Secrets I Learned Working on a Cruise Ship for a Year
The summer I turned 23, I auditioned for and ultimately landed a gig as a cruise ship singer on board the Queen Mary 2. It wasn’t exactly my dream job at the time, but was a sort of rite of passage for recently graduated actors who hadn’t yet found their footing on Broadway or London’s West End. For entertainers eyeing the pecking order among ships and cruise lines, the Queen Mary 2 - Cunard Line was considered one of the most prestigious in the world. At least I had that to hang onto. I was initially contracted for a six-month voyage with additional on-land rehearsals, but this was extended several times. I ended up spending the better part of a year at sea.
When we arrived at the cruise terminal at Southampton, UK, I was overwhelmed at the vessel’s sheer mass. Looming 200 feet above the water, and four football fields long, the ship was a colossus. On board, I was one of about 1,200 employees and 2,600 passengers. In essence, I was entering a floating city, untethered to any land or culture, with its own rules and nowhere to escape once you left port.
It got weird, is what I’m saying. If you ever work on a boat, you’ll run across some of these truths. But I’ll spare you the months spent at sea and cut straight to the strangest stuff I saw onboard.
Cruise employees are all sleeping with each other
You’ve heard the rumors and, yes, it’s true: Everyone working on your cruise ship is sleeping with everyone else. And, often, a fling gets real. Love really can bloom in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Three of my colleagues in the entertainment department met spouses on the cruise where I worked. The staff hails from all over the world; one English colleague whose wedding I attended married a South African man. A German colleague married a woman from central Africa and set up in Hamburg. It beats Tinder, surely.
... But sleeping with guests is a fireable offense
One line that very few people crossed: sleeping with guests. It’s a fireable offense, one that few people I knew transgressed. Among female employees -- a much smaller population -- the number was practically zero, despite that we were constantly asked out on dates and approached by male guests. This may seem flattering, but it really just became tiresome. A word to gents looking to hook up with a cruise staffer: Don’t ask. If it’s really a dream of yours, apply for a job on a ship.
Guests get caught doing filthy things after hours
On board most ships is a spa area reserved for “sea days” -- the time spent traveling to the next port. During the day it’s filled with passengers, but after hours the singers were allowed to sneak in and relax-a-vous. One night a castmate and I were heading to the steam room when we heard some unusual noises reverberating off the tiled walls. When we pushed the door open we were met by a couple well old enough to be our grandparents, indulging in a little fellatio fun. Horrified, we scrambled. My poor friend lurched on the slick floor, grabbed for something to steady himself, and landed his hand on a set of false teeth that had been laid out on the bench.
Never did go back to that spa.
Employees aren’t allowed to party at port
As a singer, I had some of the same status as officers, meaning that I was allowed to dine pretty much wherever I pleased, even in the fancier guest restaurants and bars. I was also able to drink in the Ward Room, an officers bar where I downed enough $1 gin and tonics that I had to rechristen them “gin and regrets.”
But we were still at work, and overdoing it on the clock was still a fool’s move. A woman who worked on the ship’s perfume counter drank with us one afternoon on the island of Tortola, and promptly forgot she wasn’t on vacation. The higher-ups on a ship take this extremely seriously, often breathalyzing staff upon re-entry. Unsure of what to do, we helped her to the gang plank and then filed in one by one. When she didn’t appear behind us, we looked out of a porthole only to see her attempting to board the wrong ship. She was immediately fired, and had to pay for her flight home.
There’s a caste system among the workers
By the end of my first night at sea, I could feel the ship’s distinct and unsettling class system. Singers were near to the top of it, and soon I realized the cleaner who came to my cabin daily to change sheets and bring towels wasn’t considered my colleague, but my staff.
The pecking order among the onboard crew was most stark at meals. Below deck there were three dining tiers: the officers mess, the staff mess, and the crew mess. Your rank determined which mess you were allowed to dine in. The officers (heads of departments, people involved in steering the ship) ordered freshly made food from a menu. The staff (entertainers, people in the office) were offered steam table grub, which was fairly grim but passable.
The crew mess, however, was not for the faint. The lowly engine workers and cleaners, who mainly hailed from the Philippines and India, were given mountains of rice and cuts of meat and fish that included pork knuckles, chicken feet, and fish heads. Then, at Christmas, someone decked the fish heads in little Santa hats.
You get paid in cash -- and it adds up
When I worked in 2008 I was making about $4,000 a month -- a tidy haul, considering all my expenses were covered. Payment arrived as an envelope stuffed with $100 bills. I felt like a drug runner, dashing back to my cabin to secret my stash about the room: a grand in a shoe, another in my toiletry bag.
Depending on your country of origin, you may not have to pay tax on this income since you are earning your salary in international waters. After a while, the money piles up. A friend of mine who took on several cruise ship contracts bought a house. I, on the other hand, moved to New York.
You get really good at curing sea sickness
Sea sickness is a real thing. In my experience, the larger the ship, the less motion you feel. But on one occasion, as we sailed the Atlantic, a wave hit the side of the ship where my cabin was hard enough to throw me out of bed. On particularly turbulent days, you discover that people from different parts of the world bring their own cures. While most Westerners pop a pill and have a lie down, Chinese workers taught me to eat 10 kiwis (no more, no less). Filipino workers insisted that green apples were the cure. I favored popping the pill and then lying down and eating apples and kiwis.
Walking at sea is harder than you think
Finding your sea legs takes time. One afternoon a friend of mine, having been aboard a week, felt he had the balancing act down and sprang to help an elderly passenger in a wheelchair. The man -- a double-amputee war vet -- was enjoying his first cruise. As my friend pushed the chair, a wave hit the ship; off-balance, he dumped the veteran splat onto the deck in front of dozens of horrified passengers. The man was fine, but my friend never lived it down.
Everyone lives a parallel dating life
On a boat, you’re stuck with the same faces day in and day out. In the end, long nights at sea lead to some bad bunking decisions. After dating an officer for about three months and practically living in his cabin with him, I discovered he had a fiancee on land. Not only that, she was due to come onboard for a cruise, so I had to gather my belongings and slither back to my quarters. A more experienced friend told me that this sort of behavior wasn’t unusual. You had your relationship at sea and your relationship on land. The more I looked around at career cruisers, the more I noticed it was standard practice. Just a word to the wise if you ever shack up with a cruise employee.