The Highs and Lows of Ship Life

Is a job on a cruise ship really all that?
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Created by Luanne

Published on Jun 20, 2022
A cruise ship docked at a beach

Before I take you on this journey, please keep in mind, I can only draw on my own experiences. The rules may not apply to all ships. Is it so glamorous? Well, that’s for you to decide. But to me, yes, it’s worth it but it's not for everyone. Here’s why…

The prep work

Setting the backdrop, I am a small-town girl from South Africa. I had only left home with the family for vacations, but nothing further than that. Was I sheltered? I didn’t think I was at the time. Now I realise how sheltered I was. First, I had to work hard to get on a ship. People told me to keep applying until I got the job. It took a while. Then it cost me quite a bit to get the medicals, visas, etc. How complicated that process is also depends on where you live. For example, it makes a difference if you have an embassy in your city and if you can get the medicals done locally.

Leaving home felt great, then heart-wrenching, then scary, then free. It was a process, and I must admit, it was so worth it. Many have asked me how to get a job on a ship, and I always start by asking, “are you are running away from something?”, (normally, you are running away from pain or hurt). If so, a ship is the last place you want to be. There is nowhere to run on a ship. You are often left with your own thoughts when you are not working and exhausted, and this can be extremely taxing on you.

Onboard and working hard

When you work on a ship, it is nonstop hard work, with no days off. One would say that’s easy when you’re doing something so exciting, but you don’t realise how precious your weekends are to you till they are taken away.  You do not get days off, at least not an entire day.  Every “trip” you get a “day off”.  What this means is you get a shift off. You have a morning shift, late afternoon shift and evening shift. (Again, this depends on your position on the ship) The “day off” is your afternoon shift off. A “trip” is from when you pick up new passengers to the day you drop off the same passengers at the same harbour. So, you get one afternoon off in the span of 3 to 14 days, depending on how long the trip is.

I was extremely humbled when I first boarded the ship. I was missing my family and feeling utterly alone. I started to reach out and try to make friends. Being assigned to a restaurant to work, I got to know my fellow crew members, many of whom were from a different country than me. I found that some were very open and friendly, while others were very closed off. I found it very amusing how straightforward some of the men were—being offered sex as if it were a friendly gesture—shattering my sheltered little bubble. Although, it provided a good giggle during a stressful time.

In the evening, you can go to the crew bar and have a few drinks. However, it will be late already, and if you value sleep, it needs to be a quick social drink and then off to bed for 5 hours of sleep. The good food, which is the food the guests didn’t finish, gets served in the crew mess before midnight. So, it might be a late meal, but you will get the best food imaginable (including steak a lot of the time). There is a variety of catering, from spicy Indian food to a good stew or a plain salad. There is no going hungry; the challenge is more when you will fit in supper than anything else.

Your new home is a small cabin which you share with someone you have never met. I roomed with a Russian lady who enjoyed dancing naked to loud Russian music. This encouraged me to go off the ship a few times to explore the harbour until I got used to her odd ways. The bathroom is between your cabin and the cabin next to you. If your side is locked, it means the other side cabin crew are using the bathroom.  Sometimes they forget to unlock it when they finish, and you have to break in using a coin to twist the lock open. You need to respect that everyone has cultural differences and habits. Once I accidentally put on my cabin mate's work shirt, and she insisted I keep it and buy her a new one. She was not so gentle about it either, but we got over it.

When you think of joining a ship, you think of travelling the world. This is true, except you only get to see the harbours of the destinations on the program, so it’s a little deceiving. Making calls from the ship is expensive, so most crew members get off the ship with the mission to find free Wi-Fi to talk to family and stay in touch.

If you have the energy, you can volunteer to be a tour guide. Although you will still be working, keeping the crowd together, you will get to see more of the city you docked at. However, that is not always possible because you might be working already during the time of the tour. Alternatively, you might have to use your precious afternoon off to go on a tour. But it is a great way to explore and worth sacrificing your time off.

