Every five years, holders of various levels of Coast Guard master and mate licenses are required to renew their tickets. Proof of sea time is required, along with a litany of other requirements, such as drug testing, physical examination, training, and criminal background checks. If the sea time component is insufficient, the Coast Guard still allows a license holder to renew his or her license, but presses a take-home, multiple-choice test on the mariner.
What does such a test include? Along with a Rules of the Road (ColRegs) quiz, a 20-question exam tests the general knowledge of a master mariner. For example: What is the strongest natural fiber? The four possible answers were: hemp, sisal, coir, and manila. Hemp cannot be the correct answer, since its possession in this country conflicts with antidrug laws enforced by the licensing process. Sisal, a fiber made from the plant of the same name, was considered by a Wall Street Journal contest to be the top pick in its natural-fiber carpet evaluation, according to a Google search. Coir, the natural fiber surrounding the shell of a coconut, would seem to be a good choice, especially if one is shipwrecked on a tropical island. But manila is the correct answer: It is the strongest of the natural fibers and holds up well in the marine environment.
Other questions included determining recommended safety checks on starting gasoline engines (fumigate the space or simply turn the key and go?); stipulating the required capacity of drip pans in overflow vents on inspected passenger vessels built prior to 1972 (1 gallon, 5 gallons, 1 barrel, or 5 barrels?); and sundry items on the laws and penalties of various offenses.
But there was a handful of questions for which the process of determining the answers was genuinely valuable, such as the correct procedure for righting a capsized inflatable life raft. (Stand on the CO2 cartridge, take hold of the righting straps, and throw your weight back.) This information was confirmed after an hour of research. And while knowing the strength of coir relative to that of manila may not be worth more than its conversational value these days, this is perhaps the intended purpose of the random nature of the exam: to be assured the mariner either knows or has access to a broad, almost indefinable range of nautical material.