Inspired by the COVID 19 lockdown, I began cleaning house in a major way. That meant going into drawers and cabinets seeking out items that I no longer needed. Inevitably my purging led me to a cabinet drawer full of files that I hadn’t seen for years; old stories never completed, postcards from forgotten friends and in one file, bursting with the girth of a snake swallowing too big a meal, a treasure of long-forgotten information labeled “Captains License.” I hadn’t looked at that file in at least 15 years but it was taking up a lot of room and I needed to see if it had any value for me to keep. I am, I should say, of the age where I can imagine what it will be like for my survivors when they have to clean out my collection of stuff whose meaning is more personal than universal. Being considerate, without being morbid, I wanted to save them some trouble down the road.
Looking through this file transported me back in time to when I qualified for my first 200-ton Sail Auxiliary license. It is by no means a big ticket, and for many it is really no big deal to get a license, but for me it meant a lot. I came to sailing late, in my mid-20s, and other than my grandparents coming across in steerage, and my father shipping out to New Guinea in WWII, there was no history or evidence of DNA in my gene pool to predict my pursuing a life at sea.
Nevertheless, in my mid-20s I took a sailing class, at the insistence of a girlfriend (who ironically has lived in the southwest for most of her life) and overnight my life was transformed. More than likely it had to do with the diet of Jack London and Joseph Conrad that sustained me since childhood. Regardless, it became my goal to learn all that I could. I volunteered on boats, did yacht deliveries as crew, sailed wherever I could, always wanting to go offshore; for, even though I was prone to seasickness, the thrill and the fear of being out at sea on a boat really appealed to me
So I began the systematic accumulation of time aboard ship — the goal being to qualify for a license. It did occur to me, early on, that being a deck hand was fun, but the real game at sea was being captain. That is where the greatest responsibility lay, and to me at least, the highest level of the game. That became my goal. I knew that just getting a license wouldn’t mean that I was qualified to run a ship. But I also knew that credentials are important. I felt then that if I got a license I would be in a position to move to the next level of learning.
So I began accumulating time. If I recall, one needed 720 days to qualify and then had to pass a written test, do some navigation, prove that one was drug free and medically fit, with good eyesight, good hearing, no outstanding felonies — in other words, a good responsible citizen capable of being called master of a floating vessel carrying passengers. I wasn’t a yachtsman, I was working on vessels that plied offshore or in coastal waters carrying passengers for hire. I looked at getting my license as something that would increase my chances of making a living doing what I love.
It seemed, in retrospect, that it took a long time to accumulate all the time. Years. I was living in Manhattan, running a business, trying to straddle a contrarian life style. To be honest, I was just forging ahead with only a vague idea of how to accomplish my goal. The whole procedure, in those days, of qualifying for a license was a major headache. This was back before the internet when everything was hard copy. Just getting the paperwork completed, was in my case at least, more difficult than the required exam. I think now that the Coast Guard set it up like that to cull out the completely disorganized. I was right on the cusp.
Somehow, I got it together, obviously with the assistance of many people, whose names were in my file. Captains, many gone, a couple still friends, boats I barely remembered, yacht deliveries with companies long out of business; a week there, a month somewhere else, Maine, the Bahamas, Bermuda, or across the Atlantic, time spent, lessons learned, experience gained. And then one day I was ready and more than 40 years ago I entered the USCG station at Battery Park in New York to get fingerprinted and to sit for my exam and whatever else was necessary for me to get my license. Now I am approaching my eighth renewal, I am as proud of having that license as I was the first day I held it in my hands. As for my “Captains License” file, I’m keeping it. Too many memories to throw away.
David Berson is a licensed mariner who operates the electric launch Glory in Greenport, N.Y. and writes the celestial nav problems for each issue of Ocean Navigator.