Secret Confessions of Cruise Ship Crew Members

| May 24, 2010

What is it really like to work on a cruise ship? Clearing up some of the myths about life for the crew on a cruise ship.

Everyone dreams of earning a living by doing something they love, so as a part of our series on cruise industry jobs, I wanted to share my own experience working on a ship. The other topics include working as a travel agent, and working on shore for a cruise line. All three articles are written by people with plenty of experience.

I worked on five different cruise ships during two periods of my life. During the first, I celebrated my 30th birthday somewhere in the deep southern Pacific, about as far from terra firma as one can get. My second stint at sea included my 39th birthday. My job each time was "stage manager," but the job description changed a lot from the first term to the last.

Hierarchy of Shipboard Jobs Most experienced cruisers know there is a management structure on cruise ships, but they don't know how it works or how strict it is. Men who went to Europe in the Navy on a commissioned ocean liner like the Queen Mary may have noticed the officers have stripes, just like the Navy, as a symbol of rank.

A cruise ship's captain is the ultimate authority on the ship for the entire staff and crew. He has the final word in all matters, just like in the Navy. Would he go down with the ship if it were sinking? Maybe if that was the only way to save other people, but any respectable cruise ship captain today would at least be the last one off the ship, or near enough to it to see who the last person was.

Also like in the Navy, cruise ship officers adhere to strict, almost military-like rules, such as keeping a tight watch and following onboard procedures for maneuvers and maintenance that are well documented and rehearsed. But for the non-officers -- i.e., the rest of the staff and crew -- it is much more like working in a hotel.

Staff and Crew Notice I use both "staff" and "crew" to refer to ship workers. There is a difference. In general, the staff includes people who tend to have managerial duties, and the crew refers to the worker bees who get the chores done.

Another common way to categorizing workers is whether they work for the "ship" or the "hotel" departments. In both, there will be staff members who are managers, and crew members who work beneath them. This staff in ship operations includes the officers, responsible for navigation and operations on the ship; the ship's crew will include deckhands, painters, greasers, window washers, and others. On the hotel side, a Hotel Manager is at the helm -- technically an officer but mostly not involved in operation of the ship. His staff includes chief pursers, the head chef, the chief housekeeper, etc. The crew on the hotel side includes waiters, cabin attendants, assistant chefs, galley workers, and so on.

The captain of the ship is ultimately in charge of the hotel department, which means the hotel manager, known on most ships as the "hotman," answers to him. But in reality, hotel-related concerns are usually not a high priority for a captain, and he tends to respect an experienced hotel manager's opinion and direction.

Many of the captain's duties are honorary -- i.e., he is often invited to the parties of important guests, he is asked to host a "captain's party" where he will greet the guests, and he may dine with some passengers at the captain's table. However, this doesn't mean a cruise ship captain is merely a figurehead. They are highly skilled in their jobs, usually coming to the cruise lines after working as captains of other vessels such as container ships or ferries. Many find their niche in the cruise industry and stay at the helm of passenger vessels for years. Some do not.

Also in the hotel department, answering to the hotman, is the Cruise Director, who is in charge of onboard entertainment. The CD also manages communication between the cruise ship and the guests. The CD will create the schedule of events for a cruise, including show times, enrichment lectures, distribution of tender tickets, bingo, art auctions and everything else. The cruise director has a large staff (no crew-people per se) working under him that includes hostesses, assistant cruise directors, entertainers, stage managers, teen counselors and sometimes fitness instructors, bridge (the card game) and golf experts, and sometimes dance hosts.

Concessionaires The final category of workers on a ship, somewhere between crew and staff, are the concessionaires. These are the people who staff the casino, gift shops, the spa, the medical center, the art auctions, onboard shopping and photography. These people usually do not work directly for the cruise line. They work for a company that has a contract with the cruise line to supply certain services.

Concessionaires usually report to a manager on board who works for the outside company. That manager must report to his home office, but he/she is equally responsible -- as are all people working aboard a cruise ship -- to follow the guidelines and rules set down by the cruise line, the captain and the hotman.

Where Do Cruise Ship Workers Come From? Most ship's officers come from European countries that have seagoing traditions; for most lines, the officers are usually from the country that played a part in creating the cruise line. Foremost among these are Norwegians, British, Dutch, Italians and Greeks; each cruise line has a different history that reflects its heritage.

