Seamen with jobs on board ship will be very familiar with signing-on and signing-off. Those are the terms used in shipping for the joining and leaving a ship.

Dating from ancient times, seamen sign contracts to work on board ship. Even when the ship arrives at any port, the seamen are not allowed to leave the service of his ship. He has to comply with the orders and regulations while working on board the ship he signs-on.

In many instances, the ports of call have many attractions that lure seamen away from the tough life at sea. Many seamen may want to quit and settle at that place. With the sign-on contract, he has to stay on to man the ship. The ship is thus not deprived of the necessary manpower at all times.

In modern times, the tour of duty on board a ship ranges from 6 months to 9 months. In cases of emergency, some may work less. In cases where it is not convenient to replace staffs, seamen can stay on up to 1 year.

Usually, companies will arrange to change staffs working on containerships and tankers in 6 months time. For bulk, general cargo, and passenger ships the tour of duty can be 9 months or more. Why is that so?

Seamen working on containerships and tankers have very little time to go ashore. The fast turnover of cargo means that the ship may sometimes be in port for a few hours. For tankers, the ship’s cargo pumps pump the cargo. This means that the ship’s personnel have to be operating the systems.

Some ships do not go back to homeport of the seamen. The ships may be on charter for certain routes. To change personnel, shipping companies will fly the seamen to the nearest port of call of that ship and change them from there.

There will be shipping agents to handle signing-on and signing-off of crew for ships in all the maritime countries. Their job is to arrange all the transportation, airport tax, ticketing, clearances, custom clearances, immigration, hotel accommodation and other crew’s needs.

Sometimes, there may be transit points along the journey to join ship. Sometimes, ships may be delayed in arriving at the intending port. Additional days of waiting, and longer stays at hotels will then be arranged for the signing-on seamen.

Meanwhile, seamen who have completed their required tour of duty will receive news that they will be signing-off perhaps a few days before arriving at port. Packing of their personal belongings will then proceed. They will hunt for empty boxes to carry their accumulated belongings. Some items will be passed down to those who will remain.

The ship’s arrival in port is a joyous time. Those going to leave will usually meet with those who will join. Not all the ship’s personnel will be changed at the same time. This ensures that there are people who are familiar with the ship still around to guide the newcomers. This is not because the newcomers are not experienced, but because it will work out smoother and safer.

The time for handing over documents, experiences with certain machinery, tools, and other belongings will depend again on the length of time in port. Container ships and tankers have very short handing over. Usually there will not be sufficient cabins in the ship for extra personnel. Some temporary arrangements will have to be made.

Once the crew has signed-off he is free from the standing orders of the ship, and he is no longer responsible for the duties he had before. The new sign-on crew will assume responsibility once he has sign-on. He will assume the duties assigned to him from then onwards.