Coincidentally though, CBS aired last Sunday an episode of Undercover Boss that featured CEO Kevin Sheehan from NCL. So I couldn't have asked for better timing! :)
First I'm going to tell you a bit about what I did on board, and what ship life was like to me. Then I'll point out my opinion on what is wrong with the episode and how it depicts "crew life" as well as explain some of good points that were shown.
What did I do?
I worked for a company called MTN SeaMobile (seamobile.com/) and my job was as an Internet Cafe Manager (ICM) which is a shipboard position. The company contracts the ICM's out to several of the top cruise lines (NCL, Carnival, Holland America, etc) to run, manage and maintain the Internet Cafes as well as provide customer service and minor technical support to the guests. Luckily for me all other major IT/Satellite maintenance was done by shipboard technicians so my main goal was generating revenue and being the customer service rep and helper. Each ship has one and only one ICM and we're not part of the actual cruise line so there's no one to help out or back up when things go wrong or a guest is frustrated with the Internet Service. I was the the go-to girl which was great some days and highly stressful other. FYI Shipboard Internet Cafes have SLOW internet access due to being on the open sea and having only a Satellite connection. Imagine something just barely 2x the speed of dial up and you'll understand what I'm talking about.
What was daily work life like?
It could really vary depending on if we were in port or out at sea, if I had revenue meetings, safety training to attend or functions to attend. Since I was the only person who ran the cafe I was required to work in split shifts as well has attend any Department Head meetings and a few guest functions to do promoting and mingling. Split shifts were a perk for me most of the time, but at the same time it really limited what I could do during my time off. Days in port were usually 8-10am, 4-6pm & 7-10pm and so all day excursions were very rare. Sea days were minimum 9-12, 2-4pm & 6-10pm but often more considering I also usually had functions to attend. As an ICM there's no one there to cover you if you get sick, so you have to be pretty sick to warrant a doctors excused absence. You also work 7 days a week. My contracts averaged 6 months each. I'm sure you can imagine 7 days a week for 6 months can be draining to anyone.
What is Crew life like?
I could write paragraphs about this, but let's say crew life is like living on a planet where the days go 10x as fast as an Earth day. For instance, imagine you make some friends at school. It would normally take you a few weeks to get to know new people, given you hang out with the new friends a few times a week. Ship life there's nothing else to do in your spare time - especially when you're out at sea - so you hang out in the bar, in cabins at crew parties, you work with these people day in and out. You get to know people in a matter of days, not weeks. You get crushes and fall in love in a matter of weeks instead of months. As a ship employee you are contracted to a ship anywhere from 5-10 months at a time. You spend 24/7 with these people. They become the best friends you've ever had because you go through love, losses, family trauma, holidays and everything you could possibly imagine with these people. You have a unique shared experience with these people that is hard to explain to anyone else who has never done anything like it before.
What are some of the perks?
- See the above paragraph for some of the best perks. I made some of the best friends I will ever have on board ships. But at the same time, that's a double edged sword that I will explain in a moment.
- Ship lingo was a LOT of fun. Everything from official ship lingo like Port, Starboard, Front & Aft. To the silly nicknames we gave each other based on departments: shoppies, togs/photogs, CAC (crew activities coordinator), shorex, bar wench, etc and let's not forget the guests! Guests are very often referred to as PAX (passengers) by the crew. Though you might sometimes hear them called Cones. Why? Because it never fails you'd be walking behind one and they will suddenly stop and stand right in the middle of the walkway and block the flow of traffic like a road cone.
- Stupid Guest Questions. Speaking of cones, crew members revel in the stupid pax questions and comments. Some day I will do a full post of the funniest and most common dumb questions. #1 though among most crew members was, "What time is the midnight buffet?" --- Really?? Did you just ask me that? Really?? LOL!
- Crew Parties & Cheap Alcohol. This one is very ship/cruise line specific, but crew parties and cabin parties could be a blast! The Crew bar had most drinks at around $1 - $2 each. Cabin parties were infinitely more fun than larger organized crew parties, but on some cruise lines the crew are not allowed to store liquor in their cabins or are restricted in the amount of drinks you can have in an hour. It's understandable given that we're trained for ship safety. In an emergency there is no on/off duty so you had to be responsible - most of the time. ;)
- Free food & housekeeping. Granted the crew mess had meat that often tasted like rubber, but it was free. We also had more rice than we could ever eat in a lifetime and an endless supply of ice cream! Most ships have a housekeeping staff just for crew alone and I can not tell you how much I miss having my bed made for me every day and my toilet cleaned every week. I had such an awesome cabin steward on my first ship that I tipped him an extra $100 every month just because I didn't have to do anything but my laundry.
