I’d never been on a cruise ship before I went to work on one. In fact, before that first cruise, the largest ship I’d ever stepped foot on was the Staten Island ferry.
And yet, two days after I’d graduated from college and just three hours after I’d boarded a 2,000-passenger ship in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, I was standing on a stage with a microphone in hand and a sea of passengers at my feet while introducing myself as crew.
Despite what it may have said on my ship ID or the youth staff title on my name tag, I was as clueless about cruise protocol as the passengers (oftentimes even more so). It would take days for me to learn where the lifeboats were kept, for example, and months to be able to discern between the various emergency alarms.
Even to this day, I couldn’t tell you with certainty which side of the ship is port and which is starboard.
But over the course of the next two years, as I sailed through the Caribbean, Mexico, Canada and Alaska, I slowly gained my sea legs and with them, the knowledge I’d need to successfully navigate through the often stormy and stressful life of a cruise ship crew member.
Here are the top 4 lessons I learned while working on a cruise ship:
1) Take the Plunge . . . It’s Worth the Risk
That first day on board, while helping passengers put on life jackets that I hadn’t yet learned how to put on myself, I was bombarded with questions. “Where’s the Lido?” the passengers asked as I struggled to tie their vests or “Can we take a tour of the bridge?”
I stared, mystified. What’s a lido? I remember wondering. And a bridge to where?
I worked as a youth staff crew member on and off for two years, caring for children ages 3 through 17. There I am comforting a crying child. Photo by Jennifer Jones.
As overwhelmed as I felt though, I wasn’t alone. With no time for training, new crew members had to learn on the job, which felt a lot like being taught how to fire a machine gun while in the midst of a war zone.
Those that couldn’t hack it were fired, shoved off the ship in the next port and expected to find their own way home or else given the dreaded “no rehire status” stamp in their end-of-contract review.
Though I cried more than once that first month, the pressure forced me to rely on inner strength that until that point, I didn’t know I’d had.
At the start of every cruise, before the ship was allowed to leave the dock, the crew had to lead the passengers in an emergency boat drill, like the one pictured above. Photo by Scott Ableman.
2) Go with the Flow
I quickly learned that the only thing certain about ship life was that nothing was certain.
During my contract in Mexico, for instance, I received orders to disembark in San Diego less than an hour before the ship was due to depart. The cruise had been accidentally overbooked, and thus, the hotel manager’s two children had been given my cabin. My roommate and I had been given the boot.
We had just 20 minutes to shovel four months’ worth of belongings into a suitcase or risk delaying sail away. I learned that day that if I wanted to survive life at sea with my insanity intact, I would need to be flexible.
3) Learning the Ropes Takes Time
During my first week on the ship, the crew took advantage of my nautical naiveté by informing me that I would have to do a nightly fog watch, (i.e., stand on the bow of the ship and “watch” for islands or icebergs). That turned out to be a lie as did other tall tales involving buried treasure, pirates and, my personal favorite, a ship bell.
“All new crew members have to ring the bell in the in crew bar,” I was told by one of the officers. “It’s for luck.” As soon as I’d rung it though, I was greeted with cheers and shouts of “Thanks for the free drinks!” I’d just bought another one of their lies . . . and everyone in the bar a beer.
As embarrassing as that experience was, though, it taught me not to take myself—or the job—so seriously. It was true that I had no idea what I was doing, but what was equally true was that I wasn’t supposed to know what I was doing.
I was the new kid on the boat, and learning the ropes (both literally and figuratively) would take time.
The Officers Bar (OB for short) was where all the crew hung out after work. Beer and cocktails cost just one dollar.
4) Gossip Can Take the Wind Out of Your Sails, If You Let It
In many respects, living on a cruise ship was a lot like living in a crowded boys’ boarding school. Of the 800 crew members, about 600 of them were male, and the cabins (which could house up to four people) were smaller than the average American sofa.
You couldn’t swing a dead catfish without hitting another crew member, a fact that made privacy virtually nonexistent.
Because of the close quarters, gossip often swept through the ship faster than a tidal wave. It was a struggle not to get swept along with it.
Cut off from the world as we were (cable TV wasn’t available and Internet access was expensive), gossiping about which spa girl the captain had been seen flirting with or how many tequila shots the cruise director had drunk at breakfast that morning was the only source of entertainment we had. I had to learn to rise above the gossip.
A photo of my friend Kim’s cabin. Photo taken by Kimberly Fell.
Each cabin included its own bathroom and shower. Photo courtesy of Davey83.
In the years that followed, the skills I’d gained in those months at sea would become invaluable as I sailed into a career as a teacher and, later, as a writer.
Though working on a cruise ship wasn’t always smooth sailing, I learned that the best lessons in life rarely are.
Have you worked on a cruise ship? What did you learn? Let me know in the comments below.
First and fourth images, author’s own.