Lesson Learned: Seaman’s Book a Must-Have

Published: 01/25/2010

As captain of a 141-foot (44m) yacht, mine is one of seven different passports onboard. With my U.S. passport, it is easy to travel but the six other nationals onboard present challenges. The following are a few situations and dramas that a Seaman’s Book would have eliminated.

Last summer while in Italy, the deckhand’s Shengen visa expired. The next country for the yacht was Greece. We were in a Shengen country going to another Shengen country. Unless the deckhand went back to South Africa, obtaining a Shengen visa was not possible. The agent in Italy said that with a Seaman’s Book, the deckhand could have moved about the EU as a mariner without a Shengen visa.

The South African consulate in Italy won’t issue a Seaman’s Book to South Africans working in Shengen countries. If you are travelling to work in the Caribbean, South Pacific or anyplace other than a Shengen country, you will be issued a Seaman’s Book.

The yacht’s agent in Greece assured me this crew member would not be deported as he was on the crew list and could provide his maritime training (STCW) documents if requested. The new plan was to obtain a Shengen visa at any consulate in Cairo before we returned to a Shengen country.

Crew visas for Egypt were obtained by the agent and with enough money, there were no problems with any passport. I received a six-month Egyptian visa (the first one in my U.S. passport) and the crew received 30 days.

A month later, after an owner’s trip and the day before holiday travel, I sat in a dirty visa office to get another 30-day visa for the crew. In Egyptian style, all of the crew except the South Africans received new visas.

These crew were told to return the next morning, which was not possible as they were on night flights out of Egypt. The yacht’s agent (who accompanied me to the visa office but was useless) assured me that upon return to Egypt, a new visa can easily be obtained in Cairo. The stewardess went off to France and the chef went home to South Africa; both departed with a travel letter from the yacht, an expired Egyptian visa and no Seaman’s Book.

The stewardess returned from France and, using the ship’s travel letter, she managed her way through the officials at Cairo airport and back to the yacht. She was a little rattled, but back safe.

Two weeks later in Johannesburg, the chef was not allowed to board her flight to Cairo without an Egyptian visa. She produced her travel letter, but was asked for her Seaman’s Book as the airline considered my perfectly written travel letter a joke. She was delayed for five days – a very expensive delay – as she went to an Egyptian consulate to apply and wait for the visa.


 Shifting focus

The need for Seaman’s Books for my multi-national crew became a priority. I had two expired Shengen visas and the nearest consulate for any Shengen country was in Cairo, a 6-7 hour bus ride from Hurghada where daily demonstrations were staged against the civil war in Gaza when we were dealing with this in January of 2009. I would have had to send young crew into a war zone.

I sent numerous e-mails to French and Maltese consulates in Cairo; none were ever answered. I dialed copious wrong numbers to embassies and consulates in Cairo. I called the French embassy in Paris to get an answering machine playing a message in French.

I called the French consulate in Malta, where we planned to stop for fuel. The lady on the phone said that without a Seaman’s Book, she could not help me. I dialed more phone numbers that did not work. It is not safe to send crew to Cairo without an appointment so I decided to deal with officials rather than loss of crew. I called the yacht’s agent in Malta and he assured me it was no problem for the South African crew member to enter Malta without the Shengen visa, but having a Seaman’s Book would help.

I started researching Seaman’s Books. The MCA has them but they are only issued to British citizens. A contact at the MCA gave me a phone number to the shipping registry in the British Virgin Islands.

Via e-mails and phone calls, I receive the application for the BVI Seaman’s Discharge Book (which has been around since 2001). The application is one-and-a-half pages and requires a copy of the applicant’s passport, three passport-size photos, record of sea service, medical fitness certificate (ENG-1) and a recommendation from the captain.

Still in Egypt, I found a doctor who could speak and read English at the Red Sea Hospital and the physical exam forms were completed. Applications for Seaman’s Discharge Books were picked up by FedEx and I had the Seaman’s Books sent to the agent in Malta where we planned to enter the EU.

I called the French consulate in Malta to see if Shengen visas could be obtained, as France was the final destination. I was told that crew with Seaman’s Books do not need a Shengen visa as they are considered professional mariners. The deckhand with a six-month expired Shengen visa had no problem when we cleared customs (three times) in French waters.

Just to be clear, crew need a Shengen visa to get into EU countries. If they are working on a yacht and cannot get their Shengen visa renewed, the Seaman's Book proves they are a professional mariner and they will not be sent home. 

In September, when entering Turkey, a crew member with a Panamanian passport was denied a Turkish visa unless she had a Seaman’s Book. I was in the process of obtaining her Seaman’s Book and submitted the application to the agent. The crew member was allowed into Turkey and was issued a visa when her Seaman’s Book arrived. I tried to obtain a visa for Saudi Arabia; not possible, but a Seaman’s Book at the Port of Entry is required for each crew member.

In December, I checked into Rhodes, Greece. The agent took the Seaman's Books rather than passports for all of the crew. If any crew had had an expired Shengen visa, it would not have made a difference since the passports were not even seen at customs or immigration.

As captain, my passport was taken with my Seaman's Book only because the agent thought it best. My passport was not stamped into the EU as we had transited from Turkey.


Professional mariners

A Seaman’s Book is more than a little book where you record your sea time. It is a book that proves you are a professional mariner. I have stood in long security lines at airports, wishing I could take the express line marked “crew.” A Seaman’s Book gives you that privilege as these lines are for flight crew, cruise ship crew and yacht crew. (Well, at least it works in Europe. On a recent flight home through San Francisco, the TSA agent denied me access.)

How often have you paid for overweight luggage? A Seaman’s Book eliminates that expense. Some travel agents offer special airfares to yacht crew, but I have yet to find one who can beat the prices I find on the Internet. A Seaman’s Book combined with a travel letter from the captain will make a crew member’s life easier navigating the hurdles of traveling on one-way tickets. 

A Seaman’s Book is easy to obtain, if you know where to go. Get the applications and physical exam forms (ENG-1 works, if it’s not expired) from the flag country of the yacht. Completed forms and required documentation are sent to the shipping registry of the flag country.

If you cannot find the address, go to www.redensigngroup.org. There is a shipping registry and e-mail address for 13 red ensigns. Cayman Islands, Marshall Islands and the Bahamas have forms online. Captains should have these forms aboard and require crew to obtain Seaman’s Books immediately, no mater how long their visa is valid. Some crew can obtain a Seaman’s Book from their home country.

Captains have to fill in the information on the yacht and use the ship’s stamp to keep it official. Some Seaman’s Books have back pages where the captain can mark “Paid Leave,” “Unpaid Leave,” “Study Leave” or “Sickness.” The BVI Seaman’s Book has pages to record training courses, vaccinations, inoculations and sight tests.

Require every crew member to have a Seaman’s Book and keep it current. That is their job if they are a professional mariner.