So you want to be a crew member on a cruise ship or you’ve had the idea at the very least. Here is some insider knowledge from someone that has had first-hand experience working onboard cruise ships all over Europe.
Let me start by saying that you have to fit in this very particular world and you either you do or you don’t. There are huge misconceptions about life on board a cruise ship, some of which can be very misleading. Life onboard can be very attractive to some for the obvious privileges such as travelling the world. However, the crew life is not what the passenger sees, but the things that they don’t. This intriguing underworld is what makes a crew member life so alluring to many.
Entering The Microcosm That Is Life Aboard A Cruise Ship
When someone becomes a crew member, they enter a micro world, a world that gets smaller and smaller as time goes by inside the ship. Unsurprisingly as a crew member, you get absorbed by the dynamics of crew life, the distances to the outside world getting physically and mentally bigger and bigger. Just as it happens in the outside world, a huge pyramidal hierarchy slaps you hard in the face. How many privileges and comforts a crew member will enjoy will depend on who you are and what position you hold. Officers are at the top of the pyramid, crew at the bottom and the staff everywhere else in between. Sounds harsh? It definitely is – at least for some.
Officers and engineers make up for somewhat of the ruling class aboard a cruise ship. A small group of no more than 25 people faces a plethora of workers from all parts of the world that make up for the actual crew, mainting the ship and working in housekeeping, food & beverages, entertainment etc.
The Social Make Up Of A Cruise Ship
As an ex-crew member myself, soon enough after joining my first cruise ship I realised that we were not all the same, the differences between many of us getting only too obvious as the weeks passed. Besides the Captain and Staff Captain, the crew members who enjoyed the most benefits were the officers from the bridge and the engine room, these men played hard. I always think of officers as characters that end up believing they are some kind of gods, as someone who gains respect through a uniform and not so much because it is gained based on efforts or actions. Officers enjoy different and better meals than the rest of the crew, even eating in a separate canteen being this just one of their many privileges.
There are lots of things going on in the high spheres of a cruise ship and it is vox populi that sex and booze are linked with the experience. The higher your rank, the better your life on board will be with the line of professionalism often crossed.
For every officer or well-positioned staff member, there is a large bunch of crew members; they sit at the bottom of the pyramid. They are the waiters, the seamen, the cookers, the bartenders and the cleaners. These are the staff that work long hours, get paid very low rates, work long contracts and can only socialize within the crew areas when they’re not working which is not often.
With an average of 2.000 guests on board having three meals plus uncountable snacks every day, catering is a logistic master stroke. Fresh püroduce has to be loaded, waste and trash unloaded, and all that while manovering through narrow aisles, at all times of the day.
Many workers working for a limited time on cruise ships are from the Philippines and India
Since cruise ships can be seen as the naval equivalent to a regular hotel just as much housekeeping is needed. Rooms are cleaned on a daily basis leading to a large number of cleaners. Working hard on a daily basis, every single of the cabins aboard are cleaned with towels and linen changed. Crew members do not have to clean their own cabins.
As with any other business bureaucracy makes up for a large amount of all work done. Since workers come from all kinds of countries there is extra effort involved in dealing with passport issues, health certificates and the likes.
Parties & Excessive Socializing In The Few Spare Hours
However, there are times when everyone comes together regardless of their rank. With long weeks of seven days work with no day off and even longer working hours, most crew members look forward to the crew parties; it’s that time of the month where everyone unwinds and alcohol, a fair amount of madness, flirting and sex come together to make the crew member feel human again.
Once the pressure of being 'on stage' has ceased, crew members make up for their hard work by partying just as hard. But even here things are somewhat limited: due to the limited space aboard there are no crew-only nightclubs or bars. Crew members party side by side with regular guests. Keeping appearance therefore is a 24/7 duty.
12 hours later will see the security guard (left) partying away, while some of the female crew members will wear uniform, serving guests, doing animation or working in one of the many offices aboard.
Spatial limitation increases the intensity of relationships ten-fold. Intense working hours and a heavy work load seek relieve in just-as intensified social relations.
A crew member lives by the motto “work hard, play hard”. Normal boundaries as one might know them from everyday life ‘ashore’ become confusing and blurred on board, romances run rampart, with time and space becoming one. Affairs start and end, drama occurs with the end of each contract or arrival of more irresistible crew members, relationships are counted by contracts instead of months; men and women leading double lives become old news, all normal boundaries are broken.
Who could blame the crew members? Normal shifts lasting an average of ten hours, often up to fifteen and even more on embarkation/disembarkation day, up to twelve or thirteen on sea days, all at low salaries and a lack of privacy in cabins shared by two or more crew members.
A Full-Time Job – In The Literal Meaning Of The Term
I progressed from Receptionist to International Hostess in two cruise liners, my privileges and salary progressing, too. I was lucky that my roles at sea allow me to enjoy the public areas on my free time, however as great as this may sound, as a crew member you represent the company 24-7 and it gets tiring to be unable to disconnect:
- Because as long as you are seen in public you are working even when you are not working.
- Because you can only really disconnect in the crew areas which are small and crowded (crew bar, gym, corridors, cabins, crew mess)
- Because you are stuck with a bunch of people that are imposed to you whether you like them or not.
- Because often when the ship is docked you are working and unable to go ashore which is frustrating because at the end of the day you took the job to see the world.
Why Working On A Cruise Ship Still Is A Good Experience
In saying that, I highly encourage anyone to experience this life because nothing you can do will ever be slightly similar with what life at sea looks like and offers. No other job will allow you to work and live with several nationalities at once, or teach you to tolerate insane working hours, waking up in a different country each day, allow you to dream by seeing the world and all of these while creating lifetime memories.