- International crew. Seriously, this is one of best things I got out of working on ships. I have friends from Romania, South Africa, Australia, England, Mexico, Peru, India, etc etc. I'm not saying there weren't some culture clashes - believe me there were - but again we all had this shared experience and it's either learn to get along or be miserable, so with the help of copious amounts of alcohol and several dance parties we usually got along fabulously - usually.
- Unique Experiences. I wish truly that I could give everyone the wondrous experience of watching a meteor shower sprawled out on the crew deck with your best friends from the middle of the ocean or staying up all night to watch the sun rise as we pull into port. The life changing experience of letting yourself fall in love with someone you're most likely never going to see again in your life. The humbling experience of putting your ship safety training to use when a fire breaks out on board or massive waves slam up against the side of the ship. Learning to curse in no less than 5 languages. I could go on for days, but you get what I mean.
What are the downfalls?
Just so I don't seem like I'm romanticizing the perks I'll put out there some major downfalls of working on a ship.
- Pay. The pay is not great. Most ships are internationally flagged so they can hire international crew. As a department head earned aproximately $10 a hour depending on hours worked. (I was payed a flat weekly salary + comission if I hit budget.) Many jobs can be very reliant on tips or commission in revenue departments. I don't know the pay scale for non-revenue departments (like cruise staff or guest service) is like, but they had to work a TON of hours and always put be the first contact for dealing with guests. Cooks/Chefs were paid ok, but not great and the work at times was tedious - nothing like peeling vegetables for 8 hours a day.
- Promotions are hard and/or nearly impossible to get. I personally couldn't be promoted within the cruise line because I was contracted to the ship from another company. There are anywhere from 1000 - 3000 crew on most major cruise liners. There are approximately 15 - 20 department heads and maybe 30 - 50 supervisor positions, do the math and you will see that available promotions are very difficult unless you stay with the company for YEARS spending months and months at sea at a time.
- Ship Placement as a crew member you generally do not get to pick which ship in the fleet you work on. They assign you a ship and you work the contract. They need to transfer you, you go. Meet the love of your life on one ship? The likelihood of them being assigned to the same ship as you is very rare and if you're a married couple it's not impossible, but still difficult to be assigned to the same ship.
- Cabin Inspections sometimes you feel like you're twelve again with all the rules and restrictions on board a ship. It's all for safety, mind you, but it doesn't make being woken up from your afternoon nap or having your morning shower interrupted any less annoying.
- Cabin Size & Bathrooms I was very very lucky. I was the manager of a department with "officer" status. My first ship I shared a bunk with a gal from guest service and my second/third contracts I got my own cabin to myself. However, I had many friends with their cramped quarters. Often 4 people to a tiny room small enough that you could stretch your arms out and nearly touch both walls. The bathrooms were ridiculously small for all crew. I wish I had a photos of one, but really just imagine the smallest shower you can think of and then cut it in half. You literally couldn't turn around without your arms pushing the shower curtain open. If you had any sense of modesty when you first join the ship it would be gone within a matter of days.
- All Crew Immigration This was just horribly inefficient. Most crew were required to wake up as early as 5am to wait in line for over an hour just so they can check your passport and put a stamp on a piece of paper. Luckily it only happened once every few months, but it was done so poorly that it did nothing but piss the crew off.
- Friends from everywhere I know I mentioned this as a perk earlier, but the downside is that it's very likely you will never see all the friends you made again. You can go visit of course. But who to visit first? When will their contract be up next and will it match up with yours? You might see one or two on another ship if you're lucky. You might share a port with a ship where a friend works. Your contracts may overlap at some point in the future, but again there's no telling. Yes, you make more friends during new contracts, but it doesn't make it any easier to leave them when your contract is up. Yes there's email and facebook and honestly FB is my biggest means to keep in touch with many of my ship friends, but I still miss them. Miss going out to the beach in the middle of the afternoon. Miss vegging out with movie marathons. Just miss their company and constant presence in my life. I don't think I have to explain that emails/phone calls just aren't the same as being their in person.
