All hands on deck!
What did the ship’s captain say when he got stuck trying to navigate through a narrow channel?
“We’re in dire straits!”
It’s an old maritime joke, but it illuminates just one of the many navigational challenges boaters face when cruising waterways. Not understanding the “rules of the road” can lead just about anyone off course when it comes to boating safety.
Sea School, located on Marina Drive off Clements Ferry Road, offers a variety of courses for those who are new to the boating world – as well as those who’ve had salt in their veins for as long as they can remember. The U.S. Coast Guard-approved classes offered at the facility, which is part of a national company based in St. Petersburg, Florida, can help students complete the certification process for a captain (OUPV - Operator of Uninspected Passenger Vessels), a master, a merchant mariner, and more.
According to local Sea School licensing specialist Dave Pierce, about 80 percent of their students seek out certifications because they are interested in hitting local waterways to earn money, such as by captaining a passenger boat charter or fishing vessel. The remaining 20 percent simply want to gain more knowledge about operating their own personal boats in area waters.
Most of their business involves students who are seeking what’s called a “six-pack,” which is a 54-hour mandated course by the Coast Guard that provides an entry level “Captain’s License” for one of the following categories: inland waters, near coastal waters, or Great Lakes.
“It’s pretty much the backbone in Charleston,” explains Pierce.
The “six pack” title refers to the fact that the course is designed for those who wish to take out up to six passengers (for potential monetary benefit) on a vessel up to 100 gross tons. But it’s also geared towards those who just want the certification for personal, recreational purposes.
“We tell folks that most major boat insurance companies will give a discount for a Captain’s License,” added Pierce. “…We get such a mix in these classes with the demographics. We’ve got the millennials, who are right at high school (or college) graduation trying to find their way…and then we have those in their mid-30s and 40s looking to expand their opportunities and maybe get a business partner and go and do tours.”
Then there are others, continued Pierce, who are just hoping to knock off an item on their bucket list.
“We had one in the last class who was 75!” he said, referencing a retired basketball coach who completed the course because he wanted to do some chartering on Lake Marion. “Took him a little while to get past the chart plotting, but he did it. He and his son took it together. And we’ve had sisters, spouses, brothers…you name it, come through the class. They encourage each other.”
And Pierce and his team walk each student through the complicated process involved in gaining U.S. Coast Guard certifications at the various levels.
The Captain’s License or OUPV course offers a basic foundation on which many of the other certification levels are built.
“It’s not the most difficult,” said Pierce. “It’s actually like a pyramid that starts here…you absorb the most information with this basic class and then it starts to ramp in and becomes more focused and it’s not nearly as daunting.”
They discuss general seamanship, such as nomenclature, vessel education, waterway conditions (tides and currents), underway conduct, survival techniques, weather, and even knot-tying. Instructors will also cover lifesaving equipment, distress signaling, basic firefighting procedures, and the rules of navigating.
One topic addressed is “Rule No. 9,” which includes a guideline that “a vessel of less than 20 meters in length shall not impede the passage of a vessel which can safely navigate only within a narrow channel or fairway.” Large ships coming into Charleston Harbor sometimes have difficulty maneuvering around smaller vessels or sailboats dotting the path in front of the them, said Pierce.
“Some of these sailors don’t have any idea about the rules of the road,” he added. “One of the most common signals you’ll hear (from a large ship) is five short whistle blasts…it’s basically a vessel that is restricted in its ability to maneuver…they’re basically saying ‘Hey, get out of the way, I can’t stop and turn.’ The Coast Guard will at some point pull one of the smaller boats over and usually they find out that these guys just have very minimal knowledge…So we try to educate them through what that means.”
Taking the “rules” test is the most rigorous part of the process, Pierce continued. Students must score 90 percent or higher to pass.
“It’s a little more of a hurdle,” he said. “It’s not uncommon for students to have to take it twice.”
To obtain a basic Captain’s License, students must pass a total of four tests, including one on chart plotting.
“They have to figure out where they need to be if the instruments quit,” noted Pierce. “They have to know how to find their way home if things (fail) and their GPS goes down.”
Once all testing is complete, they can begin their application to the Coast Guard.
“That certificate is the cornerstone,” added Pierce.
There are also standards to meet in terms of physical competency and they must also pass DOT drug screens. Sea School can help throughout the process.
“Our mission is to give them an expanded knowledge base of the waterways system and safely operating, to either just be substantially better operators and to make a living if that’s what they want to do, and to continually anticipate industry needs and stay on top of Coast Guard regulations.”
When not assisting with operations at Sea School, Pierce enjoys kayaking Lowcountry creeks and rivers. The community offers plenty of reasons to get out on the water, he said.
“Just that serenity of the marshes…you can go around the Battery and just see all the history from the water. We have freshwater, brackish water, saltwater, and the ICW (Intercoastal Waterway) is a nice run…I think we have it all.”
And helping boaters and other mariners make the most of their experiences is a central goal for Pierce and his team at Sea School.
“If we can make our graduate core, our cadre, safer boaters – then that’s all good.”
For more information about Sea School and its offerings, visit www.seaschool.com.