Going to captain’s license school is kind of like getting a college degree in English: it’s absolutely useless for any practical purpose, but a necessary evil if you want to do something that requires a certificate stating that you can spell. Or operate a boat for hire, in the case of the former. If you go to school to try and learn how to write, it’s probably hopeless already, and if you go to captain’s school to learn seafaring, you already don’t qualify for a ticket. The reason people go to captain’s school—the reason I went, two nights a week for an entire grueling winter—is because the good folks at captain’s school have sorted through the enormous pile of information you could learn, a lot of which you probably know already if you’ve been to sea long enough to qualify for a ticket, and sifted out the things you need to learn. If they’re any good, they’ll hammer in all the difficult things by patient, nagging repetition, touch lightly on the easier things, and ignore the rest.
It’s possible to study the materials on one’s own and take the test at a Coast Guard Regional Exam Center, but after watching several people struggle with the unwieldly textbook, and fail the first two of three possible tries, and have to drive multiple times to Boston and pay a small fortune for parking, I chose the convenience and streamlined-ness of going to the school across the street from where Ganymede was docked. It was considerably more expensive, of course, but being able to study in town and take the exams right there and pass them first try because we’d been taught how to navigate the Coast Guard’s devious multiple-choice tests made it worth the price. The school also knew, more or less, all the ancillary things—medical exams, drug tests, background checks, oaths, applications, sea service forms—that must be endured or procured to send to the Coast Guard along with the school certificates.
Those ancillary things, which I spent most of the winter chasing down, were a worse tribulation than two nights a week of classes. Both the faraway office where I paid $130 to have them decide I wasn’t yet a terrorist and the office of Doctor Susan, who made very sure I wasn’t really a woman hiding behind a luxuriant beard, were so cleverly hidden that I missed them both and was very nearly late for my appointments. There were endless squares to check off, not a few blind alleys (“Police report? no, we don’t need that anymore,” the helpful Coast Guard lady on the phone told me. “The background check covers that. Besides, we do another background check when your application comes in”) that would have been nice not to have been told I needed in the first place. It felt very like jumping though a lot of silly hoops while throwing handfuls of money right and left.
On the whole, I was relieved beyond measure when a packet with about fifty pounds of paperwork was finally mailed off and I had only to wait for the Coast Guard machinery to digest it all and render judgment. Judgment, however, was delayed by a solitary signature I inadvertently left off of one of the scores of papers I had signed and mailed; a signature whose absence so offended the eagle eye of the examiner that the process could not proceed without. So after a delay of a couple weeks while they mailed it back so I could mail it back again, things were on track, and just a few of days ago my ticket came in at last: a little orange booklet the exact size of a passport, giving me permission to operate sail and powerboats of up to fifty tons for hire, and also to engage in assistance towing.
It was a most gratifying arrival, not only because of all the effort involved in getting it, but because here in Newport more than anyplace else we’ve been, a captain’s ticket multiplies work opportunities exponentially. As soon as schooner season is over in November an exodus begins, with scads of boats needing delivery to warmer climates. In early spring, boats need fetching back. Most of the owners (or their insurance companies), prefer a licensed captain, and the chance of making a little extra money before or after a long meager winter is not to be despised. If it wasn’t for the better opportunities for work that come with it, I would never have bothered to get a ticket, but hopefully in a couple of years the tribulation will be forgotten while the benefits continue to accrue. If we don’t get to cruise long-term on Ganymede again, being able to make a career of messing around in boats will perhaps be second best.