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Seafarer vs. Seaman: How not to Confuse Definitions

Last updated: January 16, 2024

Key takeaways:

  • Seafarers and seamen have different roles and responsibilities within the maritime industry
  • Seafarers often work on passenger ships and luxury yachts, while seamen primarily work on commercial vessels
  • Seafarers may have better salaries due to their involvement with higher-paying customers
  • Seamen have more entry-level positions available, making it easier to enter the industry

The maritime industry encompasses a diverse range of professions and ranks, with seafarers and seamen being two commonly used terms to describe individuals involved in seafaring activities. While these terms are often used interchangeably, it is essential to understand the nuances and differences between them. This article aims to shed light on the distinctions between seafarers and seamen, their roles, responsibilities, and career prospects.

Inshore Fishermen

Seaman, Seafarer and Sailor: Definition

In the English language, all three words refer to mariner, and in everyday speech, a seafarer can be referred to by any of these terms. Please be aware that these definitions and usages can vary slightly based on context, geography, and specific maritime traditions.

First, let’s see what the dictionary tells us:

📝 Oxford Languages:
Seafarer: “A person who works at sea.”
Seaman: “A man who is a member of the crew of a ship.”
📝 Merriam-Webster:
Seafarer: “Mariner, sailor.”
Seaman: “A sailor in the U.S. Navy or Coast Guard ranking above a seaman apprentice and below a petty officer.”

👉 Seaman – can be used to mean mariner, but it also signifies the position of a sailor. The term encompasses various ranks, such as Able Seaman (AB), which denotes a sailor of the first rank, and Ordinary Seaman (OS), which refers to a sailor of the second rank.

👉 Seafarer – Although some sources consider this term to have a vague definition, it has been officially adopted by the STCW Convention (International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping for Seafarers) to denote specialists who work as part of a ship’s crew at sea.

Additionally, the Day of the Seafarer is celebrated to honor mariners. So, I prefer using this term.

A seafarer can be defined as an individual who works on any kind of marine vessel. The term typically refers to those actively working at sea, but it can also describe a person who has spent a considerable portion of their life in this line of work

The International Maritime Organization’s (IMO) Maritime Labour Convention (2006) defines a seafarer as “any person who is employed or engaged or works in any capacity on board a ship to which this Convention applies.”

👉 Sailor – is one of the oldest designations, dating back to the time when sailing ships were the primary means of maritime transportation. Today, it can be used as a general term encompassing a wide range of individuals whose activities are related to the sea.

Seafaring: A Tradition of Professions

The tradition of seafaring entails a variety of professions and ranks that contribute to the successful operation of seafaring vessels. Ship crews can typically be categorized into four main departments: the deck department, the engineering department, the steward’s department, and other specialized roles.

Seafarer and Seaman Difference

Seaman: The Elite Professional

In the past, the term “seaman” was commonly used to refer to individuals involved in seafaring activities. Today, it still persists, and many people refer to the identification document of seafarers as a “seaman’s book.” Online dictionaries define a “seaman” as an elite and professional individual with specialized knowledge of sea vessels. Becoming a seaman requires formal training, learning, and certification. It includes individuals skilled in seamanship, those assisting in ship handling, sailing, and navigation during voyages, and enlisted personnel in the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard.

Seafarer: Tackling the Seas

On the other hand, a “seafarer” is a more general term that encompasses anyone who has experience traveling or working at sea. Unlike the specific requirements for becoming a seaman, anyone can become a seafarer through practical experience. The term itself derives from Old English, combining “sea” and “farer,” which implies someone who journeys or travels by sea. Certain ethnic groups, such as the Orang Laut of Malaysia and the Badjaos of the Philippines, are referred to as seafarers due to their affinity for sea travel.

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Seafarer and Seaman Difference

The terms ‘seafarer’ and ‘seaman’ are often used interchangeably, but they do have some slight differences in meaning.

A ‘seafarer’ is a general term referring to anyone who works at sea, regardless of their specific job or the type of vessel they work on. This can include people who are employed on ships, yachts, submarines, and even oil rigs. In other words, ‘seafarer’ is a broad term encompassing all individuals whose occupations require them to spend a significant amount of time at sea.

