the NMC website, or simply call the NMC (1-800-IASKNMC) and a customer service agent will schedule it for you.

The Houston REC was open 0700-1500, and we were discouraged from starting any module when we had less than two hours to complete it (i.e., after 1300).

I noticed that online, you are offered options to schedule up to three days. These are actually "start" days -- the RECs know that you will have a minimum of six modules.

You must complete two modules per day, in any order you desire. If you fail one, that module goes to the end of the line and you may retest immediately upon completing the other modules or anytime within 90 days. Fail three and you must start the entire cycle over again.
If you decide to test for both master and mate, as I and several others did, you may begin with either master or mate, but must complete that entire cycle before beginning the next one. One useful strategy with regard to this arrangement is to save deck safety and deck gen for day two (or three) of your first cycle, and begin with deck safety and deck gen of the next cycle the same day.

Our examiner allowed us to review the exams immediately after grading to see what we missed. I strongly recommend doing this if you do not score 100 percent on any given module.

The exam room is chock-full of reference materials, which you are free to access for any module other than Navigation Rules. Many of the answers to questions in Nav Gen, Deck Gen and Deck Safety are in these references. Give yourself time to look them up. If you are familiar with the CFRs (and Bowditch, the Light List and Pub. 102) when you go in, this will speed things up for you.

When completing your plot, be sure to use the Light List to verify that you are plotting bearings or ranges to the correct light or feature. Each plot (for mate, anyway) usually has at least one question that is answered in the Coast Pilot, as well.

Once you have successfully completed testing, your examiner will email the scores to NMC and your new license will be issued without further action on your part. If you fail any modules, again, you have up to 90 days to retest those modules (the ones you passed, unless you failed three or more, still count).

Take advantage of the time to brush-up on the subjects you had trouble with and go back confident that the second time is the charm.

Of course we all want to master the material and nail the exams on the first go-around, but nowhere, on anyone's merchant mariner credential, is there a section that shows your test scores or how many times you repeated a test. Just like the guy who was last in his class in med school and squeaked through the boards is still called "Doctor," you will still get a credential and a shot at proving yourself in the wheelhouse.

A last note on the REC: I suppose it might be respectful to show up in long pants and real shoes, but most of the guys who tested at the same time I did wore shorts and flip-flops. This is partly because it was July on the Texas Gulf Coast. But no eyebrows were raised, and it wasn't a problem. Be comfortable -- those hours in the exam room are like dog hours; a full day feels a little like a week.

Near Coastal or Oceans?

The difference between the Near Coastal and Oceans licenses is a matter of celestial navigation, which is an additional module, and different Nav General (and possibly Deck General -- I'm not clear on this) modules.

T-Nav gets you about halfway to C-Nav, from what I can tell, and it makes sense to build on that -- immediately or later. I initially thought I would do it immediately, but belatedly decided that following the advice of some friends to add that route later was the better part of valor.

My navigation tutor used an example from antiquity: the dog who saw his reflection in the water and decided he wanted *that* bone, too, so dropped the one in his mouth to grab it and ended up with nothing.

From a practical perspective, it doesn't matter at all for most oil patch jobs -- by default, nearly all of the domestic billets will be on vessels operating within the 200-nautical mile limit. Likewise for harbor tugs.

Where it would make a difference is in working foreign, in some jobs in the Pacific Northwest, or in ocean towing, so it's worthwhile to consider for those reasons.

Finally ....

Hawsepipin' aint easy. If you're doing it, you already know this.

If I had it all to do over again, knowing what I know now, I would have got myself to one of the maritime academies right out of high school.

If I knew then what I know now, and it had been available a little later in life, I might have opted for MITAGS-PMI Workboat Academy, which by all accounts is a terrific program.

As it stands, I've been able to make a decent living and I've learned a lot of practical and boat-handling skills doing it this way. It's taken a little longer, but at the end of the day I took and passed the same test academy grads take with a just year more invested (and zero student loan debt -- well, from this experience, anyhow).

It will take me a little longer to receive the same license the academy grads get, but from a practical and experiential standpoint I feel like I'm ahead of the game.

Still, I am mindful that the credential -- the license -- only says "You May." It says nothing about "You Can." It's just a ticket to try.

I'm looking forward to trying.

*This applies only if you began qualifying training or sea service prior to March 24, 2014. That means one day of sea service or training for one endorsement prior to that date. If you don't have this, or are testing for your upgrade after the beginning of 2017, you will, at a minimum, also have to complete courses in ship handling, stability, meteorology and search and rescue.

**The assessments are a bit of a catch-22 for most hawsepipers, or at least those taking the wheelhouse-wheelhouse route: they require an STCW-endorsed officer (500GT or better, usually) to sign-off on them, but prior to upgrading, guys coming from the 100-ton world usually won't have access to such a person for the length of time needed to do the assessments. Add the OICNW endorsement later, post-upgrade, or spend a week and $1300 getting them done in the simulator at Marine Professional Training in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.


  1. Thank you for your post and tips. I'm sure I'll be referring to it several times in the near future. Congrats on your success!

  2. Thank you for your post and tips. I'm sure I'll be referring to it several times in the near future. Congrats on your success!

  3. You write a wonderful blog and I'm your fan!!!

  4. Thanks Todd! If there is anything at all that I can do to help you, be sure to shoot me an email!

  5. Thanks, Lynda. I appreciate all of your kind comments!

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