A Farewell to Ship Life

Derek Personal Stuff, Work & Travel 136 Comments

My bedroom no longer sways in the night and I no longer work to the melodies of a three-piece Latvian orchestra in the background. Oddly enough, I now seem to wake up each morning in the same location where I fell asleep the night before. Nobody is cleaning my room every day, washing my windows (which have now transformed from round to square shaped), dictating what clothes I need to wear. If I am going to be late for something, I no longer have to make an announcement throughout the entire community where I live, informing thousands of people to expect some delays in my arrival.

‘Ship life’ is the term used by all the thousands of cruise ship crew members worldwide to describe the unique lifestyle that defines the entire essence of our existence. Whether working on board a 150,000 ton, 3000 passenger ocean liner or a 500 passenger ultra-luxury ship, ‘ship life’ involves the rules, both written and unwritten, the interactions of several hundred crew members representing over fifty nationalities, the late nights in the crew bar and the fish head soup (popular among the large Filipino segment of the workforce), the fake smiles and ‘good afternoon madams’, the cabin inspections, the obnoxious guests, the security screenings, the consistently failing relationships. Nepalese security guards, Ukrainian dancers, Filipino deck hands, South African hair stylists, Moldovan bartenders – everyone survives in an unfathomable underworld that rules every second of how we live and work.

‘Ship life’ is also what I have just left behind. Do I miss it? Of course I do. It is a sense of community that I do not think is possible to experience any where else on this planet. But, just like many of those who live in the real underworlds that exist on land, I had to leave it behind before ‘ship life’ became the ‘only life’ I would know.

I will admit that as a crew member I was spoiled. I would fall asleep in Barcelona and wake up in Athens, with the process simply repeating itself over and over again while the destinations constantly shifted from St. Lucia to Curacao to Hawaii to Quebec City to Rome to Dubai, Malta, Norway, Kuala Lumpur, Samoa and on and on.

My actual job was that of Tour Manager, responsible for the shore excursions we offered our guests in the various ports of call. I dealt with hundreds of local tour operators all over the world who treated me well, almost too well. After all, I ran the department that sold their tours and therefore controlled the flow of money that ended up in their pockets. Whenever I wanted (or perhaps a friend or someone I needed to impress wanted!) to swim with the dolphins in the Caribbean, ride a helicopter over the active volcano in Hawaii, visit the ruins of Petra or sail to a secluded Greek island, I simply asked and instantly received.

In addition, my team and I were treated to gourmet meals, beach parties, private tours and unlimited rental cars, surfboards, resort passes and more, the cost of which was always taken care of by these tour operators. Seldom was it even discussed, it simply was the norm. During the Christmas holiday season we were truly spoiled, much to the envy of the other crew members, as we would return to the ship in the afternoon carrying endless bottles of champagne and wine, gift certificates, even iPods and $300 Maui Jim sunglasses.

Some would say that my team of five staff and I had the best positions on the ship. I would not for an instant disagree.

Queen Mary 2 Ocean Liner

I did earn my salary, having to work extremely hard, seldom less than 10 hours a day and every now and then up to 16 hours, without a day off for the entire six month contract. The pressure bordered on extreme in regards to both exceeding revenue goals and ensuring the thousands of guests on tour remained happy. As a result, in between my paperwork, constant emailing and handling of guest issues, I usually only managed a couple of hours off in each port, a quick stroll or swim, a bike ride or some surfing, simple activities to maintain the last remnants of my sanity.

Crew members always joke to each other that the best times off the ship are simply when the ship itself is not in sight. A day spent on a beach with the ship still in view is pointless and better spent on ‘metal beach’, the crew sunbathing area on the topmost deck of the vessel. For those that can get far enough away in order to truly release the day’s frustrations, they undoubtedly enjoy an extremely valuable period of time. But once you re-enter the port gates at the end of your day, and you wipe the sand from between your toes, that first glimpse of the ship forces a dreaded yet necessary alteration in mindset. Back to the routine, back to the ‘ship life.’

As time passed on board and one six month contract became another six month contract and then another, it began to wear me down. My brain began to numb, I questioned my reasons for being on board more frequently, I dreamt of going to the movies, having a normal relationship or standing in a bathroom bigger than the toilet it holds. When a new contract commenced, I would be fueled by a fierce motivation to make it my most productive and rewarding contract ever. But once the first two months would pass, this fire always began to wane, as I realized once again that this contract would be just like all the others. I then suffered through the final two months, cursing and vowing that I will never return, counting the days until vacation time, that moment when I can finally send my uniforms back down to the linen keeper for storage.

