I have a love/hate relationship with cruise ships.
On one hand, cruise ships provide me the ability to live the lifestyle I do. They help me save money, pay off debts, see the world, and do what I’ve always loved to do: perform. There I have a well-paid singing gig, free food, healthcare and accommodations, endless travel opportunities, and instant new friendships and relationships.
But even so, I tend to grow depressed on ships. This is why I’ve always hesitated to write a post about my experiences there. And since I work in what’s deemed as the easiest department of them all, entertainment, I felt that perhaps I couldn’t give proper justice to the entirety of the ship life experience.
Still, I continuously get asked questions about what it’s like to work on cruise ships so I felt it was time to share my own personal experiences and let you into my world at sea; the good, bad, and the…food.
How did you first begin working on cruise ships?
I have now completed six 4-7 month cruise ship contracts as a vocalist. My first contract was at the age of 21 on the Carnival Paradise out of Long Beach, California. I was hired as a production singer after sending out a dozen or so mail-in auditions to various cruise lines. Carnival called soon after receiving my packet with a job offer and I accepted. I said goodbye to my weekend acoustic duo gig and cleaning job and got on a plane by myself for the first time in my life to fly to Los Angeles, California. Little did I know it would mark the beginning of the end of my simple small-town existence and inspire me to become the traveler that I am today . Cruise ships would open my eyes to the greater world around me full of new cultures, places, and ideas.
Who works on cruise ships?
People from all over the world! There are over fifty nationalities represented. The majority are Indonesians, Filipinos, Indians, Europeans, South Africans, South Americans, North Americans, and Canadians. There are positions in housekeeping, wait staff, engineers, deckhands, entertainment, tour management, guest relations, gift shop, spa, and the list goes on. And while there are a lot of young people living the cruise ship life mostly for the experience and adventure of it, there are many who take it more seriously and turn it into a career. Often they are older and supporting a family back home.
What do you do exactly?
There’s a reason why the entertainment department, specifically the cast, is despised by most other departments on the ship – compared to everyone else we’re quite spoiled. While a waiter or housekeeper may be working 10, 12, and 14 hour days with a day off here or there, the cast might put in 1 or 2 hours a day with numerous days off and have so much free time they soon find themselves pulling out their hair in sheer boredom. Of course each ship and company differs, but lots of down time is usually the norm for most entertainers.
While my first gig was as a production singer on Carnival and quite lax, I soon transitioned to being a band vocalist on The Yachts of Seabourn, an ultra luxury cruise liner that maintains stricter rules and higher expectations. For the entire time I was there I never had a day off, but my work mostly began in the evenings, and often would last only an hour or two, so I still had the entire day to do as I pleased. As to what I do exactly – I sing, socialize with the guests, and participate in safety drills, meetings, and trainings. During free time I’m off the ship exploring, working out in the crew gym, watching movies, reading, catching sun out on the crew deck, or hanging out on the ship with friends.
And while Carnival may repeat the same itinerary week after week and sticks mostly to the Caribbean and Bahamas, Seabourn continuously sails around the world. I may embark the ship in Italy, and after stops in the Mediterranean, Middle East, and Asia, fly home four months later from Hong Kong, as I just did this past contract.
Doesn’t sound so bad, so what are the downsides?
Whenever someone asks me about my life on cruise ships, they’re very curious and interested, but almost always respond by saying, “I could never/would never do that.” I don’t blame them. Most people couldn’t imagine leaving the comforts of home to live a life at sea, which while often includes the benefits I mentioned earlier, also includes some not so great things, such as living in a tiny windowless cabin and having to not only work but live, eat, and party with your coworkers and bosses day in and day out. Being away from family and loved ones for months at a time, following ship rules and its hierarchies, having terribly slow and expensive internet, and what can seem like endless boat drills, cabin inspections, and trainings are also some of the downsides. Also, if you’re not much of a partier and getting wasted every night is not your idea of a good time, you’ll find a lack of social outlets to join in on onboard as most crew activities are centered around drinking and partying. I have found that the people who love working on cruise ships the most also seem to love partying the most. It seems to go hand in hand. But possibly the worst thing about ships in my opinion? The food.
Food on Ships
People are often surprised when they learn the crew doesn’t eat what the guests eat. While on larger cruise lines like Carnival you may see members of the staff in the buffet lines, on smaller, more luxurious ships most crew and staff do not have privileges to eat in the guest areas. There’s a running joke onboard that the fish eat better than the crew, since once far enough out at sea, scraps are dumped into the ocean. All those leftover filet mignons and lobsters the guests didn’t consume? Shark food. In the meantime the crew is picking through some tasteless, unverifiable meat dish over rice. Rice, rice, and more rice – and I don’t even like rice! By the end of my contract I’m dreaming about the food I will get to eat once back home. I really think if nothing else, the bad food is what will keep me from going back to ships once and for all!
