It’s official! I’ve earned my Merchant Mariner Credential, and have been licensed by the U.S. Coast Guard as a Master (Captain) for vessels up to 50-tons.
Here is my sailing story:
In 2013, confined in an office cubicle, I daydreamed of sailing on the San Francisco Bay. As luck would have it, a friend and co-worker of mine bought a boat, and he invited me to sail with him in weekly “beer-can” races. I was thrilled.
At the end of the season, I enrolled in sailing classes at OCSC Sailing in Berkeley, California. Always a good student, I took learning seriously. I sailed on the weekends and studied on the weeknights. I even built a small-scale model of sailboat out of wood, string, and wire. I set it up on my dining room table, which was certainly not being used for dining, and practiced tasks like reefing sails and recovering crew overboard.
Within a few months, I had passed the written exams and the on-the-water evaluations, and was certified by U.S. Sailing as Basic Cruising Skipper. I was approved to take J24 keelboats out into the Bay! I sailed as much as possible, with friends brave enough to join me on the wet, wild ride around the Bay.
In 2014, I earned my U.S. Sailing Bareboat Skipper certification, enabling me to charter the large, comfortable “cruising” boats. These boats are typically 36- to 40-feet in length, complete with galley, salon, head, and cabins. It was much easier to enlist friends for day or night excursions to Angel Island, Alcatraz Island, Golden Gate Bridge, and Pier 1.5 / Ferry Building since these boats offer more protection from the elements than the sporty J24 keelboats.
By 2015, I realized just how much I enjoyed sailing. Not only did I enjoy sailing, I wanted to make a career out of it! I envisioned skippering charters, delivering yachts, and teaching students.
To do this (and get paid for it), I needed to get a U.S. Coast Guard-issued Merchant Mariner Credential, with a Master rating… more commonly known as a Captain’s License.
The license requires passing as series of exams covering a massive amount of material ranging from rules of the road to deck safety to navigation to general deck stuff. But that’s almost considered the “easy” part.
The harder part is accumulating (and recording) the sea service required, which is 360 days on the water. A “day” is defined as 4 hours underway. The challenging part is that an 8-hour or even 24-hour day (like in an ocean-crossing) is still only 1 day of service.
Ugh. Even if I sailed one day every weekend, for an entire year, it would take over 7 years to accumulate the required 360 days. I had to get sailing!
To accelerate my accumulation of sailing days, I needed to broaden my capabilities, and expand beyond just San Francisco Bay.
I headed back to OCSC Sailing and enrolled in their Coastal Navigation and Coastal Passage-Making (CPM) courses. Coastal Navigation involved a lot of classroom time (and homework), as we worked on paper charts and solved navigational questions. The CPM course, on the other hand, required a week-long training sail along the California Coast and in/out of the San Francisco Bay. I left these courses with my next U.S. Sailing certification, Coastal Skipper, and as it turned out, with a great friend and mentor, Tom Prior.
To further accelerate my accumulation of sailing days, I simply needed more time and flexibility.
So, in 2015, I made two significant changes to my lifestyle in order to focus on sailing. I quit my job in financial planning and I rented out my 3-bedroom house in San Carlos. Relieved from these daily obligations, I was free to spend as much time as needed – and go wherever I needed to go – to get the experience required to qualify for my Captain’s License.
At the same time, I had to be careful not to let my care-free lifestyle get out of control. Without a daily routine, I could easily slip into full-time slacker mode.
I built a budget, set goals, worked hard, and stayed focused.
Over the next three years, I sailed whenever I could. I chartered boats in Croatia twice, sailed across the South Pacific Ocean five times, and even began working at OCSC Sailing as a Sailing Instructor. When there wasn’t much sailing to do, I headed to foreign countries like Chile and Thailand to volunteer in exchange for housing as a way to preserve my budget for the next sailing opportunity.
My sailing days accumulated faster and faster. I switched over from manually recording days in my paper logbook to actually using an Excel spreadsheet. I modelled out the weeks, months, and years, and set a goal to reach 360 by the end of calendar year 2018.
In mid-2018, as the achievement of my goal was in sight, I flew to Portland, Oregon, for a 10-day class at Columbia Pacific Maritime, which helped me prepare me for the 7 exams. I took the exams and passed them all, including the sailing endorsement (of course) and towing endorsement.
I finally reached 360 days goal near the end of 2018, broken down something like this:
25 days training on the water.
100 days sailing around San Francisco Bay.
150 days working as a Sailing Instructor.
50 days cruising Croatia, New Zealand, and Fiji.
60 days crossing oceans.
So, just in time to meet my personal deadline, in December 2018 I submitted my application, exam results, and sea service to the U.S. Coast Guard. Initially delayed by the shutdown, the USCG finally approved my application and issued me a Merchant Mariner Credential with the Master 50-ton Inland + OUPV Coastal rating in February 2019.
What does this mean? The short answer is I can now work as skipper-for-hire. Passengers can pay me directly. (Right now, they pay my employer OCSC Sailing who then pays me.) So, I could buy a boat and take paying passengers out on tours of the San Francisco Bay, California coast, or U.S. Virgin Islands for example. Or someone could hire to me help them learn to sail on their boat.
At the beginning, the goal of getting my Captain’s License seemed far away and almost unattainable. Certainly, quitting my corporate finance job to become a professional sailor was a bit unsettling and scary. But, my experience and success proves the old saying, “a journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step.” You just have to start.
Thanks to everyone at OCSC Sailing for the training and support over the years, to Columbia Pacific Maritime for the help preparing for the U.S. Coast Guard exams, to Kerry Sheehan (SV Windswept Lady) for the invitation to crew on his boat back in 2013, and to Tom Prior (SV Avalon) for the encouragement, opportunity, and trust to sail across oceans. And thanks to friends and family for sticking with me and not thinking I’m too crazy!
It’s been an amazing few years of untraditional living, unwavering focus, and unmatched personal growth. The memories are countless, and the adventure continues…