Meet Darlene – of Darlene and the HALCats
We all have romanticized ideas of what life onboard a cruise ship would be like – the world travel, visiting exotic ports of call, having good friends in every port, and a close family onboard. But of course, there is also the downside of a life at sea as well – being away from home and loved ones for long stretches at a time, the hard work, living basically out of a suitcase, having to get used to a new group of people every time contracts end.
CruiseMates sat down to talk with Darlene Carnahan, of “Darlene and the HALCats.” Darlene is well known all over the ship as a vocalist who provides many hours of entertainment to passengers. She and the HALCats perform at all the sailaway parties, as well as in the Crow’s Nest many nights. They also do some special events in other venues around the ship. In fact, they have recently begun a new “gig” -- “Morning Melodies” in the Ocean Bar, which has been pretty well attended.
“Our contracts call for performing five hours a day, though we rarely are scheduled for that many. So when the cruise director has something special he wants to try, he just tells me where to be, and I’m there. I love being on stage, so even though performing at 10:30 in the morning is kind of early, I’m there!” Darlene said. “Besides, I also love getting to sing different kinds of songs, and this is the perfect opportunity to do that.”
Darlene started performing on ships in 1999 when she was a cast member with Royal Caribbean. She did three six-month contracts and then decided to give up the shipboard life. She went to the University of Miami’s School of Music and got her Bachelor’s degree in Performing Arts, with a concentration in Jazz music. It wasn’t until January of 2006 that the sea beckoned to her once again, and she came to work for Holland America. She’s been onboard their ships ever since. “So far, I’ve been on the Ryndam, the Westerdam, and most recently here on the Statendam.”
“I really like working for HAL because they take better care of their people than I was used to on Royal Caribbean. I was in the cast there, but here I am a band vocalist. Yes, I work harder in this job, and actually get less money than a cast member would, but I get to sing a wider range of songs, and showcase my vocal range a bit more.”
I asked Darlene if she got to exercise any special creativity in selecting the songs she will perform in any given performance.
“Well, Stiletto – the agency that works with HAL’s entertainment department – provides us with songbooks. These books are huge and they contain all of the songs that show bands and vocalists throughout the fleet must know and be able to perform at a moment’s notice, such as if a passenger makes a special request. Our band is very good at sight reading, so they don’t have to practice very much. But I will often sit down at a piano on my off-hours and familiarize myself with any new tunes, or ones I don’t often get a chance to perform. But we have to stick with the songs in the Stiletto songbook in order to have consistency across the fleet. But those books are huge, and pretty much everything you can imagine is in there.”
I asked Darlene is she was actually a member of the HALCats or if she was separate from them. “No, the HALCats are the onboard show band. Every HAL ship has one. Then I am a vocalist who sings with them. Jamie, the woman who plays the keyboard or the piano, is the band leader. We work for her, and she’s great. The only thing that’s a bit difficult is getting used to a new band member who may come onboard. Every musician is different and every show band is different. Sometimes we click perfectly and there are no problems, such as with my last contract on the Ryndam. But other times there may be issues, such as a new or inexperienced musician coming onboard, that take some working out. That’s where Jamie is of particularly great help.”
With some band member’s contracts lasting for six months, while others end in three, there is a constant change in the composition of the show band. This makes it difficult for everyone to get used to each other’s performing style and even their abilities. “Often we will get some relatively inexperienced vocalists or band members, and they will have difficulty, at least initially, keeping up with the rest of the band. When I left at the end of my last contract on the Ryndam, I got a call from one of the band members a week later begging me to come back. The new vocalist who they brought onboard to replace me had no prior shipboard singing experience. In fact, her last contract was as a Steiner (the spa) employee! The band was having a very difficult time breaking her in. I just told him to be patient and give her a chance. She’d work out.”
