Seamanship for Divers

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Bret GilliamBy Capt. Bret C. Gilliam

If you work in the diving industry, sooner or later you will find yourself on a boat. It may be because you elect to be a customer in hopes of accessing the more exotic sites usually available, or you may seek employment in a dive store or resort that operates boats as part of their business. It is to this latter individual that this brief article is addressed. What should a diving instructor know about seamanship?

Increasingly, your chances of getting hired at all may be predicated on your boating skills. Graduating from an instructor program is a worthy accomplishment but realistically such training is primarily geared to evaluating and refining teaching skills in order to conduct dive training programs. This may substantially limit your options when it comes to testing the job market since little, if any, practical boat experience is offered. But if you want to make diving a career and afford yourself the best earning potentials, then you’re simply going to have to know your way around a boat without looking like a delegate from the Three Stooges. There are literally tens of thousands of instructors looking for jobs and the majority will be overlooked by employers in resort settings, liveaboards, etc. without prerequisite boating experience.

If you contemplate working for a U.S. based operation, it’s important to know that their water craft will come under the direct jurisdiction of the U.S.Coast Guard with regard to crewing requirements, inspections and licensing. (For foreign flag vessels that call on U.S. ports, the USCG’s enforcement role may be more closely refined to address only SOLAS requirements. For foreign flag vessels operating in their home waters, regulations are usually substantially relaxed.)

All captains or operators of U.S. passenger carrying vessels must be properly licensed. In many cases, certain members of the crew may also be required to hold licenses as engineers or mates. Most employers will look for staff that hold multiple credentials, i.e. a licensed captain and dive instructor. This is especially important in smaller operations where a limited staff must fulfill several functions, many times on short notice. Obviously, the candidate who can teach classes, fill tanks, run a computer, do store sales and handle the dive boat is going to get a longer look by his prospective employer.

Licensing is best accomplished by a combination of practical experience and specialized study. The Coast Guard will require two years of “certified” sea time to qualify an applicant for an entry-level license. Sweeping aside all pious claims to the contrary, they will accept almost anything if it looks good on paper and if it’s got someone attesting that the sea time actually took place. Boats are expensive and easily damaged in the hands of an inexperienced operator. This is a rather sad fact of life and brings up the next issue in hiring: “OK, this guy has got a license but does he really know how to run one of my boats?”

This burning question is etched forever in your employer’s mind since the Coast Guard does not require a practical boating test when you take your exam. This has always left me slightly bemused and baffled. You can’t even get a license to drive yourself in your grandma’s old VW without demonstrating your proficiency to actually operate the vehicle while performing daring feats of parallel parking, starting from a stopped position on a steep incline with a stick shift, or simply putting your blinkers on at the appropriate times. But you can finesse your way into a license to be captain of a vessel up to 200 tons and capable of carrying several hundred passengers without ever giving a practical demonstration of even tying off a line to a cleat!

Bilikiki, a 130-ft. liveaboard diving vessel, anchored in the   Solomon Islands 2011

Bilikiki, a 130-ft. liveaboard diving vessel, anchored in the Solomon Islands 2011

Having hired at least one too many of these “captains” in my time and then been reduced to helpless amazement as they drove my boats into the dock or up on a sandbar, I now cast a rather jaundiced eye upon the licensing process. The Coast Guard argues that actual boat tests are too expensive; I know what they mean after paying the bills on a few “tests”. But licensing is a necessary evil and does provide a good theoretical basis of achievement.

Licensing has changed in recent years and some confusion has resulted. In prior years, entry level or “civilian” licenses were issued up to a maximum of 100 tons and were called Ocean Operator licenses. These were further restricted by coastal routes and maximum distances offshore. Motor boat operators licenses were also issued that restricted the holder to carrying not more than six passengers. Above that, you got into the real issuance of Merchant Marine officer licenses to Masters (captains), Mates, Engineers etc. This has gotten a little vague with the revisions to the rules and many of the smaller licenses are now referred to as Near Coastal Master or Mate tickets etc. Actual ship officers etc. are subjected to a far more rigorous licensing requirement.

For your first license, I suggest you seek out one of the excellent training centers around the country that specialize in preparing you to pass the demanding written examination. At least in this phase, practical experience may not help you. You will be tested in Rules of the Road, USCG inspection requirements, fire fighting, first aid, general seamanship, navigation, pollution ordinances etc., Take my advice: go to an exam prep center and they will get you through it. A good place to start is with SEA SCHOOLS or HOUSTON MARINE.  Your local Power Squadron will probably offer boating courses but these will not get you through a licensing exam.

