From MarineNews April 2010
Justin Mitchell and Carlos Tamez practice admiralty and maritime law, personal injury and commercial litigation in the Houston office of Hill Rivkins LLP (www.hillrivkins.com). Mitchell is also a licensed mariner and former OSV captain and Tamez is a licensed shipyard welder. Both attorneys can be reached at [email protected] or (713) 222-1515.
Dynamic Positioning (DP) has rapidly become the standard required by major offshore industry stakeholders for deepwater drilling applications, semi-submersibles, mobile offshore drilling units (MODU), offshore supply vessels (OSVs) and anchor handling tug supply (AHTS) vessels as well as for peripheral applications such as pipe laying, cable laying and hydrographic surveys. As more industry stakeholders require DP systems to increase safety and efficiency in offshore applications, companies are in need of watchstanders who are adequately trained in DP operation and related safety issues. As with other technological advances offshore, the regulatory framework has yet to catch up with current industry practices for the training of DP system operators. This disconnect between newly formed industry standards and existing mariner licensing requirements has led to confusing circumstances for employers and vessel owners in the offshore sector.
In the absence of regulatory standards for the certification of dynamic positioning operators (DPOs), industry organizations provided guidance and a framework for international standards for a DPO training regime. Among these organizations the Nautical Institute launched a licensing program and training scheme for watchstanders to obtain an accredited DP Operator’s Certificate. After the completion of a DP Introduction/Basic course and 30 days of logged seagoing DP familiarization, the candidate then completes an advanced DP simulator course. Upon satisfactorily completing the advanced course, logging the requisite supervised DP operations and obtaining a completed statement of suitability as a DP Watchkeeper from a vessel’s Master, an accredited DP training center may issue the candidate a DPO Certificate.
Through this curriculum, the Nautical Institute set a standard that is now required by industry stakeholders, organizations and state run maritime agencies for DPO certification and training. Internationally, the Institute’s training regime has been recognized by the IMO through MSC Circular 738. Among other endorsements, the International Marine Contractors Association (IMCA) incorporated the Institute’s DPO certification in its guidelines for training and experience of key DP personnel. State run maritime agencies, including the U.K. Maritime and Coastguard Agency and Norwegian Maritime Directorate, also endorsed this certification process in some cases. However, U.S. regulatory bodies have yet to regulate a DP certification process or establish a Merchant Marine license endorsement for DP.
While there is no doubt that charterers, owners or managers of DP vessels and semi-submersibles should hire and train competent DPOs to industry standards, the interaction between DP certification and license requirements can be confusing. Accordingly, the dilemma for the majority of owners and operators of DP vessels in the Gulf of Mexico is whether a DPO standing watch on the bridge of a vessel is required to maintain (1) a DPO Certificate, (2) a USCG Merchant Marine Officer’s license or (3) both.
The issuance of a DPO certificate is itself an important part of maintaining a safe and industry compliant navigational watch. However, hiring a DPO with a DP certificate who is not qualified as a licensed watchstander may not be enough to comply with the Coast Guard requirements. This certificate merely complies with industry standards and does not necessarily license an individual to stand a navigational watch. Although U.S. regulatory bodies have not mandated a DPO certification or endorsement to a Merchant Mariner’s License, DPOs can nonetheless be watchstanders and in this case, the applicable standards for maintaining licensed officers must comply with U.S. Coast Guard licensing requirements. 46 C.F.R. § 11.401 et. seq.
To stand watch in the capacity of master, chief mate or other officer in charge of a navigational watch, the watchstander must be licensed by the Coast Guard in accordance with the provisions of the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers, 1978, as amended in 1995 (STCW), and other laws and receive the appropriate certificate or endorsement as required by STCW. 46 U.S.C. § 10.101 et. seq. For example, a Senior DPO, standing a bridge watch alone, may not comply as an officer of the watch. On the same token a license chief mate may not comply with industry standards as a DPO. Consequently, when hiring and employing a watchstander aboard a DP vessel, the vessel owner or operator should be careful to comply with both industry standards for DPOs and Coast Guard licensing requirements. Furthermore, to avoid potential liability issues, employers should be sure to comply with the licensing and manning requirements for the specific tonnage or class of vessel also.
In the event of a marine casualty, there may be certain liability consequences for the vessel owner and operators. For example, a vessel owner who employs a DPO who is not a licensed mariner and also a certified DPO may unnecessarily expose himself to additional liability as courts have consistently held that vessel owners have a nondelegable duty to man vessels with a competent crew. Therefore, owners need to ensure that their vessels are staffed by competent and properly-licensed mariners at all times. If a vessel owner does not take these steps, he could violate this duty and in some cases inadvertently waive the limitation of liability provisions he would normally be entitled to under U.S. law.