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Licensed to Fish

So you want to be a professional captain? Here's how.

January 30, 2009
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In an economic climate where corporate “downsizing” is featured on every nightly newscast, being self-employed is certainly becoming more appealing. And when a potential new career also means a daily commute on the water and having clients pay top dollar to put them on fish, it’s easy to see why more than 6,500 captain licenses are issued or renewed every year. Before quitting your day job and ordering a new boat, however, be forewarned: Getting your ticket requires reams of paperwork and special qualifications, along with a sizeable chunk of money and hard work.

Issued by the U.S. Coast Guard, an Operator of Uninspected Passenger Vessel (OUPV) license requires 360 days of total boating experience. Known as a “Six-Pack” license because it is limited to six passengers, the OUPV ticket is good for inland or near-coastal operation. The Near Coastal Endorsement is valid for inland or offshore waters up to 100 miles. Included in that total experience, 90 days must be accrued within the last three years. In addition, there’s a second 90-day requirement for near-coastal operation. Days are counted as four-plus hours of operating personal boats or spent aboard someone else’s, with proper documentation. Sea service time starts after age 15, and you must be 18 to be eligible.

The successful completion of an accredited course is the biggest hurdle for most aspiring mariners. Self-study courses are available online, but the most popular method is through accredited classes like those offered by  St. Petersburg-based Sea School. It is one of the largest private institutions specializing in this type of instruction, and Ron Wahl has been the company’s director of training for 32 years.

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“We have eight  fixed locations and roving classes in 83 cities,” Wahl explains. “All of our instructors hold a license equal to or higher than the class they teach. They’re approved by the Coast Guard and subject to constant monitoring by the service’s training officers.”

The Rules of the Road comprise the biggest portion of the classes. Other segments include navigation and plotting, aids to navigation as well as personal and on-board safety. The typical Sea School curriculum is 54 hours taught for two full weekends and the five weeknights in between. The final exam is based on the material taught.

“For a whole bunch of reasons, going to a classroom school helps most students focus and complete the course work,” Wahl says, adding that an average of 86 percent of first-time students pass. The fee for the course is $595. Other associated courses, such as CPR, carry additional charges. Counselors are available afterward to help with the license application paperwork. “Our motto is: ‘We’ll hold your hand until it holds the license,'” Wahl says.

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Before private companies like Sea School were allowed to administer the final test, everyone took his or her test at one of the 17 Coast Guard Regional Exam Centers. Those facilities are still in operation, but the National Maritime Center is now the sole clearinghouse for evaluating and processing licenses. I spoke with Tina Bassett, who is the NMC’s Mariner Evaluations division chief.

“Our mission statement is to issue credentials to fully qualified mariners in the most effective and efficient manner possible,” Bassett says. The goal of this dedicated processing facility is to turn around “clean” applications within 30 days. Delays are typically caused by improper paperwork or questions about legal matters or qualifications.

“The biggest glitch is when medical forms are not complete. When people get their physicals, they need to make sure the doctors don’t leave anything blank or incomplete,” Bassett explains. “We’re adding more staff to our medical branch to speed up the evaluation process, but it can still be a bottleneck for those reasons.

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“Our toll-free call center is a great way to stay abreast of your application status,” Bassett adds. “We field 20,000 calls a month for all types of licenses. The operators can answer most routine inquiries or direct applicants to our subject matter experts if the question is more involved.”

In addition to license evaluations, the NMC is also responsible for approving courses and developing the bank of questions that exams are randomly pulled from. Once a license has been approved, the center produces and mails it to the applicant. Taking the OUPV test costs $85. There is also a $100 fee for the application evaluation and a $45 fee for the actual license.

Before you start fishing clients professionally, you also have to secure liability and commercial boat insurance (which starts at around $1,000 annually).

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Yes, getting your captain’s license is an expensive and time-consuming proposition. But after a long, successful day on the water, when your clients are tired and grinning ear-to-ear, you’ll smile to yourself and say, “It’s all worth it.”

Prerequisites

Several major changes have occurred since I last renewed my own captain’s license, including the  Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) card requirement, which was prompted by 9/11 and the opening of the Coast Guard’s National Maritime Center in 2008.  According to Transportation Security Administration  spokesperson Jon Allen, TWIC was designed to keep individuals who pose a threat from gaining access to the nation’s ports. The card is a tamper-resistant ID issued by TSA that has a fingerprint embedded on the card. All OUPV license-holders will be required to have one by April 15, 2009. The fee for the five-year security credential is $132.50, and other details can be found at  tsa.gov/twic.

But the TWIC card is the first of many steps necessary for licensing. A thorough physical exam, drug screening (and subsequent random testing), first aid and CPR certifications are also required. A check of your driving history and criminal background checks are also conducted by the Coast Guard prior to approval.  In addition, applicants must include three letters of recommendation with their packet.

Voices of Experience

SALT WATER SPORTSMAN EDITOR Ted Lund has held an OUPV license since 1992. As a former light-tackle guide in Key West, he and his clients set 27 IGFA World Records.

“I got my ticket while still in college,” Lund recalls. “I had to drive daily from Gainesville, Florida to Jacksonville for a week. The hardest part, though, was the paperwork. Make sure to use your instructor as a resource when filling it out – and whatever you do, don’t send your application to Miami.”

Capt Frank Crescitelli (www.finchaser.com) is one of the top skippers in the New York metropolitan area. As an Orvis-endorsed guide, he specializes in stripers and tuna. He and his partner, Capt. Anthony Grassi, earned their licenses in 1998.

“We went to Sea School together in New Jersey but had to take our exam on Long Island,” Crescitelli explains. “As we drove to the test, some guy plows into me and totaled my new Durango. It only had 43 miles on the odometer. We were shook up but passed the test. Afterwards, we found out Anthony had a concussion.”

“I got my first license back in 1968,” Miami tarpon expert Bouncer Smith (www.captbouncer.com) recalls. “My tutor was Capt. Bobby Gashler. We flew to Nassau to bring back Rita Hayworth’s 45 Norseman that had blown an engine and I studied on the way. We didn’t have much money, so we stopped in Bimini and bought a loaf of hot bread, New Zealand butter and peanut butter for supper.”

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