When I was a senior in college, I remember looking forward to having a class with the professor who headed up the English department at LSU. He only taught one class per semester, and I was fortunate enough to get that class on my schedule.

Unfortunately, he turned out to be one of the worst lecturers I ever had. It wasn’t that he wasn’t an expert in all phases of the English language, he just couldn’t find the level we were on and a communications breakdown followed. (I learned the hard way why he only taught one class per semester.)

As I was recently reading through a 43-page PowerPoint presentation from the U.S. Coast Guard involving changes to the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping (STCW), I was reminded of my old professor. That memory reinforced a belief I’ve had for a long time. When it comes to communicating to the many men and women in the workboat industry, on the boats, not in the board room, the Coast Guard is lacking in skill. In fact, it stinks.

I have great respect for the way the USCG handles its many responsibilities, but this is an area that could really use an overhaul. I’ve been reading USCG reports for years and have always been struck by the fact that every important document printed and released seems to be written to communicate with the next officer up the chain of command, not those men and women on the boats who will be directly affected by what’s in the report.

Case in point, the upcoming changes to applying for and receiving mariners medical certificates. This is an issue that has really spooked mariners because many see it as a direct threat to their ability to make a living.

I’m not arguing that changes don’t need to be made. They do. That’s not the point. But you’ve got a topic that’s already got them frightened and frustrated, and you try to explain with a document that’s more difficult to understand than the small print in an insurance policy.

I get it. That’s the way the Coasties are trained to communicate inside the Coast Guard. Fine. The problem is that those communication skills don’t translate to those of us who have never been in the Coast Guard or any branch of the military.

Let me give you an example: On page 10 of “Implementation of the Amendments to the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW), 1978, and Changes to Domestic Endorsements Final Rule" (I almost fell asleep after reading the title) it states, “All mariners holding STCW endorsements should receive a medical certificate by March 24, 2014.” On page 24 of the same document, it reads, “When are medical certificates required? 1 Jan 2017 — per STCW, 2010 Amendments.” What?  

It’s not just written communication, either. I’ve been to a number of seminars over the past few years on this very topic of medical certificate changes and seen the bewildered looks on the faces of many in the crowd as the speaker from the Coast Guard tried to explain those changes using Coast Guard-speak and a monotone delivery. It doesn’t work. It makes things worse.

If the Coast Guard would make improvements to all phases of its communications skills, that would go a long way to improving the relationship between the Coast Guard and industry (the men and women in the wheelhouse, the engine room, etc., not the board room).

Now lets talk about the Corps of Engineers’ communication skills ...


Ken Hocke has been the senior editor of WorkBoat since 1999. He was the associate editor of WorkBoat from 1997 to 1999. Prior to that, he was the editor of the Daily Shipping Guide, a transportation daily in New Orleans. He has written for other publications including The Times-Picayune. He graduated from Louisiana State University with an arts and sciences degree, with a concentration in English, in 1978.