Settled in and getting your sea legs

 On the odd occasion that the ship docks for the night (you mostly travel overnight), you can go off the ship and explore the nightlife (if you have the energy, of course). However, you need to keep in mind, you have an early shift, and there are no excuses for missing a shift unless the doctor says so.

Speaking of, getting sick on a ship is such an amusing and odd experience. Any illness is treated very seriously, and you get quarantined very quickly. (Enjoy your day or two off, even if you’re sick). The bedding and curtains around your bunk are taken off and washed (the curtains are your only privacy from your cabin mate). You will eat the blandest food available, and the crew in these space-looking suits will deliver this to you. It will make you feel like an alien, but will give you something to laugh at.

You will quickly get your sea legs, and balancing will become second nature. You will get used to the rumbling of the engine and the rattle of the windows on rough sea nights in the restaurants. You might have moments when the seas are rough for 3 straight days. It's those moments when you realise you are in a tiny tin box in a huge body of water that is unforgiving. The moment will pass, and it helps that you are too busy to focus on that.

Relationships, however temporary, do of course, happen on a ship. Unfortunately, you will likely find out soon enough that they are married or in another relationship back home. The saying is that what happens on a ship, stays on the ship. However, if it’s a serious relationship, you can request to share a cabin.

You might find yourself drawn to whatever foreign accent you enjoy the most. You might want to learn their language. This will die down the longer you stay on the ship. The novelty wears off when you can’t pronounce words, or you get told to say something embarrassing to another of the same language. This happened to me a few times.

Oh, the many boat drills, you’ll have to go through. While all very useful and important, (both legally and health and safety-wise), they take up the time you need to do your washing or to catch up on much-needed sleep. God forbid you forget your hat on a boat drill - you will be sent back to your cabin to fetch it. Everyone must know where their muster station is and what their role is. You will do this for every trip, and no one gets off during this exercise.

Are you in a city you have not been to yet? Tough luck, you will have to see it next time because the drills take time and must be executed correctly, or you wait. Missing a crew member? He must be found before the end of the boat drill.

When you hear the drill announcement on the intercom, you must get to your cabin to grab your life-saving jacket and hat. Then you head off to the muster station. Then it's roll call. And finally, watching the guests leave while you wish you were one of them.

The ship may also hold functions for the crew every so often, which is always great fun. Be it a South African braai, a fondue evening, or perhaps an Italian or Mexican night. It is forbidden to interact too closely with guests. Hence this is the only opportunity you might have to live it up a little on the ship with your other people.Some nights, you will get a few tipsy crew members singing “careless whispers” by Wham in the passages. Sending you off to sleep with their serenade.

You will have the guests fascinated with your accent and ask about the place you live. I, unfortunately, lived in East London in South Africa. Telling that to someone on the ship meant having to explain that East London was not East of London, but rather, a city in South Africa. So, I would say I’m from Port Elizabeth, which is not far from East London anyway. Coming from South Africa, guests would ask if I had wildlife in my backyard, which was very hard not to laugh at. Quite comical to think of passing a herd of elephants while leaving my home.

It is great fun to work on a ship if you're built for it. It’s a very military-like lifestyle, you need to have a strong personality and be physically fit. There are days when you will think, “Wow! I have the best job in the world!”. Then there are days when exhaustion takes over. all you can think of is sleep; you miss having weekends and seeing familiar faces of your friends and family.

If you can accept long stretches of rough seas and enjoy your own company in the cabin of whomever you might end up with, you can make a good career for yourself. You will see some beautiful places that most people never get to see. You will encounter and form friendships of every nationality. And there is something very magical about being out at sea. You almost form a relationship with the ocean and its wonders. In closing, I honestly can say the time spent working on a ship were the best days of my life, but it was hard. Anything of great value has high risks, so I took the risk, and I don’t regret a single day. Now I get to enjoy being a guest/passenger and not a crew member anymore. But I have the best memories, enough to last a lifetime.

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