Incompatible With Maritime Safety

So there are not going to be any profound observations or statements in this post. Mostly this is an update for anybody reading this that read my blog about my experiences with medication and about feelings of loss. I went to the mail Saturday morning and found a letter from the Coast Guard with a delivery notification notice attached. I knew before I opened the envelop, but the chore had to be done. They waited until the second paragraph where they  stated that I have been found to have a Major Depressive Disorder that requires chronic treatment with Klonopin. “This finding is incompatible with maritime safety”. That’s the complete sentence that is the USCG’s fancy way of rejecting my application for merchant mariner credentials.

I am not surprised the medications were a problem. I knew they were going to want to talk about it, and I expected to have to fight some for parts of my credentials. Here is what does surprise me though; I applied for a mates license that isn’t the biggest available, but it is large and allows service as mate on about anything except the larger ships. I applied for a license to be the mate of tug boats. I applied to be the captain of smaller vessels, and I applied to be an AB on any and all size vessels. An AB is a fancy way of saying deckhand, or they guy the chips rust, paints the boat, handles the lines, and other supervised duties. All these credentials I already held. Everything listed above is a renewal and everything was originally issued when I was taking more medication than I am now. So not only have they decided I am not safe enough to stand a watch as a mate or be the captain of some smaller boats, they have decided that I am not safe enough to chip rust off the side of a boat under supervision. I can’t stand on the bridge next to a mate and look out the window for other boats or take steering commands from the mate. Are you fucking kidding me!?!

The idea that I am “incompatible with maritime safety” really pisses me off. I quit a $70K a year job that was months away from becoming a $90K/yr job because the company I worked for put me in a situation that was dangerous, and wouldn’t change the circumstances even after I twice asked. How many people have the judgement and moral fortitude to do that? My experience has been not enough. I have seen things in the maritime industry that are incompatible with maritime safety and the mostly have to do with the egos of men drunk on the power they hold in their little worlds, a completely fucked up moral code that existed in that particular companies culture, and the use of under qualified, barely trained individuals as crew due to manpower shortages.

Some may remember the summer before this past there was an accident in the Delaware River off Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia. A tugboat pushing a sludge barge hit a tour boat in the river and killed two Hungarian kids here on a church trip. I remember when this accident happened, but I was long off the boats and paid little attention until few weeks back when the incident was back in the news because the mate running the tug got sentenced to 366 days in prison for his actions that day. According to news reports the mate of that tug received a call from his wife while on watch. She was distraught because there had been a complication while one of their kids had been undergoing a routine medical procedure, and they believed the child had been deprived of oxygen for several minutes. He was powerless to do anything at the time, and she never should have called him, but he became distracted by his family situation and moved himself from a steering station that allowed him the best visibility over the tall barge to a station the offered much less visibility, but that had a computer station where he started doing internet searches on his child’s condition. He made or received 22 phone calls in the hour leading up to the accident, and turned down the marine radios so he could hear these calls better. The captain of the tour boat was making radio calls that went unheard aboard the tug boat as the mate was distracted, and couldn’t hear the radios. This all happened early in the afternoon. The off watch captain may have been asleep, but it was a rare captain who took more than a catnap during their midday off watch. Regardless of what the captain was doing the mate should have woken him to take control of the tug and barge while he sorted out his family situation. He was too distracted to be running that unit anywhere, let alone on a summer day in that part of the Delaware River. He lacked the judgement to recognize this or lacked the moral courage to get the captain, or both.

The point of this story is to demonstrate one way in which accidents can happen in this industry. I worked with the man at the controls of that tugboat, and he had more than demonstrated he lacked the judgement to be there, but had been protected by a captain that took a liking to him. The source of this accident can be traced to ego and lack of judgement. It had nothing to do with anybodies reaction times being slowed by fractions of a second. In spending most of my life on the water I cant come up with a circumstance were an hundredth of a second was the difference between an accident and not. In the transportation business we study the accident chain. This is the idea that in a complex environment accidents are generally the result of a chain of events set in motion long before the actual incident. In the above case it would have started when the captain’s skewed sense of morality kept this guy working despite warning signs he wasn’t up to the task, events that occurred years before the accident.

