All Aboard But Me! (A tribute to my years working on Cruise Ships!)
Last Saturday, my boyfriend and I watched our home disappear. That is, we sat on the docks of Southampton, England and watched as the ship on which we had lived and worked for the past 8 months sailed away into the distance. This had been the 3rd ship I’d called a home and my boyfriend’s 5th – but for both of us, it would also be the last. That’s the plan, anyway. It’s been a brilliant experience, working at sea, but at some point you have to decide whether it’s going to be a permanent career or not, and if it isn’t, you must resolve yourself to break free and acclimate back to land-life. On the latter side of our mid-twenties, my boyfriend and I both feel that it’s time to retire our sea-legs and get back to “reality”.
In honor of the end of our sea-days, I wanted to write a post about working on cruise ships. I’m going to answer some of my FAQs for your reading pleasure:
1. How did you get into this career?
I was always curious about working on cruise ships – it’s something lots of people daydream about, but getting the job was actually just luck. I applied online (which is the only way you can really apply to most companies) and happened to mention the interest to my dad. My dad, as it happened, said he coached with someone who was really good friends with a guy who was “pretty high up” in the company I was interested in. I made a quick phone call to my dad’s friend and before I knew it I had an email from (get this) the PRESIDENT/CEO of the company!! Can’t get much more “pretty high up” than that! HR, having received my materials personally from the President, hired me the next day. The rest is history 😉
2. Where do you sleep?
Staff members sleep on Deck 1, although there are some positions that have cabins on deck 2. Crew members (like the guys who work in facilities and in the deck/engine department) are typically on Deck 0 (yes, that’s below the waterline, folks). And, yes, the cabins are laughably small (I’m talkin Frodo Baggins would feel cramped in one of these things!) and unless you have a management position there are no port holes either which means its pitch black without the lights on. I know you are dying for a preview so here you are:
3. Where do you eat?
There are crew cafeterias (called “messes” …. appetizing, right?). The ships I worked on always had two – a crew mess and a staff mess. In recent years, they’ve done away with the ranking segregation and now all crew are allowed to eat in either mess. However, the bottom mess typically serves caribbean/asian food while the top mess serves European foods. This keeps things pretty separated as most officers and staff tend to be European while most crew tend to be from the Philippines or the Islands. What can I tell ya, that’s just how it is.
4. Do you ever get off the ship?
This question always makes me laugh. You think anyone in their right mind would agree to work in an enclosed space for 6-8 months at a time without breathing fresh air? The major benefit of the job is the travel! I visited a dozen countries and islands during my tours. Although, I won’t lie to you, I’m sure there are people in the deck and engine department for whom a day off in port is a rare and precious commodity. Those guys are in it for the money, not the travel. Even though they are paid well below what any Westernized worker would accept, the money exchanges to a far greater sum in their home countries.
5. What are the parties like?
Parties at a crew-only bar on a cruise ship – what do you think?? Amazing! The second best part of cruise life, after the travel, is the social life. People head to the bar (or bars) every night. Cabin parties seem impossible considering the limited space, but cramming a bunch of foreign strangers together, sitting literally on top of one another, with a few six packs and a couple bottles of wine can amount to a truly memorable evening. Plus there are theme parties of all sorts, division parties with just your coworkers, and even all-crew parties where everyone working onboard attends. Sometimes they even shut-down a guest venue like the night club or the karaoke lounge just for a crew party! Pretty sweet.
6. Are you allowed to have relations with guests?
Nope. Does it still happen? All the time. Do people get fired over it? You bet your ass they do. A good friend of mine made a regular habit of meeting girls in the night club and then bringing them up to an out-of-service room on the sports deck. He should have felt “red flags” on the occasion he brought his lucky-lady-of-the-night to this spot only to find the door had been locked. Rather than realizing that this must be a sign security had been watching his rendezvous – he chose instead to take her into the closest public toilet (classy, I know). He got caught, literally, pants down. They fired him the next morning. To this day he says she was worth it and we still joke about him “going out with a bang”, but I know it took him ages to find another job and he really missed the lifestyle. He wasn’t down and out for too long though, a year later he got a job back on ships with a different company. Cest la vie.
7. Are you allowed to date your coworkers?
Yes – that’s how I met my other half, actually. 9 times out of 10 though, these relationships are short lived. There are too many opportunities for indiscretion, too many willing partners, and after the contract is over, staying in touch is next to impossible. Lots of people are even in relationships (or marriages) as home and use ship-relationships as a way to kill the lonely nights. Obviously, this was not my style, but whatever floats your boat I guess (pun intended).
8. Isn’t it hard being away from your family?
Of course, but there are ways of keeping in touch (skype and phone cards and good ol-fahion mail). Plus, in time, you come to realize that distance is all relative. Once you are back home, it usually feels like you never left. Having been gone for 6 months and met so many people and traveled so many places, you always feel like everything at home will be different or all your friends will have a million stories to tell … but you are usually all-caught-up after one reunion dinner and you start to realize that life on land is just slower.
9. How’s the pay?
Dreadful. Especially if you are taxed on your income (which depends on the country you are from versus the country who owns the company). But, the experience and travel and connections make up for it (or so we keep telling ourselves ;-p).
10. What’s the craziest thing that’s happened to you on a ship?
Storms that knock over all merchandise in the shops, 3AM stops to rescue Cuban immigrants who’ve been lost at sea for weeks, a week-long charter cruise where all the guests are swingers and the ship transforms into a bizarre floating world of nudity, adultery, and fornication!! (I can’t make this stuff up). I’ve seen some pretty wild things. The cruise industry is truly a world of its own – but I guess that’s what makes it so wonderfully invigorating. Anything can happen!
Just a small insight to my life over the past 3 years 😉 Feel free to send me questions if you’re thinking of “shipping out”! For me, it’s bon voyage to cruise ships and aloha to the next chapter! Stay tuned!