- During the six years that I worked on cruises, a number of things surprised me about life at sea.
- The crew had its own bars, its own social events, and in some cases, even its own cabin stewards.
- My coworkers had their own onboard currency and side hustles, like cutting each others’ hair.
For years, I dreamed about what it would be like to work on a cruise ship.
I’d been on cruises, done some preliminary research into the behind-the-scenes experience, and surveyed every person I met who’d worked on a ship.
But when I finally landed an onboard job, there were still quite a few things that caught me by surprise.
I didn’t think there would be so many medical emergencies and evacuations
Bad things can happen to you anywhere. After all, no one is immune from heart attacks, injuries, and other medical emergencies, even when they’re on vacation.
I was aware that cruise ships have onboard doctors and medical staff, but I didn’t realize how highly trained they have to be and how advanced the ships’ medical centers are.
I expected each ship to have nothing more than a sick bay, but I was wrong. The ships I worked on had consultation rooms and other facilities too. I also underestimated how much use these medical centers get.
Injured or sick guests in need of serious, land-based medical care frequently had to disembark from the ships I worked on. The cruise would drop them off in port whenever possible, and when that wasn’t an option, an airlift would retrieve them from the boat.
The ships left guests behind in port more often than I expected
When the cruises I worked on stopped in port, the guests swiped a key card whenever they exited and entered the ship.
I worked in guest services, which was the team responsible for informing the port agent when we needed to set sail in order to arrive at the next port in time, so the key-card system made it possible for us to know if someone hadn’t returned at the end of the day.
If a bus returned the guests late from a shore excursion that was organized by the cruise line, the ship had to wait for them. However, if guests got off on their own and forgot the ship’s departure time, we would sometimes leave without them, which happened more often than I thought it would.
The crew members had to know a lot of safety information
The amount of safety information I was required to know in order to work on cruise ships was quite something.
I learned how to flip a lifeboat from underneath it and memorized which fire extinguisher to use in specific parts of the ship, even ones I was never allowed to enter, like the main galley and the engine room.
We also carried out drills and practiced different safety duties more often than I thought we would.
In addition to the safety briefings we conducted for the guests, we also had weekly crew drills scheduled on port days when the majority of passengers were off the ship.
We responded to different scenarios each time. Occasionally, we carried out additional drills, such as filling and lowering lifeboats or evacuating passengers from the ship through a special emergency chute.
I had to stay onboard on some port days even when I wasn’t working
When a ship was docked in port, a minimum number of crew members were required to stay on the vessel to help evacuate the onboard guests in case something went wrong.
Though crew members were often allowed to leave the boat and explore the ports, it was subject to their work schedule and their “in-port manning schedule” to ensure that there were always enough trained staff members on hand.
My social calendar was packed when I worked on ships
Sometimes, we got to let our hair down. Most of the ships I worked on had bars for crew members, and they served drinks that were significantly cheaper than the beverages at the guests’ bars.
We also had our own crew parties where we could let off steam at the end of a long day.
About once a month, the crew-enrichment officer would work with the staff from one of the onboard departments to throw a big party for us. These were often themed and tended to be a highlight on my social calendar.
There were built-in divisions between the crew, staff, and officers
A ship’s crew usually included housekeeping stewards, waiters, cooks, and other employees who worked behind the scenes.
The staff included entertainers, youth counselors, gift-shop personnel, and spa attendants. They were more passenger-facing and usually had access to the guest area in their off time.
And the officers were high-ranking personnel who were either department heads or worked on the bridge, which is the control room used for steering the ship, or in the engine room. In addition to having access to the guest area, they tended to have more privileges than other employees.
I didn’t expect the entire crew to be on the same level, but I also didn’t expect the division to be so noticeable. In my experience, the separation carried over into social and romantic relationships on the ships where I worked and lived.
There were some exceptions, of course, but people mostly interacted with others who were similarly ranked.
Some workers got to eat food from the guest buffet
Crew members typically ate separately from guests, and our food was usually palatable but definitely not as exciting as what was being served in the main dining rooms. However, that wasn’t always the case.
Depending on which cruise line and ship we were on, some workers with guest-area privileges had the opportunity to eat from the cruise buffet on certain days that weren’t busy.
Certain cruise employees had their own cabin stewards
Staff and officers may have shared small cabins with another person, but in some cases, cabin stewards changed our bedding every few days and took our dirty uniforms to the laundry.
Sometimes, the stewards left behind an animal-shaped towel arrangement.
Some crew members had onboard side hustles
On one of the ships where I worked, some workers set up various haircutting stations in the crew area and offered barber services when they were off duty.
If someone was able to use their job or connections to pay you some sort of favor, like sneaking croissants out of the bakery, it became a currency between crew members.
It wasn’t uncommon for workers to choose naps over shore time
One of the most appealing parts about working on a cruise ship is the ability to travel the world and see different places.
We worked very long hours — sometimes seven days per week with no days off — so it makes sense that naps were a coveted luxury for some employees.
Personally, I chose to have incredible experiences in port over an afternoon nap, but other people had different preferences.
Crew members did a lot of online shopping
I did a lot of my shopping online when I worked on cruises. Sometimes the ports we visited didn’t have great shopping options, and other times certain items were just easier to buy online.
I’d either find Wi-Fi in port, or I’d use a discounted internet package that many cruise lines offer employees.
Sometimes after a long journey, we’d forget what we ordered, so opening our packages felt a little bit like Christmas morning.