Darlene talked about the concept of a “happy ship” versus a not so happy one. “I really like it here on the Statendam,” she told me. “It’s a happy ship, which means the staff and crew generally like working here and morale is high. That’s not always the case on some vessels.” I asked Darlene if a “happy ship” is as a result of a particular captain’s particular management style, or from other things. “Everyone contributes to it, not just management. In fact, Captain Jack (our current captain) only came onboard a few weeks ago, and this ship has been happy long before then. A happy ship is one where the staff is treated well, and here on the Statendam we are. If everybody is happy, our enthusiasm feeds off of each other, and you get what is called a ‘happy ship.’”
“There are lots of things that go into creating that feeling, and the company is responsible for much of it. For example, HAL does some things for employees that I didn’t see in my years with Royal Caribbean. For example, when we come onboard, especially on a first contract on any given ship, we are assigned a ‘buddy’ to help us get acclimated. You have no idea how important that is. Just learning our way around the ship can be daunting; all the back corridors and short-cuts to here and there. It’s a lot easier to get lost and be late for something important. It’s wonderful that we have a buddy to help us through those initial days onboard. We can go to them if we have any problems or questions.”
“We also attend various safety classes and crew drills where we get to practice team work. I’m a traffic coordinator, which means I make sure passengers are headed for their proper lifeboat station. That’s what you’ll see me doing during the passenger lifeboat drills. But if we had a real emergency, I would also be doing things like lowering a lifeboat and helping passengers into it. We all work together to learn how to do these things.”
I guess the biggest component that goes into making for a ‘happy ship’ is respect. We are treated with respect on this ship, and most of the employees working here are proud to be onboard the Statendam. Just as an example, we had a crew drill recently and when it was over, Mike – the cruise director – said ‘thank you everyone for participating in the crew drill.’ He didn’t have to do that. Crew drill is our job and it’s included in our contracts. But just the fact that he took the time to thank us for our participation shows that the Statendam and her people are special, and that more than anything else creates a ‘happy ship.’”
I asked Darlene – “surely there must be some sourpusses onboard. Everyone on the crew can’t be happy.”
“Oh, of course we’ve got our share of complainers, just as you would have in any workplace on land. Working at sea is something that you either love or you hate. There is no in between. The ones who love it can’t wait to renew their contracts when they expire. Maybe they love the ship they’re on and want to make sure they can stay, or perhaps there’s another ship they want to work on – one that maybe is doing a favorite itinerary or going someplace special. But the ones who hate working onboard will count the days until their contracts expire and then and will run down that gangway on that last day never wanting to see a ship again. The shipboard life isn’t for everyone.”
I asked Darlene what was most difficult for her about a six-month contract at sea. “Well, fortunately, I’m not married, and not even dating seriously right now, so I don’t have the problem of missing my guy. In fact, right now I don’t even have any real roots on land. I even gave up my apartment and placed all of my stuff in storage in Los Angeles. But I do have some dear friends that I miss, not to mention my tab cat, Rocky. But he’s being well cared for by a friend who trains animals, so I don’t worry too much about him. But I always say that I’d probably work on ships my whole life if they allowed me to bring Rocky onboard.”
“You also form tight bonds onboard with people who may disappear from your life after one contract, and sometimes even sooner. Perhaps one of you is assigned to another ship or whatever. That’s emotionally difficult – to be so close to somebody and then in a matter of day they are gone – poof – from your life. And worst still, it’s not like you could just pick up the phone and call them, or hop on a plane and go visit them. It’s not the same as on land – it’s just too difficult, not to mention expensive.”
“But, at least in my case, the good outweighs the bad. So for right now at least, this kind of life suits me. When I feel lonely while onboard, I just go back to my cabin where I’ve created a little home away from home. In my current position onboard, one of the benefits is a cabin to myself, and that’s a real plus. Of course, it is a tiny inside affair on “B” deck, but for me its home. I have it decorated with pictures from home plastered all over the walls and even my own “froggie” shower curtain. When I go in there, it just feels like home, especially when I gaze and the photos of Rocky and my good friends. I laugh at some of the guys in the band who have stark white walls in their cabins. I can’t understand how they could be comfortable in a cabin containing no personal effects whatsoever. That would depress me – but, hey, if it works for them -- ” Darlene laughed.