Acquiring experience requires initiative and a bit of creativity. Volunteering to work on dive boats may well be the best entry-level ticket to free training. It’s a reasonable bargain usually for both parties. You will get experience in a practical setting and the boat skipper gets some cheap labor and only a slight addition to his ulcer. In all seriousness, many boat owners prefer to train a crew member or deckhand from scratch and this can lead to a job offer once you learn your way around. Boat crews are notoriously transient and most captains are willing to work with a motivated newcomer that can pitch in and work his way up. Meanwhile you’re getting real time towards a license.

180-ft. private luxury yacht in Monte Carlo 2010

Paradise Dancer, 180-ft. sailing liveaboard diving vessel, in Indonesia 2009

Although it will be a while before you can expect to get any serious “wheel time” (actually handling the vessel in tight quarters or making dock approaches), most skippers will be happy to start you off with the rudiments of watch standing, steering a compass course and basic navigation. Now is also the time to absorb as much of the general seamanship skills as possible. This will include proper handling of lines, anchoring, safety drills, procedures for moving the boat on and off the dock or mooring, passenger relations and even such seemingly mundane tasks as painting and varnishing.

Take practical experience wherever you can get it. You will almost always learn something. Ideally, starting with smaller craft, such as outboard driven boats in the 20 to 25 ft. range, will give you a chance to see for yourself how a boat reacts to her helm. Practice leaving the slip or dock until you can anticipate each maneuver as second nature. When you are comfortable with smaller boats, seek out some time on larger single engine vessels. A boat with a conventional shaft and propeller with a spade rudder will react far differently than an articulating outboard or stern drive system. If you can master a 35 to 40 ft. single engine boat while backing up in a strong crosswind or current, you are close to earning your stripes. Twin engine craft are more easily maneuvered since the boat can be pivoted on her engines but these boats are also usually larger as well and will have more mass and inertia to deal with.

Keep in mind that different operations will require different crew requirements. On typical dive boats operated as “day trips”, there may only be a captain and deckhand. Usually both will be actively involved in the dive operation as well. This provides an ideal learning experience since the deckhand/crew will handle much of the regular seamanship duties while the captain mans the wheel.

Capt. Bret Gilliam aboard 550-ft. cruise ship Ocean Spirit in 1989

Capt. Bret Gilliam aboard 550-ft. cruise ship Ocean Spirit in 1989

On larger vessels, more staff may be added. Some day-boats in the 65 ft.+ range will have a captain, mate and several deckhands or crew. Try to learn as much about each member’s duties as possible so you can quickly and confidently fill in as needed. Larger vessels are also less forgiving of mistakes so remember the captain is counting on you to get your line over on time and properly made fast on maneuvers.

Liveaboard dive vessels try to get the most utilitarian use of staff since there is only a limited amount of crew berthing available. The candidate who can point to past experience on other boats and who can help out in the galley or tend bar if necessary is an added asset. Likewise, individuals with mechanical skills are always given priority. Nothing ever goes right on a boat for long.

It’s not necessary to be an engineer to make yourself valuable. Almost anyone can become proficient in basic maintenance and trouble-shooting with a little effort. One sure way to endear yourself with the skipper is to volunteer to learn the routine of engine check-outs: dipping the oil, checking belt tensions and coolant levels, battery fluids, and other routine engine room duties. On vessels less than 100 tons, the captain will still be performing much of the maintenance schedule himself and any background you can pick up from a versatile operator will prove invaluable. Once you are comfortable and familiar with engine and generator check lists, ask for more technical instruction in changing water pump impellers, hoses, zincs and hands-on experience with electrical repairs, etc. A crew member that is handy with a wrench and knows his way around a toolbox will be a valuable addition to any operation.

Modern mid-size (600-ft.) cruise ship Insignia in Croatia 2010

Modern mid-size (600-ft.) cruise ship Insignia in Croatia 2010

In the last two decades, a trend has developed towards larger vessels including ships specifically designed for diving. Also, more and more traditional cruise ships are adding diving staff to their activities department. These situations are generally more formal with respect to uniforms and protocol. It’s helpful to have at least a passing familiarity with recognizing rank and department by insignia. A ship is usually staffed by deck officers (sometimes called the navigation officers), engineers, and hotel staff. The Captain (or Master ) is the senior deck officer and responsible for the overall ship operation. His second in command is the First Officer or Staff Captain who deals with the everyday ship’s routine. The Chief Engineer oversees the mechanical sections with the Hotel Manager handling the primary passenger facilities.

A close examination of their shoulder-board or sleeve insignia will reveal their department. In the U.S. merchant marine, deck officers typically wear an “anchor” while engineering staff wear a “propeller” etc. The ship captain and chief engineer will both display four gold stripes with other staff progressing downward: three stripes to a first officer, two to a second etc. In some foreign systems, the insignia is eliminated and an accent color is added near the gold bars to distinguish departments. Take the time to learn the system and you will be spared the embarrassment of addressing the hotel manager as “captain”.