I always ran down the gangway when vacation arrived, as we all do, away from the impossibly long days and the unhappy guests screaming and demanding refunds for boring tour guides or rainy weather. I yearned to put the lack of social life that often drove me to stare at the walls of my bland cabin in a state of comatose boredom, behind me. No more late arrivals to port, no more tasteless food, no more mandatory crew life boat drills that seemed to always take place on the mornings when I finally had time to go to the beach.

For the first two weeks of vacation I relaxed at home, adjusting to a new world where I had absolutely nothing to do at all. But then, after visiting family and friends, taking a short trip to Mexico or Europe, I suddenly always found myself less than a week away from my return date to the ship and without having found another job.

By this point, I am quite predictably no longer able to recall the frustrations, the boredom, the angry passengers or the life-draining intensity of my work on board. I can now only remember the good times, leading me to the inevitable process of convincing myself, ‘The days were not so long, I had plenty of free time. I can handle the screaming passengers, it was not so bad. What a wonderful social life! The wine & cheese nights, the crew parties, the movie nights, the open-deck crew barbecues. Besides, this contract I will go to the gym and go to the crew bar more often and finally write that book I always wanted to write. I will not be bored at all.’

One week later I am walking up the gangway again, under a stupor of self-deceit, shouting my ‘Namastes’ and ‘Ciaos’ and ‘Hola chicas’ to those crew I recognize.

Queen Mary 2 Ocean Liner

After this process repeated itself for four years, the notion of remaining stuck at sea forever started to weigh on me. The money was excellent, but I had already achieved my financial goals and now had the means to take off on any adventure I dreamed of. The balance of what I enjoyed on board versus what I wanted to accomplish in life had begun to change drastically. The time had come to quit while I was ahead and leave ‘ship life’.

Gathering up all of my courage, I recently resigned from my position, following that strong inner urge to head in a new direction.

In one phone call to the head office, I left behind the ‘coneheads’ (crew member slang for ‘passengers’ – referring to the movie ‘Coneheads’ where the aliens left their brains at home before going on vacation). I left behind the management meetings that discussed such pressing and stimulating topics as the need for special technicians to remove the semen and blood stains from the sheets and the severe shortage of lamb and salmon for the upcoming voyage. I left behind the constant intestinal illness notification emails from the medical department, informing me of which crew members had a case of uncontrollable diarrhea and were now confined to their cabins for twenty-four hours.

Now that six weeks has passed since my resignation, and I remain confident that this was a sound decision, I can admit that I do miss certain aspects. But ship life does not allow you to have one foot at sea and one foot on land; you must definitively choose one or the other. For years I was unable to decide and so ‘ship life’ chose for me, as it does for most of those working on board.

What I do miss has nothing to do with my position or the tour operators that gave me such a royal treatment wherever I went around the globe. Instead, I long for the underworld that ‘ship life’ represents. For months at a time, hard work and hard fun intermixed with allegiances and alliances, secret lives and special favors. As in many other spheres of life, a successful existence on board depends on ‘who you know’. Without favorable connections, little gets accomplished and few problems are resolved to your liking.

The on board crew mafias operate vital black markets that control a wide range of items, from printing services to dry cleaning to phone cards to alcohol to snorkeling expeditions and fresh fruit. Catamaran tours were traded for sushi platters, alcohol was sold at inflated rates by certain crew after the bars had closed, entrepreneurial chefs delivered filet mignon and twin lobsters to crew cabins for a small ‘fee’. Money was actually rarely used, with favors that enhanced one’s life on board usually acting as the preferred currency.

In such an environment, the appeal is great; everyone has a chance to be a superstar, to live the life of a gangster. I traveled the world, building bonds on many continents and within the vessel itself, both friendships and enemies alike. I had the power to make miracles happen (to send crew to the Sistine Chapel or the Pyramids) and likewise to destroy dreams (deny crew the opportunity to see the places we visited) within our confined and unique community. The potential rewards of such a lifestyle are immense – the money, the status, the fantasy. It starts out as honest work, but the essence of ‘ship life’ reverberates throughout your being, so effectively igniting that innate instinct to not only look after yourself and your interests but to improve the conditions of your life. Working on board a cruise ship you can choose to hide in the background or try your hand at ruling the world.

Now, when I try to fall asleep each night, the strong winds cause the willow trees outside my window to sway, leaving my room itself completely unaffected by its gusts. Although I no longer wish to float upon the seven seas, I still close my eyes in the hopes of fading into some sort of familiar dream, perhaps one in which the white sands stretch forever, the money flows and the world is my home.

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Comments 136

  1. D117

    Dude …. if you had a window in your cabin, you had more freedom than most of the crew. 🙂 But i’m not gonna push it with the window. 4 years on the ship, are still tough 4 years … unless you’re a captain or an officer.

