“What is it like to work on cruise ships?”

This is a common question I am confronted with when people find out what I do.  What is commonly overlooked, however, is that I don’t just work on ships, but I live on them, months at a time – through rocky seas and stormy weathers, through countless cruise directors and captains, port after port, day after day.

As crew, our life is governed by the politics set forth by a corporation whose desk-strapped employees rarely have an honest understanding of what ship life is truly like.  Believe it or not, the majority has never even worked on cruise ships.  They work five days a week selling a product we must deliver, from open till close and then they get to spend their time off with friends and families and pets.

On one hand, I love the fact that I don’t have to pay bills related to owning a house or car – no insurance, no mortgage, no gas, water, or heating.  It’s great, but living out of a suitcase wears pretty hard on you year after year.  Some come to this lifestyle as an escape and others are just waiting for the opportunity to escape, so the dynamics from crewmember to crewmember are completely different.

As I write this post, my current ship is at the bottom of the globe, near the southernmost tip of South America, surrounded by mountains and fjords, just a mere few hundred miles from Antarctica.  This is a place I would never have envisioned visiting on my own.  The scenery is breathtaking and the history, rich.  The brisk air nips at your nose on the outer decks and while that is an unwelcomed winter burden at home, it’s okay now because it’s the southernmost nose nip in the world.  Most of it is okay here because not many people can claim that they’ve seen it snow this far south, or stubbed their toe this close to Antarctica, or had a beer brewed in this area – it’s all a novelty at this point.

This has been a difficult cruise, for yesterday was the second port we have missed in ten days due to unforeseen inclement weather.  So to give you a better idea, the final part of this cruise looks like this: three sea days, one port day in Ushuaia, Argentina, and now five days at sea before reaching our disembarkation port of Valparaiso, Chile.  Guests and crew alike are angry and frustrated, but as paid employees we must grin and bare it – work harder, and smile more to calm the guests.  I don’t blame them, I am just as angry every time we miss a port, and that’s without paying to be aboard.

Now that you have an insight into our recent reality and struggle with the South American elements, to explain what life is generally like working and living on a cruise ship, is difficult.  All departments throughout the ship follow different schedules, policies, and regulations.  To break it down, there are three main departments on cruise ships.  The Deck department is responsible for all aspects of safety throughout the ship, its navigation, emergency procedures, safety equipment, etc. and is obviously overseen by the Captain.  The Engine department handles the engineering aspects that allow us to go from point A to point B, and are in charge of various facets related to the mechanics aboard the vessel.  The final department is what separates cargo ships from cruise ships.

The Hotel department is comprised of Housekeeping, Food and Beverage, and Entertainment.  I can only truly divulge what it is like to be a part of the Entertainment team, which is further broken down into stage crew, cast entertainers, musicians (which is further broken down into multiple ensembles and solo acts), and the events staff.  Among events, we have the crew who are responsible for the daytime entertainment (scavenger hunts, classes, trivia, games, etc.) of the guests, both young and old.  I personally fall under a sub-department of the events team, the youth program.  As a coordinator, I work to schedule events and activities for the younger guests, which can be quite demanding during school breaks, especially on sea days.  Since this is all I am familiar with I can only truthfully share my experiences.

We all work long hours, most often reaching the ten-hour mark each sea day, without a day off.  Calling in ‘sick’ is never an option as everyone knows where to find you so you can never curl up and hide from a day of work.  We rotate port days, so often we actually do see the majority of the places we dock, which is a relief because the life can be demanding, between catering to families and allowing the necessary social time each day to unwind.  Getting enough sleep is rare, between attending crew events (bingo, acoustic nights, talent shows, etc.) and being woken up in the middle of the night during rocky seas to the sounds of drawers and wardrobes slamming open and closed, and hangers clinking into each other.  Unknown sounds come from everywhere – ventilation shafts, AC machinery, the creaking of the ship as it flexes to accommodate the waves, etc.  Stuff is always happening on a ship, at all hours of the day and night.

In my position we are allowed to and often encouraged to be out and socializing after our scheduled shifts end.  Most often though, we can’t be bothered; but spending time on the guest decks of a luxury cruise liner can be great way to offset the monotony.  My opinion of the job changes daily:

One day, I’ll have run myself ragged from office, to youth center, to filling in for an activity that is down a staff member, to checking the printer for my programs, to addressing a child’s injury, to explaining procedures to stubborn parents, to preparing for the next cruise.

And the following day I can be parasailing off an island in the Bahamas; or scuba diving in St. Thomas; or riding four-wheelers in Mykonos; or watching the sunrise over the Neva River in St. Petersburg; or shopping at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul; or sailing in St. Maarten.

Every time I feel down about my position I have to mentally go through what I’ve accomplished so far in this life and I come to realize that I am living a dream.   Hope that answers some questions!

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