I’ll admit, I have a love/hate relationship with cruise ships.
On one hand, cruise ships provide me the ability to live the lifestyle I do by helping me save money, pay off debts, see the world, and do what I love to do: sing. While onboard I have a consistent well-paid gig, free food, healthcare and accommodations, endless travel opportunities, and instant new friendships and relationships.
But because working on a cruise ship is such a mixed bag, I’ve always hesitated to write a post about my experiences there. And because I work in what’s deemed as the easiest department of them all, entertainment, I felt I couldn’t give proper justice to the entirety of the cruise ship life experience.
Still, I continuously get asked questions about what it’s like to work on a cruise ship so I felt it was time to share my own personal experiences and let you into my world at sea; the good, the bad, and the…food.
How I first began 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 was the first to call with a job offer and I accepted. I said goodbye to my weekend acoustic duo singing gig and cleaning job and boarded a plane for the first time in my life to fly to Los Angeles, California.
Little did I know this 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, people and ideas.
The Carnival Paradise Production Cast, 2005
I’m the brunette in the long skirt on the left.
Who works on cruise ships?
People from all over the world! There are over fifty nationalities represented. They work in housekeeping, wait staff, engineers, deckhands, entertainment, tour management, guest relations, gift shop, spa, and the list goes on. While there are a lot of young people living the cruise ship lifestyle mostly for the experience and adventure of it, there are many who take it more seriously and turn it into a life-long career.
Christmas season on the Seabourn Sojourn, 2015
What I Did Onboard:
My first contract with Carnival was as a Production Singer in two big stage shows before I transitioned to performing as a party band vocalist. Then I was hired to perform as a band vocalist on The Yachts of Seabourn, an ultra luxury cruise liner that maintains stricter rules and higher expectations. My duties were to sing multiple styles of music in multiple venues around the ship, socialize often with the guests, assist and help guide tours off the ship, and participate in safety drills, meetings, and trainings. During my free time I’m either off the ship exploring, working out in the gym, watching movies or reading in my cabin, catching some sun out on the crew deck, or hanging out below deck with coworkers and friends.
Performing out on deck with the Seabourn Sojourn Band 2015
Doesn’t sound so bad, so what are the downsides?
Most people couldn’t imagine leaving the comforts of home to live a rather crazy and all-consuming life at sea. Some of the downsides are: living in a tiny windowless cabin and not only working but living alongside your coworkers and bosses day in and day out, being away from family and loved ones for months at a time, dealing with a multitude of rules and ship hierarchies, having to be “on” all the time to assure guests are having a great time, endless boat drills, cabin inspections, and trainings, having terribly slow and expensive internet, the drama!
But possibly the worst thing about ships in my opinion? The food!
Food on Ships:
The Seabourn Sojourn Crew Mess, Yum!
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 some members of the staff in the buffet lines with guests, on smaller, more luxurious ships most crew and staff do not have privileges to eat in the guest areas. Instead the crew is below deck eating cafeteria style, most likely picking through some tasteless, unverifiable meat dish over rice. SO much rice – and I don’t even like rice! I really think if nothing else, the bad food is what will keep me from going back to ships once and for all! The first few weeks you might be thinking it’s not so bad, but wait until month 3, 4, 5 etc. rolls around and you’re likely be looking at the poor cooks with murderous intentions!
Relationships at Sea:
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 make-out session with at the neon party in the crew bar one night – (remember I mentioned drama?) 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. Of course, there’s always exceptions to the rule, maybe you’ll be one. I, on the other hand, often finish my contract licking my wounds, swearing off any other future ship romances.
Off for the afternoon and relaxing on the beach, Seabourn Quest, 2012
I tend to grow depressed:
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 and fleeting friendships and romances, 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.
Why do I keep going back?
I’m only half joking when I say it could be a form of Stockholm Syndrome. But 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 ocean and world your backyard. And once a contract ends and enough 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. And then there are those of us who keep going back for no other reason but because we like it!
Ship friends, Seabourn Sojourn, 2015
Should you 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 hope 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, new performance experiences under my belt, new friends and relationships 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.
View from Sea, Seabourn Quest 2012