International Law of the Shipmaster




“Of all the living creatures upon land and sea, it is ships alone that cannot be taken in by barren pretenses, that will not put up with bad art from their masters.” Joseph Conrad (1857-1924), The Mirror of the Sea (1906).

§ 1.0 The Shipmaster in Law. The shipmaster,1 usually called the master in maritime law,2 is a natural person hired by contract who lives on a vessel and manages it and its related matters while the vessel is navigating and carrying goods or performing services for freights or hire. Thus, he is the appointed and retained commander of a vessel in commercial service and is the person who is responsible for a vessel in navigation and licensed by competent national authority.3 In common usage, the “captain” is the master of a vessel and “captain” is, in the English language, a social title by which most masters are called.4 In general terms, a master is a qualified seafarer5 in command of a ship. One United States’ statutory definition of “master” means “the individual having command of a vessel”.6 The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has held, “A [m] aster is not one in name alone. He is [m] aster in fact and commander of his ship … .”7 Section 3, UK Harbours, Docks, and Piers Clauses Act, 1847, incorporated in the London Docklands Development Corporation Act 1994, defines “master,” in relation to any vessel, as “the person having the command or charge of the vessel for the time being”.8 States have a slightly different version of the definition or occasionally more than one definition.9 In summary, each state with a ship registry scheme recognises and provides authority and balancing liabilities to one natural person responsible for the ship at sea. He is the master. Curiously, the master is not necessarily the statutory person in charge or the person authorized by the employer.10 Further, the master, if he appears in the crew list, is often not a seafarer within a state’s definition,11 although many states treat the master as a seafarer for certain beneficial and protective purposes. Today, the master is usually not the owner or direct co-owner of his ship.12 Finally, depending on a state’s tradition of laws, masters are empowered by varied levels of statutory authority to enforce flag state laws on their vessels and different authorities among the states to deal with situations which arise at sea.13

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