It’s the ‘Day of the Seafarer’ instead of ‘Day of the Seaman’. And it’s ‘International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (not Seamen) Convention’. The IMO and almost everyone else seem to be shunning the term ‘seaman’ in favour of ‘seafarer’. Are they wrong to do so? Probably not, but some old salts – those who spent years cutting their teeth on navigation and know what life at sea is really like – will tell you the two words are not the same. Shakespeare was wrong; a rose by any other name wouldn’t smell as sweet.

Capt D. Peter Boucher, a genuine sea dog with Irish blood who lives in Florida, USA, notes in his straight-shooting blog Nautical Log that ‘there is a great difference between these terms.’ To illustrate the point, he quotes a friend in Europe, a retired sea captain:

I (am) not surprised about your comments on the training and ability of seafarers nowadays. It is that there are no more “seamen” in the true sense of the word… a seaman is someone who starts in the bilges as we did as Apprentices and works his way up gathering at every step experience that will eventually transform him into a ‘seaman’, whether he stays as a Rating or goes on to be an Officer… that kind of training no longer exists… seafarers they may be but not seamen… it is not their fault. In my last company we engaged Filipinos, they would arrive with a suitcase full of certificates but no basic seamanship.

The term ‘seafarer’ is actually less accurate in describing somebody who works on board a ship. What it means is a person who regularly travels by sea – the term being a combination of two words, sea + farer (from the Old English faran, meaning ‘to journey or travel’ ). Thus, certain ethnic groups are called ‘seafarers’ such as the Orang Laut (sea people) of Malaysia and the Badjaos (men of the seas or sea gypsies) of the southern Sulu archipelago in the Philippines.

On the other hand, ‘seaman’ denotes an experienced sailor or a person skilled in seamanship. The stress on seamanship has been preserved in US Navy and Coast Guard parlance, where ‘seaman’ refers to a sailor with a rank below ‘petty officer’ and above ‘seaman apprentice’. In fact, the nomenclature hasn’t really been pushed into oblivion: almost everyone still refers to the seafarer’s identification document as ‘seaman’s book’.

But who cares for linguistic nuances? In Manila, some fellows have the gumption to call themselves ‘Captain’ even though they’ve never commanded a ship in their entire life. Those who have had actual command drop the title ‘Captain’ once they join the Coast Guard Auxiliary and are given the honorary rank of ‘Commodore’ or ‘Admiral’. We’re not surprised. Filipinos are obsessed with titles and they put great value on form rather than substance. ~Barista Uno

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