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The Many Two Worlds of Cruising

Written by: Paul Motter

What does that mean? It means there are two sides to every story, but there aren’t many things in life receiving more diverse perceptions simultaneously than cruise ships – depending on who you are.

Right now a lot of our readers are talking about a book called “Cruise Confidential,” which was supposedly written by an American man who worked on a Carnival cruise ship as a waiter. They find it fascinating because it exposes a perspective of cruising they don’t usually get to see – the life of a crewmember working on a cruise ship.

A ship is very unique in that you have two sets of people coexisting onboard with vastly different perspectives. You, as a passenger, are in your world as a guest, while the crew is in their own world as the “working class.” You have a nice stateroom shared with your loved ones and dine in a restaurant where you get the best food onboard and five-star service. They live in smaller cabins, separated from their loved ones and often sharing a room with a stranger, and they eat whatever they are given in a bland room where they have to stand in line and clean up after themselves.

You are both on the same ship, but they see it much differently than you do. Now, am I saying crew life is bad? Not at all, most crewmembers on any ship will tell you they love their jobs and would be devastated if they were fired. It is that it is a job, not a vacation. But here is the upside – a crewmember’s free time is not much different from your cruise. They are in the same beautiful destinations and they go to the same attractions as you do. Crewmembers also have the advantage of being able to visit the same place more than once so they don’t have the “one day” limitation many vacationers cite as a drawback of cruising. It is a good life.

How do crewpeople see you? The truth is they see you as their job first of all. They are there to serve you and you will soon be gone, leaving nothing behind but your tip and your ratings on a comment card. Compared to the other crewmembers who are their peers and friends and who will continue to be in their lives long after you are gone you are personally just not as important to them.

Does this mean they don’t enjoy meeting or talking to you? Not at all. In fact meeting passengers is very refreshing to crewmembers who only have each other to talk to for months at a time. But they are really not likely to get too personally invested in your life, because their lifes are always in a kind of transition. No one lives on a cruise ship, they are always just working on one temporarily until the next thing comes along – even if that is just another ship.

I realize this because I worked on ships and know how crewmembers think. Most crewmembers are genuinely honest, intelligent and considerate people. They do not resent or dislike you, and they certainly are not oplotting to steal from you. Any room stward who has reports of “strangely missing items” more than once is not going to last long. Their most important goal is to make you happy. It really isnt that complicated. If you give them good reports they get rewarded, directly or indirectly, with money, advancement and job security.

Just like you have probably wondered what it is like to work on a cruise ship they also wonder what it is like to be a guest on a cruise ship – they see you but they don’t have any idea how it really feels. I have to admit that when I worked on a ship I thought, “boy, when I have a chance to sail on a cruise ship someday as a guest I certainly won’t get dressed up for dinner, or ever go to another life boat drill, or speak politely to the captain just because he is the captain.”

What is funny (are you listening cruise “experts” who have never actually cruised more than one or two times) is that once you become a regular cruiser your ideas change a great deal. They way you thought you would be as a regular passenger becomes entirely different. You learn to love the tradition and elegance of cruising. You respect the civility of it, out of respect for the institution of passenger vessels.

And so that is one of the many “two worlds of cruising.” The crewmember’s perspective and the guest’s perspective. Both are experiencing exactly the same ship at the same time, but each is having a completely different experience. Kind of cool, right?

Now please don’t think you don’t matter to the crew. Crewpeople vary and you can tell pretty quickly what their attitude is when you talk to them.

While some are just there to do a job and others really enjoy getting to know you, most of them fit into the vast middle ground. The ones you interact with the most, your room steward and waiter, are the ones who will try hardest to get to know you. If you engage them and are nice and interesting they will like you because you make their job more fun and interesting. If you generally ignore them they will do the same to you, and if you only talk to them when you have a problem they will do their job and little more for you. They are people just like you but as crewpeople they take their cues from you.

Here is another “two worlds of cruising.” Cruise lines have two distinct areas of operations – onboard and onshore. This divergence is far less apparent to you as a passenger but it is very real to the cruise line employees. These days, more than ever, far more of what happens on every cruise is managed from the shore. Shoreside now has the ability to see into receipts and food stores and to know exactly how each cruise is progressing.

In the old days a “cruise report” was typed up and filed at the end of each cruise describing any problems and how they were resolved. Ship management was very autonomous and the captain really was king of the realm. Not anymore.

These days problems are known to shoreside almost as quickly as they are known onboard. A captain or hotman (hotel manager) cannot call an audible anymore when there is a problem. They need to consult with management on shore and discuss the best approach before they make any moves.

Now, this doesn’t mean there isn’t still a divergence. Every ship has people working on it who have never worked shoreside, and every cruise line has shore people who have never worked on ships. There will always be procedures that “shoreside” wants that “shipside” won’t agree with – the difference is that these days shipside can rarely get away doing things their way and not telling management as much as they used to. But they can tell management they are taking charge and wait and see what the consequences are. And that depends on your job security and track record.

Ship people have to live and work together, but hiring and placement is done in the home office, not from the ships. You work with whomever you are given. Itineraries are decided shoreside, but the ship staff has to take people there, organize port talks, shore tours, security, interfacing with local officials, pilots, etc. Naturally, what is best for the company is not always going to be what is best for the crew. Pretty complicated when you think about it.

Shoreside makes the decisions and shipside carries them out. The crew has to answer to passengers and live with the ratings when all is said and done. All guts and no glory – somethings about being a sailor have not changed at all. Picture being a crewmember given a new procedure, like “we are firing all sommelliers, and the waiters will now recommend and serve wine.” Not only do the waiters have to learn a whole new set of skills, but they also have to live with the results – like lower tips.

In my job I have even had instances where I was told by the ship staff they don’t mind me criticizing the cruise line procedure on something. They have told me, “we have been trying to get them to change it for six months, maybe now they will believe us.” Interesting, isn’t it?

Finally, the last “two worlds” of the cruise lines are those who build the ships and the guests who pay to sail on them. All a cruise line can do is offer you what they think you want, but if they are wrong or if they fail to execute they pay the price. It is pretty interesting to think a cruise line must commit a billion dollars to one ship and not even have a chance to do market research before it is put on sale. Kind of like a blockbuster movie – but 10-times more expensive. You build it and hope for the best reviews. Yes, there have been duds before.

And when those two worlds are not in agreement the other two worlds also come apart; passenger vs. crew and shoreside vs. shipside. Who was at fault for a bad cruise? Was it a tough group of passengers or was it the crew? Was it shipboard management or shoreside? For that matter, was it the managers onboard or their subordinates?

Ships are known for being very tidy operations. When everything in any given project is working ideally it is said to be in “ship shape.” On ships, efficiency is everything, there is no waste and no room for error. You can’t get a spare part and you can’t replace a worker who quits. Timing, teamwork and attention to detail are what make ships work.

There are many ways to look at the word, “teamwork.” Two groups of people sharing a common activity are a team. But sometimes teams compete against each other. Teamwork is a concept that couldn’t apply to many things as well as it applies to ships. Just something to ponder the next time you are on a cruise.

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