Last week I passed all required exams and am unofficially a 1600-ton master, oceans. The license should be in the mail soon but I doubt I’ll have it in my hand before I go back to work this Saturday.
My week of testing was long and circuitous; I knew I wasn’t completely ready, but I also don’t like to wait around to start something when I’m as ready as I’ll ever be – I want to dive right in. On Monday (also Cinco de Mayo) I passed Rules of the Road and Deck Safety right off (these were the two “Murphy’s books” I actually spent a month on the boat reading), but failed Deck General (by two questions!) along with the dinky 20-question, increase-in-scope Nav General. My big weaknesses were stability calculations, intercept problems, hurricane maneuvers, ocean currents, and pretty much the entire “Ship’s business” section of Deck Gen. So I was resigned to spend the rest of the week studying for my re-takes. But first I had to clear another hurdle: Celestial Nav Problems.
For any mariner with a limited-tonnage license to be qualified to sail as an officer on ocean routes, the ocean problems module of the exam will be a given at some point. Some schools offer celestial courses that culminate in an in-class exam to qualify them for an oceans endorsement on their license without ever having to go near a REC. I opted to take the test in the Coast Guard exam room. Since it had been a year since I’d taken the class and I had forgotten just about everything I’d learned re celestial navigation, I chickened out and settled for a near coastal license when I sat for my mate’s in Oct ’12. My current company requires that I hold an oceans endorsement and aside from that it’s just good practice to go for the highest grade license for which you are qualified.
So I went back for another round at PMI in March and it’s a good thing I did because there would have been no getting out of that exam room alive had I not had all those skills still fresh in recent memory. I didn’t have most of the tools I needed (1981 Nautical Almanac, plotting sheets, star finder) to practice celestial out of my school books when I was on the boat last hitch, and I slacked off considerably when I hit land in late April, but I found it difficult to study for the ocean problems exam regardless of how much time I’d had to prepare. I just needed to go into the REC (regional exam center, here located in the Federal Building at 1st and Madison in downtown Seattle) and take a look at the test. When I went down there last Tuesday morning, I fully expected to fail. I went in with the plan to look at the problems, knowing I wouldn’t remember how to work any of them out, and hand back a blank answer sheet, saying I needed more time and I’d come in for a retake later. It’s embarrassing really, knowing that this was the exam I’d skipped out on before and I was still dreading it so badly I was afraid to walk in there and just sit down and try. I’d given up before I got started, and I want to tell everyone I know: never go into a challenge with that kind of attitude. Or maybe do. Because when I sat down with that exam in front of me, I thought – ok, I’ll just see if I can remember how to do this first question. Slowly, everything started coming back to me.
I don’t remember the order they were in – I know the first three were the sailings: parallel, mercator, and great circle – initial course & distance, latitude & longitude of arrival, etc; there was latitude by Polaris, a 2-sun-line fix, time of local apparent noon & meridian passage, zone time of sunset, a 3-star fix, and the last two were star finder questions, which ended up being downright fun. On my 3-star fix I got the longitude of my position dead-on and was .4 nm off on the latitude. There were two problems that I never learned how to do, which were gnomonic chart plots and something about the longitude at which a great circle route will cross the equator; I guessed on both and got both wrong. On the other 13 problems, I worked them all out and got them all right. The moral of that story is don’t give up before you start, and also there are tons of resources for passing the ocean navigation problems exam to be found in Bowditch and the nautical almanac, available in the exam room. It might have taken me from 8 in the morning until 1 pm but I was elated when I walked out of there. The celebration was short, however, because I still had two tests to take for the second time, and you only get three chances to pass each module before they make you wait 60 days for another attempt.
So I sat in front of my computer and surfed LAPware for two more days, grinding through stability calculations and intercept problems and generating numerous practice tests with their handy template tool. The thing I always find funny with regard to how I approach math is how much I expect to hate it, but when I get into it I actually kind of like it… a lot. I like math when it applies to the physical world because that’s when it makes the most sense to me, which is why I always especially enjoyed physics, geometry, and trigonometry. Long story short, I went in on Friday and passed Deck Gen, then Nav Gen, paid my issuance fees and walked out into the sunshine – the first call was to Unit Mike, to tell him he is welcome to refer to his little girl as Captain Simenstad.
For prospective mariners considering going through a program like the workboat academy at PMI and MITAGS to get a limited-tonnage license, I just want to stress the fact that I went from ordinary seaman to 1600 ton ocean master in four and a half years – these programs are an incredible fast-track to the wheelhouse and while it might be tough to put in so much sea service in such a short time, it is doable and in my opinion well worth it. So good luck and see you out there soon.