For example, Holland America Line has been around for more than 150 years; it began with regular crossings on ocean liners between Rotterdam and New York. Princess Cruises was a subdivision of a large British company called Peninsular and Oriental Lines (a.k.a. P & O), which still owns shipyards and container vessels throughout the world. Cunard Line, owner of the Queen Mary II, the Queen Elizabeth II and soon the Queen Victoria, is also of British heritage. (For the record, all the above mentioned lines are now owned by Carnival Corp.)

NCL stands for Norwegian Cruise Lines. It was started by Norway's Kloster family. NCL was acquired by the Malaysian company Star Cruises. Unrelated, but also originally of Norwegian derivation, is Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines. Celebrity Cruises was started by the Chandris family from Greece, but is now part of the Royal Caribbean family.

Cruise ship workers come from literally all over the world. One ship I worked on was primarily Norwegian (Royal Viking Line), but it had several other European nationalities working onboard. Another ship I worked on, NCL's Norway, had 50+ nationalities represented in its crew -- from Chinese workers in the laundry to Caribbean islanders and Turkish nationals working as stewards and waiters. Most of the officers were Norwegian.

Crewmembers Crew such as waiters and stewards these days tend to come from countries where the standard of living is much lower than in the U.S., notably Croatia, Slovakia, Indonesia, and the Philippines.

I have heard a few detractors say cruise ship workers are exploited because they work long hours, seven days a week, and are paid a low wage calculated on an hourly basis. I think these detractors are dead wrong and I bet you not one has ever worked on a cruise ship.

In reality, the money these people can earn on cruise ships is enough to support an entire family in their home countries. And many of them are doing exactly that. If you calculate the number of tables a waiter serves, or the number of cabins a steward cleans on every cruise, and figure in their weekly tips per person, for their country they are making very respectable wages. And when you work on a cruise ship you have virtually no expenses. Your housing, utilities, food and medical and dental care are provided by the cruise line.

Many crew members from developing countries work in these positions for years because it is vital to their families. A bar waitress on a ship told me recently that most of her friends had been with the same company, in the same jobs, for about five years on average, and that someone from their country who wants to get a job with that line must be recommended by someone already working for the company.

Staff Members The entertainment staffers under the cruise director almost always come from English-speaking countries like Britain, South Africa, Canada and the U.S. This is the one job category where you commonly find Americans (and frankly not in too many other areas, though some concessionaires are hiring more Americans these days).

Speaking of concessions, different cruise lines sometimes choose to take these services in-house, meaning that instead of contracting with a concessionaire, they manage it within the company. This is especially true of casinos and gift shops. One area where the lines rarely meddle is the spa, which on most ships is run by Steiners Leisure Ltd, originally a British company. Steiners hires a lot of Brits, but they also hire other nationalities. The gift shops are usually concessionaires, and workers are usually British or Americans.

Nationalities aside, it is a common rule on all cruise ships catering to the North American market that the official language onboard is English -- and every worker, regardless of job title, must speak it if they ever come into contact with passengers. It is the language used for all communication between ship workers above and below decks. Naturally, whenever workers of the same nationality get together in private they will speak their native language, but it is generally not acceptable for any crew member to speak anything but English in the presence of passengers.

Life on Board What is it like to work on a cruise ship? The answer depends on your job. For some people it is a dream job, while for others it is hard work and long hours. Every job comes with a salary and all the other life necessities: food, shelter, water, medical and dental care. But each of those things vary according to your job.

Bottom Rung: At the lowest level are the entry-level jobs, mostly taken by people from the third world. Some may barely speak English and thus never get above the crew decks. They might work in the crew mess (dining room), or they might serve as room stewards for their fellow crew members. (Yes, even the lowliest crew get room stewards). The bottom tier usually live on the first deck below the water, often called "B-deck" -- just below "A-deck" which is also a crew and staff deck and the first deck at water level, so cabins have non-opening portholes.

On B-deck, most crew cabins sleep four people. They will have a sink in the room and private lockers and drawers for possessions. On most newer ships (post-1990), these cabins have bathrooms, so they are not sharing community facilities like on older ships. They will have the same small TV set as in the smaller passenger cabins. They get the same TV channels as the passengers, plus a crew channel or two showing movies geared to younger people, soccer matches and the like. The wall-coverings, bedspreads, towels and cabinetry all look surprisingly familiar to those in the passenger units -- but with less square footage and more beds per room.