I have always had a personal theory that the grander and whiter the uniform…the less chance I had of getting dirty! Rarely is a cruise ship captain called to the engine room…

There is a definite need for good crew in all respects of this industry. But it’s a very competitive market and experience is a definite plus. Combined with a license, diving instructor credentials can be parlayed into appreciable career earnings if you hook up with the right operation. The time spent “learning the ropes” on a dive boat can be used to upgrade training and license grades. Many ex-dive boat skippers have gone on to pursue careers in yachting and shipping. Mates on luxury yachts can easily earn up to $75,000 with top captains commanding well into six figures.

Along the way, while picking up the skills of the deck and engine operation make sure to spend some time acquainting yourself with the fundamentals of navigation. Again, most captains or mates are receptive to training crew that show a willing interest. A working knowledge of practical piloting, dead reckoning, and chart work are a must for advancement. From that starting point a natural progression to electronic navigational aids will follow. The modern crew member will be functional with radar, plotters, and GPS. You may even find a patient skipper who can introduce you to the fascinations of celestial sights with a sextant… nearly a lost art in today’s push-button marine industry.

You must also be able to handle the professional mariner’s lexicon. Bow, stern, draft, bulkhead etc. should be everyday language but you also need to know the difference between “weighing anchor” and “making way”. Seamanship isn’t just handling lines and learning not to spit into the wind. It’s a combination of many skills that make you a working partner on a boat or ship. Attitude and a willingness to learn new responsibilities mark the entry level deckhand bound for promotion. I remember being taught to tie a bowline and how to plot a course for the first time and welcome the opportunity to share my profound satisfaction in a professional marine career with others eager to learn. Now after some forty years at sea and commands ranging from tugboats to cruise ships, I cannot imagine a more exciting and fulfilling vocation.

But then again, it’s been said that I will do anything to avoid getting a real job…


author biosketch: Bret Gilliam is a licensed USCG Merchant Marine Master and President of OCEAN TECH, a marine and diving consulting firm. His work includes design, construction and operation of diving vessels and luxury yachts. A 41-year veteran of the diving and shipping industry, he has commanded everything from naval research vessels to 550 ft. cruise ships throughout the Atlantic, Caribbean and Pacific.

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10 comments for “Seamanship for Divers

  1. DocVikingo
    April 6, 2012 at 2:31 pm

    Smashing photo of you on the Ocean Spirit, Brett. You cut a dashing figure, indeed.

    Enjoyed the piece, too.

    Thnaks,

    Doc

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  2. Ken Katz
    April 6, 2012 at 5:57 pm

    Hi Bret! Another interesting piece. Thanks for the info. I enjoyed reading it.

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  3. AE Puccinelli
    April 6, 2012 at 11:21 pm

    As always top notch Mr. Gilliam, but one thing, Your not supposed to spit in the wind???? Whaaat..

    Cheers & thanks

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  4. April 8, 2012 at 9:41 pm

    Ithink it is ‘you cannot piss against the wind’ :)

    excellent essay.

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  5. John Bantin
    April 16, 2012 at 2:33 pm

    I was always amazed at the way passengers slept soundly while I drove the Lady Jenny V across the major sealane that is the Red Sea, between the Sudan and the Yemen and back to Djibouti. I guess they thought I knew what I was doing!

    Didn’t ever get offered the nice white uniform though. I used to strip down naked just to get eight knots of wind over those parts of my body that never saw the sun. My Timberland shoes melted on the engine-room steps one night while pumping the day tank.

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  6. Bret Gilliam
    April 16, 2012 at 3:27 pm

    For those of you looking for old photos of John Bantin naked with only his melting Timberland shoes on while steering the boat across the Red Sea, I think you can still find them on various websites. Try “the velvet spike”, “ram rod”, “mid-watch buggery”, and “sheep shagger”. There is also a camel, now in his mid-thirties, that bears a striking resemblance to John and claims that some sort of relationship existed between his mother and Jon.

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  7. John Bantin
    April 18, 2012 at 7:22 am

    Bret, You can see a naked picture of me on most pages of http://www.divernet.com in an ad for small ads! It’s a rear view by not a bad backside for a pensioner!

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  8. bret gilliam
    April 18, 2012 at 1:48 pm

    Wow… John Bantin is right. He is in a bunch of ads for “small things”. I love the one for “small backsides” although he looks like a young sheep, the one for “small Speedos”, and especially the one for “small condoms”. Check him out! Be sure to bring your magnifying glasses…

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  9. Harry
    July 6, 2012 at 1:13 am

    Capt. Bret.

    Still alive, eh? I would like to make contact with you someday and try to get some copies of old pictures from the Ocean Quest days especially if you have any with me in them. Remember Me? (Dad) your system engineer from those days.

    Harry Fischer

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  10. Bob K
    September 18, 2014 at 3:27 pm

    This article should be mandatory reading for everyone who wants to be a dive instructor. Many dive operators also value multilingual skills.

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