- Detachment from everything. This is a perk and a downfall at the same time. You rarely get anything other than pre-recorded tv shows and/or dvds. Luckily crew tv had a few extra channels that played the movie of the day or show of the week. Traveling in/around foreign ports you don't pick up as much on pop culture. No current radio or music. Most crew would rather spend their short shore time going to the beach rather than going to the movies or watching tv, that's what sea day cabin parties are good for. ;) Current news events are rare. Sometimes we'd get satellite tv feeds streamed in, but it wasn't always in English. Sometimes coming home for vacation felt like returning from another planet.
- Missing out on the big stuff. This is warning number one when you sign a contract. You know it going in, but it doesn't make it any easier. You will miss weddings and births, holidays, birthdays and reunions. However the single hardest of any ordeals is a death in the family. My grandfather died when I was on my last ship. I was granted leave for a week to go to the funeral, but not being there before it happened really killed me. A few months later my great grandmother passed away. It was a really tough year for me. That said, my "ship family" at the time were incredibly amazing. The amount of comfort I received from them was indescribable. It taught me that a hug can be the thing that keeps someone from just losing it. That just being there, a warm body, for someone can mean worlds more than any words of comfort could ever accomplish.
- Burn Out No matter how much you love your job. (And I really loved mine!) 7 days a week, 6 months at a time is a tough. Even in paradise. Guests get on your nerves asking the same 10 questions week after week after week. Complaint after complaint. Doing the same exact thing every single week can get boring and patience can grow thin when you're exhausted and ready to just go home.
Here are just a final few notes on the episode of Undercover Boss.
- As seen in the clip above a crew a member recognizes Kevin. I thought this might happen. On NCL Photos of higher ups are posted outside the crew orientation area. Granted most crew don't pay attention to them, however the Hotel Director, Safety Manager and Cruise Director should have their faces memorized. Many of the department heads are informed months in advance when someone of importance and/or a large group is going to be on board. A tv crew following around "two contenders" for an open position with NCL would definitely fall into that and we would be instructed to make them feel as comfortable as possible. Most likely their photos were taken at check-in and sent to department heads. This is common practice for special guests on board. I have no doubts at least the Hotel Director and Cruise Director knew what was going on at some point during the filming.
- The "employee comparable cabin" the CEO stayed in was a typical PAX cabin, but absolutely nothing like living in crew quarters. The bathroom in a Pax cabin is spacious compared to crew cabins.
- The CEO also ate in the main PAX buffet which some staff get to do when it's not busy, but most crew eat in the crew mess. He definitely should have made at least one trip down there. Better yet, eat there all week and see that the meals hardly vary from lunch to dinner and on top of it there's a strict meal schedule. So every Tuesday you knew you were going to have either a turkey burger or grilled cheese for lunch. It was completely uninspired.
- He also should have visited the crew bar and crew rec areas. Again, uninspired. Hopefully the money donated will help. Crew tours were great when we got them, but it really depended who was the CAC at the time. Most crew usually don't have enough time off during the day to do a full PAX shor excursion so crew tours should really happen more often.
- He also got no experience of what it was like to go through orientation, Drug/Alcohol lecture, Safe Sex lecture, safety training, safety drills, fire fighting training, life raft training, Sea bird training, ADA training... and more. All in your first hectic and crazy week as crew on board in addition to pulling 6-10 hours of work a day.
- It's really hard to get a good idea of what a job is like by only spending a few hours doing what they do. I applaud the efforts, but what cruise companies really need to do is give their crews a valid voice. We are there day in day out. We SEE first hand what works and what doesn't. Let us give you ideas, pitch suggestions and improvements. The "ice rink" could have been easily avoided if they'd just asked the crew. The waivers should be signed before they even sail. Leaving it in the cabin as the girl suggest actually wouldn't work either. You should see the BOOK of fliers left in each pax cabin on embarkation day. They most likely wouldn't see it or read it and in the rare occasion they do they wouldn't remember to bring it with them to the rock wall.
- I like that he got a taste for how hectic and crazy serving was, I actually hope that bit was eye opening to guests more than anything there. The complaints about how long dinner took were some of the top complaints from guests who are used to a "fast food nation" of meals instead of 5 star dining.
- John, the guy who trains Kevin in the deck department had already resigned his position prior to Kevin coming onboard. They brought him back specifically for the show.
- Michael, the guy who trained him for the Cruise Staff dance party had already been Assistant Cruise Director for a long time which makes sense, because it would be the ACD who would help train new cruise staff.