You Can Call Me Captain: Getting our OUPV License in Puerto Rico

We knew we needed something to keep ourselves busy this hurricane season. There’s only so much beach paddle ball we could play. So, in addition to knocking out some boat projects and chasing waterfalls, we started working towards our OUPV (Operator of Uninspected Passenger Vessel) licenses. Also known as the 6-pak license, the OUPV license allows the holder to captain uninspected vessels up to 100 gross tons with up to 6 paying passengers. We don’t have any grand plans for using the licenses, but it’s something that might come in handy in the future.

Before we can apply, we need the following 6 requirements:

  1. 360 operating days—an “operating day” is defined as a minimum of 4 hours underway. At least 90 operating days must be offshore and a minimum of 90 days must be within the last 3 years.
  2. Medical Certificate—A physical examination, including an eye exam, must be completed within 1 year of the application date.
  3. Drug Testing Compliance—Within 6 months of the application date, the candidate must pass a drug test.
  4. Valid First Aid/CPR Card—Certification must be American Red Cross, American Heart Association, or USCG approved.
  5. USCG Exam OR Completion of USCG Approved Course–The candidate must pass the USCG exam or complete an USCG approved course (which ends in a final exam) within 1 year of the application date.
  6. TWIC Card—Transportation Worker Identification Credential card issued by the TSA (Transportation Security Administration).

Even though we’ve been living on our boat for over a year, we haven’t yet racked up the number of required operating days. Therefore, we won’t actually apply for our licenses until after this season. However, there was nothing stopping us from obtaining some of the other requirements while we had the free time in Puerto Rico. During the 3 months we were living in San Juan, we completed the Sea School OUPV course and exams, obtained our first aid/CPR certifications, and applied for our TWIC cards.

Sea School

In lieu of taking the USCG exam, we opted to take an approved course. We found a classroom course at the San Juan Marina, but knew we wouldn’t be able to keep up if the material was taught in Spanish. The best option for us, was to complete an online course. It was actually cheaper and we could complete it on our own time. But like any online course, it does require some self-discipline. Luckily, I have enough for both Rob and me.

We chose Sea School’s online OUPV course for $395. A week after we registered, we received a study guide, practice exercises, charts, dividers, and parallel rulers in the mail. We also received an online login. Just like the final exam, the course is broken down into 4 sections:

  1. General Navigation
  2. Plotting
  3. General Deck
  4. Rules of the Road

Each section has multiple subsections. After completing a subsection, the student must pass a test before continuing. We took a total of 19 tests as we worked our way through the course material. I’d estimate that it took us about 40 hours to complete this.

After we finished reviewing the course material and completed all of the tests, we scheduled our final exam at the San Juan library. To pass, we had to score at least 70% on General Navigation, Plotting, and General Deck. This was pretty easy because we were familiar with all of the concepts from our sailing experience. However, we had to score at least 90% on the Rules of the Road section. Before studying we took a practice exam and both failed this section miserably. There was a lot to memorize and we had some studying to do.

The Rules of the Road section covers more than who has the right of way. It covers day shapes that vessels display, required vessel lights, sound signals, and fog signals. And of course there are some differences between inland and international rules that must also be memorized.

This is an actual question that was on our exam: In inland waters, which lights are required for a barge, not part of a composite unit, being pushed ahead?

  1. Sidelights and a towing light
  2. Sidelights, a special flashing light, and a sternlight
  3. Sidelights and a special flashing light
  4. Sidelights only

There are a lot of rules and nuances to memorize. The answer to this question is C. The special flashing light is only required in inland waters. If the same question was asked for international waters, the answer would be D. In order to commit all of this information to memory, I made flash cards. The last time we studied was years ago, when we took our PE (Professional Engineering) license exam. So, we actually had fun quizzing each other. And I certainly had more fun busting out the colored pencils to make the flash cards than I should have.

We probably spent an additional 10-15 hours preparing for the exam. We were told that the librarian could only proctor one test taker at a time, so I signed up to go first. We were looking for a large modern government building. San Juan is a big city and we expected the library to be equally grand. However, we pulled up in front of a small dated building that was partially open-air. It actually reminded me a lot of the library on Culebra. There were only a handful of computers inside and the librarian instantly warned me that the internet had been on the fritz.

The librarian told me that I would get three chances to pass each of the four sections and I wasn’t required to complete all the sections in the same day. Fortunately, I didn’t need multiple chances. After an hour and a half, I had passed all 4 sections and I was one step closer to obtaining my Captain’s license. Rob did equally as well the following week. The flash cards really paid off.

