STCW Convention Explained – History and Overview

STCW stands for Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping. The reason for them is, among other things, to keep you, a seafarer, safe while at sea.

The standards were first adopted in 1978; to come into force they had to be ratified by 25 nations, with the condition that these nations had at least 25% of the gross world tonnage of ships 100 gross tons or more. The standards came into effect in April 1984 when the condition was met. Amendments were made in 1995 that came into force in February 1997. Further amendments were adopted in 2010 and came into force in January 2012. As of 2018, 164 nations, representing 99.2 percent of world shipping tonnage, have ratified the STCW.

The standards are enforced by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), which was created in 1948 and came into force in 1958. In addition to enforcing the STCW, the IMO has created and/or oversees numerous international agreements concerning the seas, including the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL), the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), the International Mobile Satellite Organization (IMSO), and the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts (SUA) Against the Safety of Maritime Navigation.

Why was the STCW Convention created?

Prior to 1978, standards for training of seafarers, certification standards, watchkeeping standards, and other standards for seafarers were put in place by the various states that had merchant fleets. Consequently, standards differed significantly even though the merchant fleets operated in the same waters and ports. Further, ships are often crewed by seafarers who are not nationals of the country in which the ships are registered, and of course, the seafarers are commonly not nationals of the numerous countries in which port calls are made by any one ship. As a result, there were occasional issues with ships being delayed in ports and disputes between nations regarding enforcement of standards, not to mention safety issues. By 1978, with shipping tonnage growing, it was time to deal with these issues.

The 1995 amendments were mostly administrative in nature, especially with respect to nations better communicating with the International Maritime Organization (IMO) to allow it to better oversee and enforce the standards.

The 2010 amendments were aimed primarily at keeping seafarers current with new technology and also added security training in light of increased problems with the hijacking of ships by pirates. The list of changes included:

  • Measures designed to reduce fraud regarding certifications and greater monitoring of compliance with the convention;
  • New standards with respect to work and rest hours, medical fitness requirements, and prevention of alcohol and drug abuse;
  • New training and certification requirements for able seafarers and electro-technical officers, and for all crew in marine environment awareness, leadership and teamwork, and security including what to do during a pirate attack;
  • New recommended training for crew operating Dynamic Positioning Systems, for crew on board vessels steaming in polar waters, and related to new technologies such as electronic charts and information systems (ECDIS);
  • Updated competence requirement for all crew serving on all types of tankers.

Thus, safety as sea through better oversight by the IMO was the main goal of the 1995 amendments, safety by way of improved standards and training for crew were the main goals the main goals of the 2010 amendments.

What is included in the STCW standards?

The standards under the STCW include those for masters, chief mates, officers in charge of navigational watches (OICNW), ratings forming part of navigational watches (RFPNW), able seafarer deck hands (AB Deck), radio operators (who, among other things, must demonstrate proficiency in the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System {GMDSS}), chief engineers, second engineers, officers in charge of engineering watches (OICEW), ratings forming part of engineering watches (RFPEW), able seafarer engine ratings (AB Engine), electro-technical officers (ETO), electro-technical ratings (ETR), and other more general standards.

Requirements typically include the following:

The standards apply to all vessels greater than 24 meters in length, and apply to all crew, even, for example, chefs working on large yachts that are engaged in trade. In some cases training and certification must have been completed in the not-too-distant-past, often within the past five years; refresher courses and revalidation are sometimes required. For certain positions, especially the more senior positions such as masters, chief mates, and chief engineers, there are minimum sea-going-time requirements.

In addition to position specific training, STCW courses are available concerning the environment, cargo operations, ship simulation, ship survey, port state control, and search and rescue. Note that for people working on fishing vessels, a separate set of standards are in effect, the International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping for Fishing Vessel Personnel (STCW-F), 1995. These standards apply to vessels longer than 24 meters in length and with engines generating more than 750kW.

What is the Purpose of the STCW Convention?

If you’ve read this far, you might guess. The purpose of the STCW is to have kept the world’s seas and ships safe for all, including the crew and the environment. Article 1(a) of the IMO Convention, the IMO being the organisation that enforces the STCW, clearly states the purpose: “to provide machinery for cooperation among governments in the field of governmental regulation and practices relating to technical matters of all kinds affecting shipping engaged in international trade; to encourage and facilitate the general adoption of the highest practicable standards in matters concerning maritime safety, efficiency of navigation, and prevention and control of marine pollution from ships”. They will keep you safe, too.

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