The first time I heard about a slop chest on board our vessel was when I was a deck cadet.
Knowing the meaning of slops and slop tanks which are storage for wastewater, I never thought it was a store of some sort.
I pictured a chest full of dirty coveralls and oily rags as my Bosun says it.
A few days passed, and I heard the term bonded store from my Third Mate.
Having a crewmate discuss bonding cables in the manifold two days ago, I was once again curious about how these two link to each other.
Turns out, they are totally unrelated.
But the bonded store and slop chest in our ship is actually synonymous! In fact, these terms are used interchangeably since both are located in one room.
And that got me thinking. What’s the difference between a bonded store and a slop chest?
What is a Slop Chest?
A ship’s slop chest is a small shop on board where the crew can buy personal items such as toiletries, snacks, socks, and other light goodies.
The term originated in the 16th century as naval slang for cheap, ready-made clothes that sailors would purchase on board.
But today, the word slop chest takes on a totally different meaning.
While most dictionaries nowadays define a slop chest as a store of clothes, we don’t actually see them sold here. At least, that’s my experience sailing for 11 years on tanker vessels.
Here are the most common items you can buy in a slop chest:
- Cotton buds
- Soft drinks
Basically, you can buy most of the toiletries listed in our seafarer packing list here.
What is a Bonded Store?
A Bonded Store or Bond Store is also a small shop onboard where specific items such as alcohol and tobacco are sold. Like the slop chest, seafarers can buy these items only for personal consumption.
However, due to the nature of these goods, this shop is highly regulated especially when visiting ports.
Tobacco and alcohol are heavily taxed in many countries and these items must be declared to a port’s customs officers.
A bonded store is similar to a shore’s bonded warehouse where goods are not subject to taxes and duties.
This means that items sold here are sold to the crew at a discount because they are duty-free.
So where does the confusion come from?
You would really get confused if you try to think through the real nature of slop chest and bonded store.
For most, they are all the same. Seafarers use them as they refer to each other. But if you really want to dig into their essence, they are technically different.
Here are some factors where the confusion between them arises.
Obviously, slop chest came first. From selling cheap clothes, it evolved into selling a variety of goods for sailors including liquors and tobacco.
When countries introduced the usage of bonded warehouses and export/import taxes, they started applying regulations to those products.
Both stores are located in one room and I think that’s where the main ambiguity lies.
Moreover, the bonded store is locked and sealed during port stay due to customs regulations.
Seafarers who want to buy something in the slop chest must wait for the vessel to sail before the captain is allowed to open the bond store.
In informal conversation, seafarers often use the terms “slop chest” and “bonded store” interchangeably.
Even I use them sparingly to refer to anything between the two. Besides, when the Captain announces the opening of the slop chest, he could use either term.
Orders and reports
Items in slop chest and bonded stores are requested from ashore. When the captain, ship agent, and chandlers discuss them in their emails, they also use them interchangeably.
Additionally, the officers use both terms either way in their inventory and reports at the end of the month.
Why lock and seal them in port?
Because of customs regulations. But the real reason behind it is to prevent smuggling.
In most ports in Europe, cigarettes are very expensive due to sin taxes. A single 20-cigarette pack (a small pack containing 20 sticks) costs as much as US$15.00.
On board, a box of cigars (containing 20 small packs) costs US$15.00 or less. That’s because these items are duty-free!
Some seafarers try to sell them to shore personnel for €20 to €25 for a profit and this my friend is smuggling. It’s against the law.
There was even a case where the ship’s crew were caught doing this trade and the vessel got a huge fine.
Even a small discrepancy in the declaration against the actual count inside the bonded store will result in heavy fines from the authorities.
Who’s in charge of the Bonded Store and Slop Chest on board?
The Master is normally in charge of these stores and he holds the key to it. However, he may delegate it to another person like the Third mate, Cadet, or Messman.
Normally, the items here are sold for a profit of not less than 10 percent of its value. That may be in the U.S. but it’s applicable whichever ship you sail.
It’s only open for a certain hour of the day, usually after dinner when all the crew is inside the accommodation.
When buying, you can just go there, take what you want, and list your items. At the end of the month, the captain will tally your slop chest expenses and charge it to your account.
One time, I also experienced buying it with cash.
At my last company, our German captain only accepted cash for slop chest to avoid extra paperwork.
It was like buying at a supermarket or at a sari-sari store.
Occasionally, you just give a list of the items you want and the person in charge will deliver it in front of your cabin.
May the winds be in your favor.