I asked Darlene about shipboard romances – “just between us girls.” After all, gotta get a little gossip before this interview ends, right? So I was wondering -- you see many married couples working together onboard -- I can’t help but wonder just how easy it would be for a crew member to find the love of his or her life while working onboard a ship.
“Well certainly it’s possible, and it’s clear that some people have made a go of it. But that’s actually relatively rare – and the sad truth is that there’s actually a lot of transient romances, resulting in broken hearts. Right now that’s not what I want in my life. If I’m going to be with someone, I want them exclusively – at least for the duration of our contracts. I don’t want to be with someone tonight and then find them next week in the crew bar with someone else. So right now, I’m not in the market for a shipboard romance, but that doesn’t mean shipboard romances are bad, it’s just not the thing for me right now. “
On the subject of romance, I asked about romance between a crew member and a passenger. “Ahhhhh, that’s frowned upon,” Darlene informed me. “We really aren’t supposed to get involved with passengers, and in fact, we have an 11:00 p.m. curfew where we must be off the passenger decks. This is as much for our protection as it is for the passengers. After all, relationships can go sour and in the case of a staff member, it can result in the loss of their job if the Captain decides to send them home.”
Darlene laughingly told me some stories, without using any names, of course – about the various personalities onboard. She mentioned the ‘bitter faces’ – the ones who seemed never to be happy. She talked about the Statendam’s nickname among this crowd – every ship has one. They refer to the Statendam as the “Satandam.” The Prisendam is the “Prisondam.” Then she talked about the “Stripe Chasers.” These are a group of females on each cruise whose purpose in life would seem to be hooking up with as high ranking an officer as they can – hence the term “Stripe Chaser.” The more stripes, the better! What they dream of is marriage and the good life. What they get is often just a broken heart.
I asked Darlene if she saw herself as a shipboard entertainer five years from now. “Yes, but not in this role,” she quickly responded. “I started out as a cast member on RCI. It was a great job. You didn’t have to work too hard, and the pay was actually higher. But the problem with being in the cast is that you don’t get to sing a wide range of songs, and that causes you to stagnate somewhat. I have a wide vocal range – rock and roll, jazz, ballads – and I want to be able to develop them all. This job allows me to do that, and therefore grow as an entertainer. But I’m starting to get a bit restless again, so now I’m trying to put together my own show. I’m working with somebody who is helping me to craft it and I go to just about every guest entertainer’s show onboard to observe their techniques. One day I’d like to be a guest entertainer onboard ships – someone who flies in for couple of weeks, does a series of shows, and then heads home – or onto another ship. I think having this sort of a gig would let me take my skills to the next level and grow as a performer – not to mention, it pays more too!”
Darlene seems to thrive on the seafaring life, and after talking to her one would get the impression she’ll be working on ships in some capacity for many years to come.
“I originally found out about working at sea by reading Craig’s List. There was a job posted there from Stiletto Entertainment for cast members for an onboard production show. I contacted them, auditioned, and was hired in short order for Royal Caribbean Lines, where I stayed for three six-month contracts. While I no longer work for Stiletto – band singers work directly for Holland America now – I am still eternally grateful to them for introducing me to this lifestyle, because it suits me. I’m doing a job I really love and still have lots of free time. This let’s me see and experience the various ports we visit. I must have been a mermaid in a past life because I’m in love with the ocean and with Scuba diving – and I get my fill of both, especially when we do an itinerary like this Hawaii/South Pacific run. We just spent several months in Alaska and I got to see some of the most amazing sights on this Earth. Alaska is probably one of the most beautiful places on the planet.
“Since I have my own cabin, I can also invite a friend to come onboard with me occasionally. Of course, they’ll have to share my tiny cabin, sleeping in a bunk, but we on the crew call this “elegant camping,” and it’s a whole lot of fun!”
If you ever get a chance to see Darlene onboard a HAL ship, don’t miss it. She’s got a wonderful range of vocal talents – from wedding type songs, to good old rock and roll, and even some of the Broadway standards and show tunes. Even better, she’s real friendly, so feel free to go up to her and say hello. If it’ll make you feel more comfortable, just tell her you’re one of the Cruise Mates!