How do I become an Able Seaman?

Want to be an Able Seaman? Learn about the types, sea days and why taking a course could be your best bet. MM-SEAS is here to guide you.

13 mins read・Feb 13, 2024
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To become an Able Seaman, you need to have the required sea days in the deck department, pass courses as well as practical assessments for both the Able Seaman and Lifeboatman endorsements you are seeking.

Navigating at ship's helm.

What is an Able Seaman?

An Able Seaman is a Coast Guard Deck rating that is required on most large commercial ships and the majority of tugboats in the United States. Able Seaman help with the navigational watch, ensure deck safety and work on keeping all the deck machinery maintained.

Workers on ship deck.

Your responsibilities will also probably include cleaning and maintenance, standing watch, assisting with navigation, and possibly even some customer service. The specific day-to-day duties of an Able Seaman depend on the type of vessel, and the experience of the Seaman.

What Able Seaman Rating Should I Get?

We always recommend that you first reach out to the companies you would like to work for and ask them "what Able Seaman Rating do they need you to hold to get to work right now". The AB rating they require depends on the Coast Guard Regulations they fall under which dictates their safe manning document as well as company policy.

If you are already working at a company, we recommend you contact the hiring manager and port captains to get a clear picture of what Able Seaman endorsement you need to make more money.

Then you will need to look at how much sea time you currently have so that you can get to your first step in your maritime career.

How many Able Seaman or AB Ratings Are There?

There are seven different Coast Guard Able Seaman Ratings that will let you work on different types of ships in the United States. You only need to take an Able Seaman or AB course once and then you just upgrade with sea service over your career. AB Unlimited, AB Limited and AB Special are in a hierarchy which means if you have the larger one you can work in the lower rating on a ship if needed with your current Able Seaman endorsement. AB Sail, AB Fishing, AB OSV and AB MODU are specialized and do not offer you the ability to use it outside of the special type of ship the AB endorsement is for.

Able Seaman ratings infographic.
  • Able Seaman Unlimited (AB Unlimited) is for large ships and vessels sailing outside of the Union. Typically, it is required on vessels critical to national security, and you generally need STCW Basic Training, STCW Proficiency in Survival Craft (PSC), and STCW Able Seafarer - Deck (ABS-D) certifications.
  • Able Seaman Limited (AB Limited) is for certain tank vessels, ferries, and larger tugboats with a gross tonnage over 100 (GRT). You may need STCW certification, but we recommend obtaining it only if your company requires it and covers the cost.
  • Able Seaman Special (AB Special) is used on most small ferry vessels, OSVs, and tugboats in the U.S. It is the most common AB rating for vessels that operate only on navigable waters within the U.S.
  • Able Seaman Sail (AB Sail) is required for service aboard sailing school vessels and oceanographic research vessels primarily powered by sail. It's a recommended addition only if you want to work as an Able Seaman on sailing school vessels.
  • Able Seaman OSV (AB OSV) is valid only on vessels with a gross tonnage of less than 500 that support offshore mineral or energy resource exploration, exploitation, or production. Upgrading to AB Special, AB Limited, or AB Unlimited will still allow you to work on OSVs.
  • Able Seaman Fishing (AB Fishing) is necessary for commercial fishing vessels that require a minimum of AB Fishing on their safe manning document. Upgrading to AB Special, AB Limited, or AB Unlimited will still allow you to work on commercial fishing vessels.
  • Able Seaman MODU (AB MODU) is suitable only for Mobile Offshore Drilling Units. It's a valuable qualification if you have a job lined up on an MODU. Upgrading to AB Special, AB Limited, or AB Unlimited will still allow you to work on Mobile Offshore Drilling Units as an AB.

How Many Days of Deck Service do I Need for my Able Seaman?

All of your sea service for Able Seaman must be deck service. According to 46 CFR 10.107: The Deck department means the department aboard a ship responsible for navigation, cargo, command, and control functions. The most common route to get your Able Seaman rating is getting your sea service as an Ordinary Seaman on the navigable waters of the US or as an Unqualified Deckhand, which doesn't require formal training or certifications to get your sea service experience.

