Free time. This expression is used in relation to a voyage charter and laytime and refers to the time used by the charterer to load or discharge the cargo before laytime has commenced according to the terms of the charterparty:
In the charterparty the clause dealing with laydays (and cancelling) (the “laycan” clause) indicates the earliest date when the charterer expects the ship to be placed at his disposition to load or discharge the cargo (and the latest, or cancelling, date before which the vessel must be made available).
Free time. The commencement of the counting of laytime is usually clearly specified in the charterparty. Generally, laytime commences to be counted against the charterer after the vessel has arrived, is physically and legally ready for cargo to be loaded or discharged on board, and a valid Notice of Readiness has been given by the master and accepted by the charterers or their agent. A certain period is allowed (the “notice period”) after the Notice of Readiness is accepted before laytime commences. For example, it may be stipulated in the charterparty that “Laytime is to commence to count from 08.00 hours on the next working day after Notice of Readiness has been given within ordinary office hours”.
Suppose the valid and correct Notice of Readiness is given and that laytime is due to commence on the next working day. However, cargo operations commence shortly after the nonce is tendered and accepted. The cargo operations are said to be carried out in “free time”, that is, time which is used, free of charge, by the charterer. In Pteroti v. National Coal Board, 1958, it was established that cargo operations before the notice period has expired did not automatically imply that the counting of laytime, against the charterer, commenced earlier than had been agreed in the charter.
Suppose, further, that laytime is due to commence at 08 00 hours on the next working day but the cargo operations are completed before laytime commences. This would result in the owner possibly having to pay despatch.
The only way of protecting the shipowner in a charterparty is to include words that make it very clear that any “Time actually used before commencement of laytime shall count”, as are provided in the GENCON charterparty.