To a guest, a cruise ship is a holiday resort at sea. To me it is my office and home away from home.
I have been working on-board cruise ships for 5 years and this year, the notorious 2020, would have been my 6th year as a seafarer. I can still remember the first day I stepped onto a cruise ship, I was excited, nervous and completely lost, but that was the very moment my thirst for discovery was ignited.
I have boarded numerous long haul international flights and navigated some of the world’s largest maze-like airports, this was my commute to work. Luckily for me, the cruise company I work for pays for my travel on embarking and disembarking the ship, all I have to worry about is making sure I am on time, sounds easy right… Well… There are those rare moments when you have a one hour layover or your first flight was delayed on arrival and you have to speed walk or more like jog through London Heathrow or Dubai International to catch your connecting flight. The stress has you frantically looking up at airport signs hoping to finally see your boarding gate. You, clutching your boarding pass in your sweaty hand as your neck pillow, which is tied around your neck or hand luggage, bounces around making your race against time look even more dramatic to passers-by. In that moment I am thinking “OMG! This is the worst!”, but looking back now I think “oh, how I miss that rush”. This was my version of rush hour traffic.
Following from the airport, depending on the day you arrive to the joining port city, you will be booked into a hotel and for me this is arranged by the cruise company I work for. The overnight stay allows you to ‘acclimatize’ to your surroundings and get into ‘work mode’. On the day of embarkation you are transported from the hotel to the cruise port to board the ship. I have done a total of 8 contracts ranging from 6 to 7.5 months in length with a 2 to 4 month holiday and each time I start a new contract I am less nervous and more confident in myself and my job, why? Because each time I start a new contract I do so with an open mind, positive attitude and I am just myself. The more contracts you do, the more confident you are when joining a new ship and with cruise companies rotating their crew among their ships, you are bound to bump into someone you have worked with before. For those new to sea, I would give the same advice. It is important when starting any new job to be open minded, have a positive attitude and be yourself. This is even more imperative when working on cruise ships, because for the next few months the ship will not only be your workplace, but also your home.
A cruise ship workforce is a diverse group of hard working individuals. The crew on-board come from a number of different countries, all with their own traditions and beliefs and on-board we are one community, living and working together and learning from each other. In this environment not only do you need to be open-minded, but you also need to be respectful and tolerant towards others.
The working environment on-board a cruise ship is fast paced from the day that you join the ship. Once you have handed over your passport and joining documents the work and fun begins. You will go on to meet your supervisor or manager, be shown to your assigned cabin, handed a training schedule, go over your emergency duties, job roles and responsibilities and a ship tour if you are new to ships (a new hire) or class of ship. All of this is done before and leading into guest embarkation. By the end of the day for a new hire you may feel like your head is going to explode from information overload, but for an experienced seafarer you will feel as though you never left.
Throughout a seafarer’s contract they will be faced with a variety of situations, which will put their skills to the test. Working at sea, time management is key. One example is on the day of guest disembarkation and embarkation, also known as ‘turnaround’ day to crew. A ‘turnaround’ day is when guests from one voyage disembark and new guests embark the ship that same day for the next voyage. This means the ship’s crew not only have to bid farewell to the disembarking guests, but also prepare the entire ship for the next sailing and this is a big operation! Upon joining a cruise ship every crew member is drilled on the importance of safety, special thanks to the Titanic. Every 7 to 14 days the ship’s crew are trained and drilled on their emergency duties. Crew drills involve simulating fires and bomb threats, in-port manning drills, the filling of and launching the life boats and training videos. Missed ports, itinerary changes, adverse weather and mechanical issues all keep the ship’s crew on their toes. Crisis management and adapting to change comes almost naturally to seafarers.
In this high pressured environment coupled with long hours one needs to unwind because even the best well-oiled machine needs time to recharge. Not every crew member has their own cabin, as this depends on your rank and the cruise line you work for. Most cruise lines have created recreational areas where crew can relieve some stress and enjoy some down time. Recreational areas such as a crew bar, gym, mess rooms, crew events and parties allow crew to socialise and interact in an informal and relaxed setting. In my opinion the real escape is having the time to explore ashore. Not all seafarer jobs allow crew to have a day off, however we do get time off during port days where we are able to go ashore, this allows us to explore either on our own or through a tour. Shore time or ‘shore leave’ for crew is like having a mini vacation and we are able to explore the port cities like a tourist. No shore trip is complete without the souvenir magnet, however one has to ensure to make it back to the ship on time or you might find no ship, and just your passport on the dock.
For crew members spending months and months on a cruise ship you begin to feel like you are living in your own world separate from reality. Yes, cruise ships have a reputation for creating a party culture among the crew. Long hours and stressful days combined with cheap drinks in the crew bar naturally leads to continuous social-drinking, however every crew member is drilled on the importance of being alert and in control no matter the hour. Living in close proximity to each other crew form close bonds, relationships suddenly ignite and fizzle out just as quick as they started. In saying that, your ship community becomes your family and support system.
From the day of embarkation to the day of sign off, a crew member would have gone through hundreds of emergency drills, itinerary and time zone changes, port cancellations, rough seas and hours of training video presentations. Your luggage will more than likely be overweight from all your in-port purchases and online shopping. Your brain will be longing for a 24 hour long nap, but you are leaving with a camera full of in-port selfies and crew party pictures, your phone contract list will be longer and if you are like me you will have the desire to come back for another contract.