It was the beginning of 2013 and I had just turned 26. I had arrived in London and stayed at one of the Holiday Inn hotels, one day prior to embarkation day. I remember feeling nervous and excited. I’d heard stories from my friends about ship life, but now it was my time to live them.
Next morning, after breakfast a shuttle was waiting outside the hotel to take us to Southampton – my homeport for the next six months. And there it was: this enormous 15-deck ship which accommodates 4370 passengers and is served by 1360 crew.
I was entering a whole new world that I knew nothing about. Terms like the gangway, OPP – Outbreak Prevention Plan, I-95 which is the main corridor, situated on deck 0, crossing the ship almost entirely and the main place from where crew members gain access to their cabins, the crew areas and the guest areas were just a few of the words that I was ‘expected’ to know from my first day. I was clueless. The crew areas all looked the same to me and it took me over a week to learn the way back to my cabin.
Soon enough I’d learned that safety comes first. I believe that is fair to say that the words boat drill give most crew members anxiety. As a new-hire, you go through weeks of safety and security training. You are trained to first be a sailor, and then whatever position you’ve been hired for. There are at least two drills a cruise. One on embarkation day where all crew and passengers need to be counted for at their assigned master stations and one boat drill, where crew members are assigned to different rescue boats which they need to operate down and up the ship. They usually start early in the morning and everyone hates them. You are also taught how to interact with guests to “Deliver the Wow”, and always and I really mean always, have a smile on your face.
Being part of the casino team onboard a ship is highly advantageous. Casinos are not allowed to be open whilst the ship is docked, therefore you get the chance to visit every place on the itinerary. You are also regarded as a staff member which allows you to use the staff facilities which can be considered higher standards and the guests’ areas if you wear a nametag and the appropriate attire.
Royal Caribbean has a zero-tolerance policy for fraternization with guests, violence, drugs use and any kind of sexual offence. Random drug tests are conducted periodically and there’s staff training of how to avoid putting yourself in a situation which could get you fired. Apparently, there are guests who come onboard with the intention to seduce crew members in pursuance of a lawsuit against the company. If you find yourself in any of the situations above or close enough, you are probably on a plane back home. A lot of people get fired for various reasons.
On the other hand, fraternizing with your fellow colleagues is quite encouraged and is very much happening. Exotic places, living in confined spaces for months and alcohol that costs next to nothing seem to be the perfect aphrodisiac for the members onboard.
But there’s more to ‘ship life’. It’s about all the people you meet. Before you know it, you’re living on a floating city with an average of 60 different nationalities eager to experience with you. It almost feels like London!
I learned many things about myself and the people around me when living at sea. Although some crew members choose to spend their free time amongst their ‘paisanos’- a term used to describe crew members from the same country -, there’s an impressive number of people from all type of different backgrounds, happy to learn from and about each other. The mix and crossing of cultures, customs, education, social background, all existing together harmoniously make the job worth it.
Travelling the seas and oceans, waking up in a new location every morning, making friends for life, taking part in social activities for crew members like pancake day, bingo nights, all-crew parties that usually have a theme where everyone makes an effort to fit the scene, the scrabble days, the numerous Independence Days in the celebration of the people working onboard, and the opportunity to witness some of the most memorable sunrises and sunsets I’d never imagined existed, were a few of the reasons that made up for sharing a small cabin, with a small bathroom and small wardrobes with another person.
My favourite place – Labadee, Haiti – a private island owned by Royal Caribbean that harbours one of the most turquoise waters and beautiful white sandy beaches I had ever come across in my travels. My favourite spot – a secluded beach twenty minutes away from the mainland, accessible by boat-taxi, exclusively to crew members. My own piece of paradise in a small gulf in the middle of the ocean, imposing itself through its lifelike green nature, surrounding the lively colours of the bay. Freshly fished lobster, a couple of Cuba Libres and the beats of some Caribbean music would create my perfect day.
My first contract took me to more than thirty different destinations, from the Mediterranean Sea, to the Nordic Fjords, to the Caribbean Sea. There’s sacrifices and there’s rewards. One year turned into two years – a time I will carry in my heart forever.