Overall, we’d recommend the Sea School course and exam. We felt that the course material prepared us for the exam and the format was easy to follow. Sea School could polish their content to make it more professional. However, all of the relevant information was there.

My only complaint is that the San Juan library charged us a whopping $100 exam fee. When I spoke to the woman over the phone, she indicated that it would cost $25 per exam. I thought she meant $25 for me and $25 for Rob. However, she considered each section to be a different exam. I felt that $100 was too steep considering that I was only there for 1.5 hours and she rarely glanced at me through her office window. But the money goes to the San Juan library, so I just wrote it off as a donation in my mind.

First Aid/CPR Certification

To get our first aid and CPR certification, we had to take a training course in person. This wasn’t something we could do online. I looked on the American Red Cross and American Heart Association websites, but couldn’t find a class being offered in Puerto Rico. We could hire an instructor, but the price was too high for the two of us.

Our friend, Sergio, was also working towards his Captain’s license. He was taking the OUPV course at the San Juan Marina and his instructor, Captain Hector, had set up a First Aid/CPR class for his students. Sergio asked if we could tag along and he signed us up. The class was from 5:00-9:00 and cost $60.

We caught a ride with Sergio to the San Juan Marina and joined about 30 other students for the evening class. As expected, I was the only female. Working in engineering has made me used to being outnumbered by my male counterparts, so it was business as usual.

Also as expected, the class was being taught in Spanish. Therefore, I couldn’t understand a lick of what was being said and even though Rob’s Spanish has come a long way over the last year, he was also having trouble keeping up. Sergio paraphrase for us every couple of minutes. We were more or less getting the gist of the information when half way through the class, the instructor accidentally started the instruction video in English. She quickly realized her error and went to correct it, but the class insisted on continuing in English for our benefit. Many people in Puerto Rico are bilingual and we were relieved to be able to follow along.

When it came time to test our knowledge on the CPR dummy, the class would count the required chest compressions along with the student being tested. “Uno, dos, tres…treinta” (1-30). When I stepped up to bat, the entire class instantly began counting in English. “One, two, three…thirty”. They recognized that I couldn’t form complete sentences in Spanish and it was a small, but very sweet gesture. It’s truly indicative of the warmness that we received from locals during our time in Puerto Rico.

TWIC Card

The TSA issues TWIC (Transportation Worker Identification Credential) cards after performing a “security threat assessment” (background check). We filled out the application and schedule an appointment online. The closest application center was 8 miles away in Trujillo Alto, so we rented a car for the day and knocked out some other errands. Once again, I was expecting to pull up in front of an official looking government building, instead the application center was really a packaging and shipping office. If it wasn’t for the small TWIC sticker in lower corner of the door window, there wouldn’t have been the slightest indication that the store was at all related to the TSA.

Of course our appointment happened to be during the 3 day black out of Puerto Rico. The entire island was without power. Driving was utter chaos despite the numerous officials that were in the streets directing traffic. It actually turned out to be a blessing that we rented the car, at least we had a power source to charge our phones and an air conditioned space to retreat to when the heat became too much.

We ended up rescheduling our appointments to the following week. We simply showed up with our passports and verified the information we filled out online. Our fingerprints were taken electronically and we paid the $125.25 fee. 3 weeks later our TWIC cards arrived in the mail.

Fees

Getting a Captain’s license isn’t cheap. All of the fees add up to a hefty bill. The pricing will vary depending on how and where the license is obtained, but here are the fees that we paid.

Sea School Online Course: $395

Exam Fees: $100

TWIC Card: $125.25

CPR/First Aid Certification: $60

Physical/Drug Test: TBD

USCG Application Fee: $145

We are getting very close to getting our OUPV licenses. By the time we return to Florida, we’ll have the required operating days under our belts. We’ll just need to pass a physical exam and drug test before we can submit our 5-page application to the USCG. If all goes well, within 6 months, you’ll be able to call us Captains.

 

 

4 thoughts on “You Can Call Me Captain: Getting our OUPV License in Puerto Rico”

    1. I hope the info is useful. The exam really wasn’t difficult after a bit of memorization. The hard part is gathering all the paperwork and requirements.

  1. Congratulations, just goes to prove that no-one is too young or too old to keep learning. Perhaps higher first aid knowledge may be next…………..

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