Know before you go to stay out of trouble in foreign ports

It was a hot Gulf of Mexico day, and we were heading to Tampa, Fla., with a full load of gasoline. I was the third mate on an old, non-inerted gasoline tanker, and was working with the boatswain and one of the able seamen testing hoses. Pat, the boatswain, had just come aboard the day before in Corpus Christi, Texas, and introduced himself as we were working. I told him my name, and then he asked if my father had been in the merchant marine. I answered yes and gave him a thumbnail overview of my Dad’s experience. His face lit up. “I sailed with your old man, young Sweeney, and he was one of the toughest men I have ever met. I once saw him take on three guys in a bar in Maracaibo. The cops arrived, and we were lucky that we didn’t end up in a Venezuelan jail that night.” Hearing his story, I wasn’t surprised, recalling another sordid narrative that ended with my Dad in jail in the Philippines, with the captain bailing him out the next day before the ship sailed.

Not inheriting my Dad’s penchant for alcohol, when I got my first job in the merchant marine I decided to not follow in his footsteps. For years, my modus operandi has been to avoid the docks and visit the tourist areas instead, don’t cause a ruckus, and get back to the vessel before dark if at all possible. This personal policy has generally served me well in the 20-plus countries I have visited while a crewmember on merchant ships, never having had any problems in a foreign port.

Professional mariners know that while on board a U.S.-flag vessel, they are considered to be on U.S. territory, and are thus bound by our laws. Likewise, they also know that the moment they leave the ship, they are then subject to the laws of the country where the vessel is berthed. Any seafarer who has traveled to a foreign country, however, will probably tell you that being liable for following another country’s set of laws can be difficult.

I met Rich, a third mate, at a class I took. He told me of his experience while a crewmember on a drillship that was getting some repair work done at a shipyard in Singapore. One afternoon he was in town to do some shopping and he grabbed some fast food for dinner. Unable to finish it, he threw a few french fries to some pigeons and was completely surprised when a police officer came up and accosted him. The policeman asked him if he knew that feeding the pigeons was considered flagrant littering, punishable by up to a $1,000 fine and/or 12 hours of community service — with foreigners unable or unwilling to comply subject to deportation. Of course, he didn’t know any of that when he tossed his french fries to the birds, and he wisely apologized for his behavior. Luckily, he was let off with just a warning.

An experience I had once in a foreign port convinced me that my longstanding personal policy to avoid shore-leave issues didn’t cover all the possibilities. While a second mate on an automobile carrier berthed in Toyohashi, Japan, I got good news on a Saturday night that the chief mate was giving me Sunday off, as we were not loading cars again until Monday morning. Immediately after hearing that, I ran up to my stateroom and retrieved the phone number of a friend of mine who lived about 45 minutes away. As it turned out, Kimiyoshi and his family were free on Sunday and invited me to dinner at his home. The next day he picked me up at the terminal, and we had a nice time catching up on personal news and eating his wife Keiko’s fantastic Japanese dishes — including her signature tempura.

When it was time to head back, I wanted to take some pictures before leaving, and I rummaged through the backpack I brought looking for my disposable camera. Kimiyoshi watched as I pulled stuff out, including a package of over-the-counter cold medicine I had brought with me, as I had been ill earlier in the week. Grabbing the box and looking it over closely, in a very serious tone he said, “You have to throw this away immediately, Kelly, even before you leave the house.” I asked why. He replied, “Your cold medicine has pseudoephedrine, which is illegal here in Japan. If you try taking it back to the ship, I am sure the guards at the gate will harass you about it, and if in a bad mood because they are working Sunday evening, might even call the local police and get you arrested on a drug charge. So, throw it away now!” Thankful to my old friend, I tossed the cold medicine in the trash.

There are many laws in foreign countries that appear strange to us, but nevertheless can get a mariner unknowingly into trouble — tossed into jail, caned in public or even deported. Wearing camouflage pants in Barbados, public swearing in parts of Australia, daytime eating or drinking in public during Ramadan in the United Arab Emirates, and spitting gum out on the sidewalk in Thailand are just a few of the infractions. That’s why I highly recommend doing a bit of research before you go ashore in a foreign country. Many times the country where your ship will be docked will have a website for travelers, with information on everything a visitor needs to know to avoid legal problems. The best source of information I have used, however, is the U.S. State Department’s traveler website: It gives details on legalities for every country in the world.

With the increase in regulations in recent years, a higher standard of conduct and propriety from all crewmembers is now expected. Nevertheless, I have worked with a few mariners who ended up in jail in the Philippines, Taiwan, Panama and Mexico — some of them for quite a while. As professional travelers who work worldwide, we need to protect ourselves by knowing — and obeying — the laws of the countries we visit. Because from what I have heard, being stuck in a foreign jail is not something you want to experience.

Till next time, I wish you all smooth sailin.’

Kelly Sweeney holds the licenses of master (oceans, any gross tons) and master of towing vessels (oceans), and regularly sails on a wide variety of commercial vessels. He lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at

By Professional Mariner Staff