There are two ways to become an officer in the merchant marine: he first is to “hawsepipe,” or work your way from the bottom as an ordinary seaman all the way up through the sailor ranks and, after accumulating a lot of sea time, sit for a deck officer’s license exam; the second is to attend a maritime academy, like I attend in Castine.

Maine Maritime Academy is one of seven such academies in the U. S. The other six are Massachusetts Maritime Academy, SUNY Maritime College (in New York), California Maritime Academy, Texas Maritime Academy, Great Lakes Maritime Academy and the United States Merchant Marine Academy at King’s Point, N.Y. We will always tout Maine Maritime as the best, of course, and many people come from California and Massachusetts and Texas to go here, rather than to their own state’s academy.

All the requirements in both the “hawsepiping” or attending a maritime school ways of advancing are based on the international STCW, or Standards of Training, Certification, and Watch-keeping. Even in other countries, officers in the merchant marine are required to follow the same STCW in their training and operations, whether they are from Turkey, England, Spain, or China.

STCW governs everything we do here. Students fail most college courses if they receive a grade worse than 60 percent, but all of our nautical science courses are held to higher standards. The D grade no longer exists for us; if you get lower than a 70 percent, you fail. Not only that, but there are specific things that we have to practice and learn both in class and in hands-on laboratories, like the cruise and cadet shipping. A laundry list of endorsements have to go on our credentials, from radar operator to lifeboatman to security officer.

All of these credentials go in a document that might be mistaken for a passport, called the Merchant Mariner’s Credential. This booklet holds everything about you as a sailor: your mariner number, your criminal record (if you have one), your licenses and your endorsements. That license is the thing everyone comes to study for, and everything we do culminates in the heart-stopping license exams.

Lawyers have their bar exam. Merchant marines have the license exams. Every time we want to upgrade our license, we have to take the exam, proving our abilities to become third mate, second mate, chief mate and master (captain); third engineer, second, first, and chief. Besides those, there are different classifications. You can sit for a third mate unlimited tonnage license, which will allows one to work on massive vessels like the Maersk Alabama seen in the film “Captain Philips”; one might also sit for the 1,600-ton mate’s license, which is geared more for tug and barge operators and offshore supply vessels.

These exams come in five parts for deck candidates like myself, from chart plotting to navigational law. Some of the exams have 70 percent minimum scores, and a few have 90 percent minimum scores. In the exam season, one can see the seniors in the library and study lounges at all hours, preparing for this behemoth of a test.

Why are there such rigorous and specific standards? Think only of the catastrophes in maritime history: Costa Concordia, Exxon Valdez, Normandie, Titanic, Pride of Baltimore, Bounty. These names live forever in the memory of experienced mariners, because they are examples of the things we have to avoid.

The U.S. Coast Guard and International Maritime Organization, which lay down these STCW standards, must be sure that mariners going off to be mates and engineers know their trades well enough to avoid the disasters that befell those ships. So we study and study, and make our mistakes in the classroom where it is still safe to learn.

The sea is majestic, and she is unforgiving to incompetent sailors.

Benjamin Stevens of Islesford is a sophomore at Maine Maritime Academy in Castine.