Today I spoke with the Coast Guard and confirmed that I am not eligible for any merchant mariner credentials. The Coast Guard treats these medications the same whether you are an AB, licensed to take six people for a cruise on the bay, or licensed to be the captain of a super tanker. I was told that mariners on drugs like klonopin where responsible for numerous maritime accidents. I told him that I doubted that to be the case, and would like to see accident reports supporting that claim, which predictably pissed him off. I was told that my only recourse was cessation of the medication. Decisions… Decisions…


14 thoughts on “Incompatible With Maritime Safety

  1. It just sucks!!!! Suckety, suck, sucks. May I quote my co-writer? “It sucks unwashed yak sac.” I got nothin’. If I were there, I’d just take you out for a beer or whiskey or whatever you drink…and you could just unload. I could pretend to be really good at darts, you could watch me make a fool of myself while I hit some poor schmuck in the face, I’d blame you, some sort of brawl might break out, you’d kick some ass, feel better because the total dick that I just nailed in the face with my maverick dart would be the asshat from the Coast Guard who essentially called you an incompetent due to your meds. He’d leave with a broken nose, your fist would hurt, but you’d feel better. And, I’d buy another round while you grinned smugly at your mad brawling skills. I propose that you go out for a beer…or two. Maybe play some darts….

  2. BTW…I went for humor because the injustice of your situation hits me squarely between the eyes. Sometimes all I can do is find a way to laugh or I’ll cry. This feels like one of those times even if you’ll only get 2 seconds of a smile….

    • I am pretty numb to the circumstances at this point. I dont currently make my living with those documents, but just about any plan I had to escape my current circumstances revolved around having them, and I was looking at earning money with them again as soon as spring. Off to the Doc to see if we can find another cocktail of happiness. Also if I was a drinker I would be drunk already, but sadly I quit that stuff way back in college.

      • I don’t imbibe much either. I’m glad you’re seeing the doc…you never know. Perhaps there’s something better around the next bend in the road. Hang in there.

  3. I am sorry to hear about the recent news you received in the letter from the Coast Guard. That really is a major disappointment. I think there should be a hearing or interview or screening (whatever you want to call it) to see if a person is stable on their meds. Isn’t it better that a person take a medication for the problem than not take it and have the problem? And why can’t a doctor vouch for you (in writing) that you are being treated and are no longer at risk for siezures or panic attacks or whatever it is you take it for. I don’t think they should paint with such a broad stroke. I wish it had been better news for you — you deserve it! I hope the doctor can help you find something that could substitute for the medication they didn’t like seeing on your record. And, remember, you are not alone — I’m following you!


    • Thanks for the kind words. I agree they are painting with too broad a brush, and there is no process for taking individual circumstances into account. I have been taking this medication at the same dose for ten years. All the side effects are long since worked through and gone. Everything is stable, and now that want be fucking around with new drugs and playing name that side effect. This is somehow safer. I would love to have a long conversation with the folks that come up with these policies.

  4. This is the sort of thing that makes me mad. It’s just–I don’t think there’s anything that would prove that everyone with a mental illness is too unstable for certain positions. As long as the meds keep you fine and professionals agree you’re functional, that should be fine, I think. A lot of people who are “normal” have terrible judgment, after all.

  5. I’m really sorry this happened to you. I also used to struggle with depression and was on and off medication for several years. I hope you don’t mind me saying this but – you know what helped me? I moved. Better climate more sun (even in the winter), and perhaps the diet with more omegas and b12 helped. After I moved it took me about a year to adjust but I haven’t been on meds since – now about 7 years. (I don’t know exactly where you live but I figure North-East). I never want to go back to that life of dismalness. Don’t limit yourself – The world is your oyster, you want something – MAKE it happen. Nothing is impossible. Step by step.

  6. That is ridiculous. Okay, I get it. Benzos, at too much of a dose, can incapacitate a person. Lol, I rely on that fact in the evening when I take two benzos together in order to sleep.

    But, in lower doses, it has the ability to keep a person more focused because it combats symptoms that would otherwise distract a person. I’d know that too, because I’m a teacher. Panic attacks and being responsible for kids in a high stress environment don’t mix. I’ve had days where I refused benzos because I was afraid it would impair me, and I ended up worse off than if I would’ve taken at least a quarter of my dose.

    In a way, it’s discriminating. Thankfully, I’m in a job where they aren’t allowed to check that kind of thing. But, in your case, how do they know how functional you are? They should really develop some kind of assessment, rather than make the assumption based on antecdotal evidence.

    Complete BS.

    • Oh I agree. I have been on the drug for ten years and have run tug and barge units in and around New York Harbor on the drug. They say it makes me slower to process and react. I say slower than who? The 65 year old alcoholic who is 5 days into a trip with no drink and jonesing bad? Somebody with a learning disability trying to process a complex scenario? The guy with an untreated anxiety problem running the boat because he has to feed his family? Its crap.

      • Agreed, 500%. Especially about the 65 year old alcoholic portion of the response. Why is it that alcoholism is never considered? I believe that is probably more dangerous than anything else out there. Alcohol consumption is not regulated by anyone other than the user. You’re going to tell me that alcohol is less dangerous of a substance when self-administered than benzos are while under the supervision of a doctor? Bull.

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