Relationships at Sea
Don’t we all know that person who swears they have a friend who has a friend who met their husband/wife on an online dating site but you’ve never had or personally known of any success stories? That’s how I feel about ship relationships. Whenever I bemoan how serious relationships are impossible to have onboard, I am told of so and so who met on ships and are now living happily ever after. And ok, while I do personally know of maybe one or two, ship relationships have always been an enigma to me. On the one hand, with the constant rotation of crew members it’s easy to meet someone, on the other, it’s quite impossible to make it last. Most likely you’re from two different continents, speak different languages, work in different departments, and your contracts end at separate times. He’ll go his way, you’ll go yours, perhaps after following each other around from ship to ship before it all becomes too exhausting or in your absence he’s moved on to Svetlana in housekeeping who he had a drunken makeout session with at the neon party in the crew bar. From the experiences I’ve had and heard, ship relationships don’t often turn out well, so it’s better to enjoy them while they last with no real concern for the future. “It’s just a ship thing,” we say when asked how our relationship with Boris from Bulgaria is going. But of course, there’s always exceptions to the rule.
Why do you tend to grow depressed there?
I would often begin a contract with the fierce determination that “this time” I would make the most of it, but once a month or two would go by, the determination would wane, the excitement wore off, the little things which were once easy to ignore now seemed insurmountable, and I would drag myself through the last couple of months vowing never to return. It’s the part of me who seeks stimulation and change, but finds herself in the same routine and conversations day after day, month after month. It’s the part of me who’d rather take long silent walks in the woods than get wasted at the next themed crew party. It’s the part of me who likes to experience ultimate freedom, and feels trapped when contained to the ship and its protocols. It’s the part of me who craves healthy and fresh food, and laments when the mess is serving another unpalatable meal. It’s the part of me who likes feeling connected, but due to limitations of the shipboard internet, often feels disconnected. It’s the part of me which craves deep, satisfying conversations and relationships but must tolerate the vapidity of crew life. It’s the part of me who loves hello’s and hates goodbyes, but with the constant rotation of crew members and guests, finds herself saying goodbye all too often. Those are the parts of me that grows depressed as the days go on.
So why do you keep going back?
With the many down-sides to ship life there must be some good in it to keep so many of us coming back, right? There is. There totally is. Ship life is unique. It’s practically impossible to find the same dynamics anywhere else. After awhile you feel like you’re a part of a secret alliance. Crew members start to feel like family. The ship begins to feel like home, with the entire world your backyard. And there’s also a bit of forgetfulness involved in returning as well, as once I’m off the ship and time passes I am often no longer able to keenly recall the many frustrations. Instead I think fondly of the good times; the friendships made, the exciting locales, the fun performances. As a performer there aren’t many other options that provide the same pay, built in audience, ease, and status that cruise ships do. For many others, especially from developing countries or those facing economic hardships, the money earned and the ability to save beats anything they could find at home. There are those who use ships as a form of escapism from growing up and taking on responsibilities. And those who enjoy the parties and rockstar status that keep them coming back for more. But possibly the greatest reason myself and many others return to ships is that ‘Plan B’ doesn’t transpire quickly enough. We all seem to have goals and dreams we want to accomplish on land, but when the money runs out or vacation days begin to dwindle and ‘Plan B’ still eludes us, it’s easy to find ourselves dragging our suitcases back up the gangway, once again repeating that this time will be our last. Finally, there are those of us who keep going back for no other reason but we like it!
Should I work on ships?
Even though I admit to having a love/hate relationship with ships, I wouldn’t discourage anyone from giving it a try for themselves. Each contract brings new places, faces, and lasting memories, and some people take to the cruising life as a fish takes to water. You won’t know unless you go. I’ve had great contracts and I’ve had terrible ones. Since the people you work the closest to can make or break your experience there, I always begin a contract full of prayers that I will meet wonderful people and have a wonderful time. When that doesn’t always turn out to be the case, I try to learn what I can from the difficulties. If you have an inkling to try it for yourself, I would say go for it! It’s only a few months of your life, after all. If you go into the contract determined to have a good time you most likely will, no matter what circumstances may arise.
Transitioning From Ship to Land
A fair warning, ships are like Neverland; the lifestyle is inciting but it just isn’t real. None of us truly want to become ‘lifers’ (the term given to those who seem to stay forever), but it can happen before you know it if you’re not careful, and then ship life becomes the only life you know. It’s hard to have one foot on land and another at sea – impossible really – so there comes a time when you have to choose. Many people, myself included, find transitioning from ship to land extremely difficult. It’s hard to match the unique “highs” that ship life provides anywhere else. But for me, the balance of what I enjoy onboard versus what I want to accomplish in life has changed drastically. I’m now ever more determined to find my ‘Plan B’ and stay off ships, but I can’t deny what they have provided me: money in my pocket, performance experiences under my belt, new friends in my life, the knowledge that the world is my oyster, and ultimately the inspiration for this nifty website. For all of that, I can look past some of the nuances and be forever thankful.