  • Able Seaman Unlimited: Requires 540 days of deck service on the Ocean, Great Lakes, and Near Coastal waters.
  • Able Seaman Limited: Requires 360 days of deck service on Ocean, Great Lakes, and Near Coastal waters, but only on vessels over 100 Gross tons (GRT).
  • Able Seaman Special: Requires 180 days of deck service on any waters.
  • Able Seaman Sail- 180 Days of Deck Service on any waters serving on sailing school vessels, oceanographic research vessels powered primarily by sail. This can be done with equivalent sail vessels such as sail training ships and private sail boats.
  • Able Seaman OSV: Requires 180 days of deck service on any waters.
  • Able Seaman Fishing: Requires 180 days of deck service on any waters. Working as a "processor" does not count.
  • Able Seaman MODU: Requires 360 days of deck service on any waters, but only on vessels over 65ft in length.

Once you've met the sea service requirements you will need to find a course and decide what kind of vessels you want to work on. You definitely need at least 180 days of deck service on navigable waters of the U.S. to start on your journey as an AB.

Do I Need a Lifeboatman or Lifeboatman - Limited?

You will need one or the other. The type of Lifeboatman you need depends on the type of boat you will be working on. There are vessel few vessels in the US that require the full Lifeboatman endorsement but the majority of vessels that you would work on in the US only require you to hold a Lifeboatman - Limited endorsement. Here's a blog post that explains the difference between Lifeboatman and Lifeboatman - Limited.

Lifeboat on ship's side.

Lifeboatman is for working on vessels that are equipped with Lifeboats and the number of crew holding Lifeboatman is specified in the Safe Manning document for each vessel. The company you work for will let you know if you need full Lifeboatman.

Covered life rafts on ship.

Lifeboatman - Limited is what is required to work on the majority of vessels in the US. Lifeboats are very uncommon in the majority of the professional maritime industry and if a vessel does not have Lifeboats on it then you should only need a Lifeboatman - Limited endorsement. The number of crew holding Lifeboatman - Limited is specified in the Safe Manning document for each vessel. The company you work for will let you know if Lifeboatman - Limited will help them meet their safe manning requirements.

Should I Take a Course for my Lifeboatman or Lifeboatman - Limited Endorsement?

Yes! We always recommend you take a course and provide a course certificate for training instead of trying to figure it out on your own. The great part about Lifeboatman - Limited is that you can do it completely online and work with your employer or a training ship to get the practical assessments done without having to travel.  

Should I Take an Able Seaman Course?

Yes! Able seaman courses are great as they help you meet the examination requirements for things such as rules of the road, your deck general questions as well as teaching you what you need to know to make the practical marlinspike seamanship demonstration easy.

You can learn all of this on your own but we always say that taking a course helps you learn from other mariners about the rest of the maritime industry while you are BSing about the rules of the road questions you have. The only way to get that kind of exposure and then be able to ask someone who knows what they are taking about is to take an Able Seaman course.

Every Able Seaman course in the country is required to teach the exact same material no matter where they are located or how you take the course. This is the same for Lifeboatman and Lifeboatman - Limited courses as well.

Can I Take a Able Seaman Course Online?

We recommend it! If your able to get your Able Seaman course done online we think that is the easiest way to get it done. There is even an online school that combines your Able Seaman course and your Lifeboatman - Limited course into one which saves you money and travel. They do need to partner with your company or a training ship of some kind to do the practical marlinspike seamanship demonstrations as well as the practical assessments for Lifeboatman - Limited.

Where Should I Take an In-Person Able Seaman Course?

If you are taking the Able Seaman course in person, you want to look for the closest place to you that meets your schedule that has connections to the type of industry you are trying to work in. To find an Able Seaman course we recommend using the USCG National Maritime Center website for courses. You will need to download the pdf and then search in the pdf for Able Seaman.

Should you get an STCW Proficiency in Survival Craft (PSC) with Your Able Seaman Classes?

We do not believe that anyone should hold any STCW ratings or endorsements unless they need them for work. This includes STCW Basic Safety Training, STCW Proficiency in survival craft (PSC), STCW Fast Rescue Boat (FRB), Able Seafarer Deck (ABS-D) and Ratings forming Part of a Navigational Watch (RFPNW).