This deck also has lading and storage areas and plenty of access to crew-only staircases and elevators so they can get up to the passenger decks without using passenger elevators. Higher level crew and staff mostly live on A-deck, which is also open to all crew and contains the crew mess for all meals (with many dishes designed for foreign palates -- e.g., Holland America goes through 100 pounds of rice every day), plus public rooms with foosball, Ping-Pong and a large screen TV, for example. The famous Crew Bar is often on A-deck, or possibly higher, as most ships also provide the crew with an outside area where they can lie in the sun, and even a crew swimming pool.

Living on A-deck are most staffers; the entertainment department, casino dealers, shoppies, spa people, lower officers, etc. These people live two (or often one) to a cabin. The cabins are small with single beds, but with the same TV setups as B-deck, plus private bathrooms. There may be a separate mess hall for staff people and officers below, or on many ships the staff people eat in the Lido buffet area with the passengers, including dinner. Even in the days before alternative Lido dining for passengers, the buffet was open for staff-members, it just wasn't advertised.

I worked for a time on NCL's Norway, which was special because it was one of the oldest large passenger vessels serving the U.S. market. I had my own cabin, but shared a dual-entry bathroom with an officer I never met (we had very different hours). It was not far from the infamous "Slime Alley," which only existed on the Norway. That was the place where they processed all the waste -- the same area where a boiler explosion killed six crew members, the worst accident in modern cruise ship history.

I personally lived in what many would probably consider the worst conditions for crew. Yet it was not bad at all. Slime alley was no worse than walking in the alley behind your own house. On a hot summer day, they probably smelled about the same, but the smell did not reach my cabin.

The Crew Bar The crew bar on the Norway was probably one of the best. You had to climb a steep stairway to reach it, because it was at the rear of a passenger deck, in the stern, and abutted the poop-deck, the rear rope deck. That entire deck behind the bar was open nightly for crew people to go outside and watch the stars, listen to short-wave radio, and share an imported beer that we could buy in the crew bar, or by the six-pack in the crew store, for under a dollar a bottle. As I recall, a six-pack of Red Stripe Beer cost $3.75 in the crew store.

During major holidays -- or for any other excuse -- the crew bar was the scene of fantastic crew parties that rivaled Rio at Carnival. Masquerade parties were very common -- a perfect chance for the queens of both sexes to get their best dresses out. Many a time I would hear a passenger looking down at us on the poop deck, tripping the light fantastic, and hear them say, "I wish I was down there with you."

Contracts Contract terms for shipboard workers vary a great deal. Lower-level crew members tend to have the longest contracts. Ten months is average, which means some go for eight months and some for a year without going home. The year-long contracts are being phased out and replaced with 10-month ones. The reason for the longer contracts is that it takes time to find and train a qualified cruise ship waiter or steward, and airfare to their homelands can be expensive.

How these people get their jobs depends on the cruise line, but most lines have made a real effort to avoid using independent brokers in faraway lands. These brokers would typically charge the worker a high finder's fee, and if they could not afford it, he would pay their airfare to the ship and collect that back, with interest, out of their paychecks. Some workers on ships had to work half a contract just to pay the agent back.

These days, cruise lines rely on other means, mostly by putting links on their web sites where applicants can email a resume. If someone is offered an interview, it is their responsibility to get to the place where it is conducted. But cruise lines are also hiring directly, so there is no longer a middleman -- for non-concessionaire jobs, at least.

Concessionaire workers (spa, gift shop, casino, photographers, etc) are hired by third party companies. Once hired, the concession will usually pay the airfare to get a worker to a ship and home again. The length of contract for these people is longer; six to nine months. They are usually assigned two to a cabin.

The entertainment staff includes musicians, entertainers, hostesses and assistant cruise directors. These folks work directly for the cruise lines, usually on four- to six-month contracts. Musicians and entertainers live two to a cabin, the others get private cabins. Strangely, as a stage manager I always had a private cabin, and on some ships it was surprisingly nice, with a double bed and lots of storage. Usually, however, it was a single bed and about 80 square feet.