On the other hand, a ‘seaman’ is a term that is more narrowly defined and often pertains to a specific role aboard a commercial vessel. It typically refers to a sailor, especially a professional mariner or a member of a ship’s crew, including both officers and enlisted personnel.

So, while all seamen can be considered seafarers, not all seafarers are necessarily seamen, as their roles may extend beyond the specific duties typically associated with being a seaman.

To help you make an informed decision, let’s delve into the specifics of each role:

Seafarer:

  • Typically employed by shipping companies and cruise lines.
  • Often tasked with serving higher-paying customers, resulting in potentially better salaries.
  • Involves working on various types of vessels, such as passenger ships, luxury yachts, and cruise liners.
  • Seafarers, on the other hand, are individuals who have gained experience in sea travel and may not necessarily have formal training or certifications.

Seaman:

  • Primarily works on commercial vessels, such as cargo ships or oil tankers.
  • Provides a broader range of entry-level positions compared to seafarers.
  • Requires less formal training and certification, making it more accessible for individuals starting their careers in the maritime industry.
  • Seamen are considered elite professionals with formal training and expertise in seamanship.
  • Seaman: “A sailor in the U.S. Navy or Coast Guard ranking above a seaman apprentice and below a petty officer.”

Both seafarers and seamen play vital roles in the smooth operation of seafaring vessels, contributing to the global maritime industry.

Seaman meaning

Seafarers in Small Vessels or Inshore Fishermen

Fishermen who work on small boats are typically referred to as ‘small-scale’, ‘artisanal’, or ‘inshore’ fishermen. These individuals often operate within a few miles of the shoreline, catching fish to sell locally or for their own consumption.

These fishermen may not travel vast distances across the ocean or be part of a larger crew like seafarers on commercial ships. However, their work is no less demanding, often requiring detailed knowledge of local waters, weather conditions, and fish behaviors.

Small-scale, artisanal, or inshore fishermen could be considered seafarers because the term “seafarer” broadly encompasses any individual who works at sea, regardless of the specific nature of their job or the size of the vessel they operate. The term is less specific about the role and type of vessel than “seaman” and thus can include a wider variety of maritime professions, including these types of fishermen.

Seafarers in Small Vessels

However, small-scale or inshore fishermen could be considered seafarers because the term “seafarer” broadly encompasses any individual who works at sea, regardless of the specific nature of their job or the size of the vessel they operate.

The term is less specific about the role and type of vessel than “seaman” and thus can include a wider variety of maritime professions, including these types of fishermen.

In Conclusion

While the terms “seafarer” and “seaman” are often used interchangeably, there are distinct differences between the two. Seafarers encompass a broader range of experiences and may have higher-paying positions, while seamen typically focus on commercial vessels and offer more entry-level opportunities.

Whether one aspires to work on luxury cruise liners, engage in international trade on cargo ships, or explore various aspects of seafaring, the maritime industry offers diverse opportunities for professional growth and exploration.

Small-Scale Fishermen

FAQ

  • What is the key difference between the terms 'seafarer' and 'seaman'?
    A 'seafarer' is a general term referring to anyone who works at sea, regardless of their specific job or the type of vessel they work on. Conversely, a 'seaman' is a more narrowly defined term, often pertaining to a specific role aboard
  • What is the official definition of a seafarer according to the STCW Convention?
    The STCW Convention officially defines a seafarer as a specialist who works as part of a ship’s crew at sea.
  • Can all seamen be considered as seafarers?
    Yes, all seamen can be considered seafarers. However, not all seafarers are necessarily seamen, as their roles may extend beyond the specific duties typically associated with being a seaman.
  • What types of roles might a seafarer have on a ship?
    A seafarer might take on a variety of roles on a ship, including but not limited to: navigation, maintenance, engine operations, catering, and healthcare. Their specific duties can be as varied as the vessels they work on.
  • How does the Seafarer's Identity Document (SID) relate to the definition of a seafarer?
    The SID, also known as a seaman's book, is a passport-like identity document that is used as a certification of a seafarer's experience and qualifications. It offers a concrete definition of a seafarer as someone who is employed or engaged on board a ship in a professional capacity.

Authors

Digido Financial Writers Team is a team of experts in the field of finance and credit, specializing in writing articles for Digido blogs.
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