The STCW courses are great and you will learn a lot about personal safety, fire fighting, watch standing in a USCG approved manner but if you do not need it for work it is an absolute waste of money. If you do need it for work, most employers and the Unions will help cover the costs of these very expensive trainings as well as the additional medical costs that come with keeping your medical certificate up to date every two years instead of the five years for non STCW holders.

How do I get my First Able Seaman USCG License?

There are ten steps in MM-SEAS USCG Licensing Software that you need to complete to get an Able Seaman endorsement on your USCG License.

  1. Complete your profile inside of MM-SEAS. Make sure you are eligible based on the residency and prior convictions questions in the profile. Reach out to MM-SEAS USCG Licensing Specialists inside of the software if you have any questions about completing your profile.  
  2. You need service on deck of any size vessel on any navigable waters of the U.S. including smaller inland lakes. Under 46 U.S.C. 7301, service on deck is "service in the deck department in work related to the work usually performed on board vessels by able seamen and may include service on fishing, fish processing, fish tender vessels and on public vessels of the United States." You can get this anywhere from a Tall Ship, a tour boat company, working as an Ordinary Seaman with a Towboat company or even on a small fishing boat or sailboat. When you have enough signed and documented sea time for the AB endorsement you want you need to get your physical completed.
  3. Go get a physical completed by any physician, physician assistant, or nurse practitioner who is licensed in the US or US Territory. Make sure it is on the CG-719K form and all 10 pages are completed.
  4. Get a Transportation Worker Identification Card (TWIC). You sign up and answer the questions online and then go in person to the nearest available location to do finger prints and your picture. Heads up, your TWIC picture will be your picture on your USCG license as well.  
  5. Go take a AB Course and a Lifeboatman-Limited Course. (Only take a full Lifeboatman course if your company or Union is paying for it or it's the only way you can get the job you want. DO NOT take Lifeboatman for any other reason.) You can take the courses in person or online. We recommend looking for any course that combines AB and Lifeboatman-Limited. Here's an example of a combined AB and Lifeboatman-Limited into one course that you can do online.
  6. After you have completed both your AB and Lifeboatman-Limited course you need to provide evidence of a negative drug test. This can be a drug testing letter from your employer, a drug testing consortium or you can take the DOT-5 Panel Drug test on your own.
  7. You will need to verify your identity as a US Citizen in one of two ways. You can provide a copy of your unexpired US Passport or your Birth Certificate. If you are not a US Citizen, you will need to follow the path that works for your situation with certificates of citizenship, certificates of naturalization, or merchant mariner's documents. Without these, an original unexpired foreign passport along with specific U.S. documents, like a permanent resident card or a declaration of intention, is required.
  8. You will need to take the mariner oath in front of any notary in your area.
  9. As you get each one of these tasks done make sure to add the documents into MM-SEAS so that you don't lose it and you can track your progress.
  10. Submit your application with MM-SEAS for a flat fee of $349 and our software will put everything in the right order to create a perfect USCG License application for you. Our MM-SEAS USCG Licensing Specialists will double check your application and then pay the federal USCG application fees for you. They will work with the USCG on your behalf to resolve any issues if they come up. You get your fees paid for and peace of mind for for a flat fee of $349 or you can choose to submit on your own.

How Often do I Need to Renew my Able Seaman USCG License?

Your Able Seaman rating is part of your Merchant Mariner Credential and is valid for five years. Renewing your Able Seaman and Lifeboatman rating is very simple and straight forward. All you need is your documented Sea Time, drug test documentation from within 185 days, a USCG physical and either a renewed TWIC or a TWIC Exemption memo if you don't need a TWIC for work.  

Does MM-SEAS Help Me Get My Able Seaman?

Yes! The path and complexity around AB endorsements can be overwhelming. We always recommend getting your sea service all documented first so that you know which of the sea service requirements you have already met. Then we recommend you take a USCG approved course that it partnered with a group you already are working with. If you have questions the MM-SEAS team is always here to help!

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About the author

Nate Gilman
Nate Gilman

Nate has over 15 years of professional maritime experience and has hawsepiped his way to a 3rd Mate Unlimited Endorsement with full STCW compliance. He is proud veteran of the NOAA Commissioned Corps.

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