What is Shore Leave?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

"Shore leave" refers to a period of time in which working sailors are permitted to leave the ship to return to land. Shore leave may last a few days or even weeks, and usually provides a temporary break from work, rather than a permanent change. Though time spent ashore is often associated with excessive behavior, seafaring activists and unions insist that it is essential for both mental health and to conduct and manage personal affairs. Port security changes in the 21st century have made temporary leave from a ship a complicated and sometimes controversial issue, with some new requirements prohibiting any access to ports by crew members without proper immigration documents.

Man with hands on his hips
Man with hands on his hips

Seafarers, such as military or professional sailors, may spend months on duty in relatively confined quarters. Away from family and home and frequently out of communication, sailors can understandably become dispirited at the prospect of long journeys in tight quarters, with few home comforts. Shore leave provides an opportunity for rest and relaxation, as well as chances to contact family and friends and handle affairs. Moreover, leave provides a mental and physical break from the workplace.

The infamous reputation of leave as a time of excess and debauchery is not entirely undeserved. During the great centuries of maritime trade domination, many port towns were havens for drinking, prostitution, smuggling, and gambling. At sea for months, sailors were naturally inclined to indulge in behaviors typically forbidden by the regimental life on ship. Many legends, folk songs, and movies continue the tradition of associating leave with somewhat indecorous behavior. Nevertheless, bodies such as the US Supreme Court have declared that shore leave is a necessary right for sailors.

Military shore leave is often carefully regulated, in order to preserve the reputation of a military and protect service members while ashore around the world. In some ports, military members must always wear civilian clothes and adhere to strict behavioral policies. Personnel may be required to stick together in pairs or small groups, both to ensure adherence to behavioral standards and to provide some measure of protection for one another.

In the 21st century, shore leave has become an issue of some debate within the seafaring community. With the ease of transportation through faster methods, such as by air, shipping companies are often pressured to reduce shipping times by shortening leave periods for sailors. Moreover, new maritime protection acts worldwide have made it difficult for sailors to access ports, even when granted leave. While these protective laws have the goal of preventing terrorism by insisting on strict identification and visa requirements, detractors argue that they are detrimental and unfairly punitive to many innocent sailors. Some seafarer activist groups have recommended programs that allow an alternative means of identification for sailors on leave, but these have not been widely adopted.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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Discussion Comments


I used to live on the coast in a city with a large shipping industry. When sailors from the bigger ships were in town on shore leave the city changed dramatically. When the sailors left, the place seemed almost like a ghost town.

Some of the sailors got into trouble, but for the most part, they were not a problem, and they contributed large amounts of money to the local economy, so it was a good trade off.


One of my nephews joined the Navy. He grew up in a poor family where education had never been a top priority. Originally, he went to college because he wanted to get away from the small town and the lifestyle he knew there. He saw college as his way out.

Unfortunately, college was not meant to be his way out. He is a smart kid, but he couldn't adjust to college life and he left school after his first year. This is when he decided to join the Navy rather than go back home and work in one of the factories or mines there.

The Navy turned out to be a disappointment, too. He realized early on that he was not going to do well in the confined quarters of a ship. He loved shore leave and seeing all of the different places, but the time on the ship was really tough on him. Somehow, he managed to stick it out until his enlistment time was over. He did not reenlist.


I can't imagine being on a ship for weeks and months at a time. I recently with on a cruise for the first time in my life. My girlfriend really likes cruises and she had been trying to get me to agree to go with her for some time. Finally, I gave in and agreed to go because I felt like I should at least see what all of the talk was about.

We took a five day cruise, so I wasn't confined to the ship for days at a time, but still I felt trapped sometimes. I really enjoyed the time on shore, but I now I know for certain that I couldn't be a sailor. I would go berserk not being able to get off the ship and walk on land. I can understand why sailors go wild when they finally reach land and receive shore leave. I would be the same way after being at sea for weeks or months.

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