"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.
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.