Like most in the entertainment department, I worked four-month contracts, but twice the contracts were extended, so I worked seven months in a row onboard. In both cases, I switched ships mid-contract. On one occasion, I was flown from Alaska to Europe, with just one night on the way to see my girlfriend in New York City. The next day, arriving in Rome, I barely made the ship before she sailed; once onboard, I was told no staff cabins were available so I literally slept in the infirmary on an examination table for almost two weeks before I got my own cabin.

Many upper-level staff members, including myself for several months, actually live in passenger cabins. This is the best of all worlds -- working on ship, seeing the world, and living like a passenger.

What About the Hours? A cruise ship worker works seven days a week. There are no days off, but there is time off every day. For the most part, you are a salaried worker, but some cruise lines have jobs now that pay overtime if you work more than your contracted number of hours.

Some employees never or rarely work when the ship is in port, because casinos and shops must be closed due to local laws. Entertainers work at night, as do casino workers. Shoppies work days and night, but only while sailing. Therefore, if you want to see the world, those jobs are pretty good. Entertainers are almost always off duty while the ship is in port, except when a rehearsal is called, or at night. Many nights in port feature local talent, so the stage crew works, but not the entertainers.

Naps are an integral part of almost every cruise ship worker's life. Next time you are on a ship, notice that your room steward or waiter may have that "I just woke up" look during early evening hours. A room steward works hardest in the mornings to early afternoons, takes time off during the late afternoon, and then turns down your bed while you are at dinner.

Who Works the Hardest? The hardest jobs are those that crew members still have to work even when the ship is in port. They not only get to see less of the world -- they can't even take a break. In port, far fewer waiters need to be on duty, but some of them do. Room stewards always have to work. The guest services desk is manned 24 hours a day, but they work on a rotating basis.

Fraternizing and other Relationships Are crew members allowed to fraternize with the passengers? On the mass-market and other large ships, the answer is a simple "no." Waiters should not be flirting with passengers and cannot meet with them on board -- they are not allowed in passenger areas, and passengers are not allowed in crew areas. If a waiter sees a guest on shore and they have a meal together there's no harm done, as long as it is consensual. But a waiter who makes overtures to a guest, either on or off board, can find himself in big trouble if the passenger does not feel comfortable about it.

Staff members, however, are generally given the "run of the ship" day and night, and are allowed to have a cocktail in the ship's public rooms. Many times they will develop friendships or relationships with passengers while on board, but staff members are not allowed in passenger cabins and guests cannot go to crew areas.

The ship will not change crew or staff berthing assignments just because a couple "falls in love." But they might if she has a ring on her finger. Marriage is accommodated only on rare occasions. If a man applies for a job on a ship and asks if his wife can come along, even if he has a private cabin, the answer is a flat "no." But if they both have legitimate jobs on the ship, then the cruise line will let them share a cabin. I have seen situations where the line found a job on board for a wife because they wanted the husband badly enough -- but this is usually after years of proven service. One music director had his wife and even his child living on board. But this is the exception, not the rule.

Is it a Good Job? It is a great job, especially for a young, single person who wants to see the world. You learn responsibility, getting along with others, and hard work. And if you don't go crazy buying souvenirs you can even save some money. For third-world people, earning a few hundred dollars every week in tips makes them wealthy in their homelands.

The best jobs are on ships that vary their itineraries. I was fortunate to work on ships that went worldwide. On my first contract alone, I sailed from Tahiti to the fjords of Norway. Nine years later, I went from Alaska to Athens, then followed the path of Columbus from Portugal to the Canaries, Azores, Bermuda and finally the Bahamas. The most romantic day in my life was when my ship made a detour to New York City from the Caribbean in the middle of December, where my fianc´┐Że -- whom I had not seen in seven months -- was waiting for me on the pier. As we sailed past Coney Island and the Statue of Liberty at dawn, my heart was jumping. By the time we docked in mid-Manhattan she was already waiting for me, and I ran out on the open bow and waved to her. When she waved back at me I realized hundreds of people were watching us and they started clapping. Talk about smiles.

Don't take my word for it. Just ask any crew member to tell you honestly how he likes his job. They will almost all say they love it and would not quit. In most cases, they would not even change much about it. Do they miss their families? Of course, but that is the life. It's not for everyone, but it's better than most people expect.

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