    1. Wandering Earl

      Yeah, I definitely admit that it was a decent life as a Tour Manager. Still, ship life has aspects that are the same for most crew members, regardless of position. Like you said, it still is tough to be on ships for that long!

  2. Keith

    A great little excerpt on ship life. I’ve been considering the onboard Paramedic position. Would you have any insight to a Paramedics life aboard? Thank you.

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Keith – There are usually doctors and nurses on board the ships in terms of the medical department. There are a couple of cruise lines that might hire paramedics but I don’t think it’s too common unfortunately.

  3. Eddy

    Hi there
    You articulated our experiences and existence on the ship very well. Your narrative is absolutely a piece of work every seafarer should read and reflect on.

    1. Real Fagnan

      You’e welcome W. E. Sorry for unwittingly attributing your article to a firmer crew mate of mine who had merely shared it. I’m going to try and copy and paste some of this to post ion Facebook. Cheers!

  4. Real Fsgnan

    Hope, you have ( in addition to your obvious and considerable talents as Shore Ex Capo Tutti Capo hehe) a great and engaging writing style that captivated my attention throughout. You brilliantly illuminated the ‘shadowy underworld’ of ship life from a creemember’s pov- impossible to fully understand it unless you’ve LIVED it, as we have. While our worlds, workloads, privileges etc on board were vastly different ( except on RCCL where we, the showband had guest ent status) I understood every situation you described with a knowing inner nod. I very much would like to write a similar article ( or more ambitiously, a small book perhaps) from a Musician, ‘Guest’ Musician, and ‘contract Guest Ent’s point of view. ( Note the different gradations of ‘position’ I used, quite consciously , and with zero attachment to the cruise industry’s emphasis on ‘status’, ‘position’, ship privileges etc which is very class structured and largely, regrettable.) My last contract ( of a total of 17 or 18 ) overall) was with NCL over 3 years ago, and by that time , in my department anyway( Cruise Director ‘s or Entertainment Dept.) there were many changes , most of which did not benefit the musicians and entertainers on board. The money kept going lower and lower, we kept getting more and more sets, all over the ship, to near empty pool decks while IN PORT(ridiculous) and our dept head ( the Criise Director- probably the most visible position on the ship) had seemingly been reduced to a figurehead with everything in the Cruise dept having to go through and be ok’d by the Hotel Director, who in spite of being a 4 star officer, is usually entirely unsuited to make decisions regarding entertainment! Decisions emanating from Shoreside frequently did not reflect the realities onboard to say the least. For those reasons and personal ones involving relationships with my significant other, missing family, freedom,( shiplife at its worst is very regimented, repetitive, and can be suffocating in it’s denial of the little freedoms we all take for granted on land. When you’re on a 4-6 month contract- you essentially balance 2 separate and parallel existences- your ‘real’ shipboard life, and your ‘life back home’ which bizarrely, stubbornly continues but without your actual presence contributing ( or alternatively negatively influencing) – the stream of events. It’s the singular defining common experience that all creemembers regardless of position share. As much as I dearly miss the countless friends I’ve made( Hope among them) sailing the seven seas, not to mention the incredible experiences and adventures in amazing places all over the world, you can’t be torn forever. I can’t say I don’t miss the travel, the warm climates (!) – especially in the depths of another interminable freezing Edmonton winter; but a strong love life, nearness to family and great friends, a growing guitar teaching practice, and those little personal freedoms I was referring to earlier go a long way to balancing the scales in favour of my present path. Life is a great journey, and I’ve been fabulously blessed with opportunities like my ship career,and playing music with world-class entertainers in amazing situations for many years. The one word that keeps coming to mind when I look back on my pre-cruise, cruise, and post- cruise music career is simply- gratitude. I’d like to thank all the amazing people in my life ( the greatest family a person could wish for to start) my sweetheart Shila, love of my life, all the creemembers, officers as well as cabin stewards, other ship ‘muso-types, all the hard working shoppies, shore ex, ( helping me golf in Bermuda!!) galley, F&B, youth staff, deck hands,restaurant,spa,cruise staff and CD’s,production,cast,bandmaster/ music directors,casino, and all the depts I’ve missed- you ALL work very hard, and I appreciate and miss you! Signing off( a novel erupted out of a mini/ blog) And Hope, thanks for remembering me. fondly, Real Fagnan, former cruise musician and entertainer.

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Real – Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences here! It was an interesting mini-blog to read!

  5. Susan

    A very well written article that provides a real snapshot of what “ship life” is about. But I have to say, as a passenger/cruiser, it makes me sad. Now that I know how we are viewed by the staff and crew, I will never again sail with the same enthusiasm as I have done previously! Make no mistake, I will still enjoy my cruise, but I probably will never again feel the same toward my room steward, my dining room staff, the tour staff, the bar tenders, etc. etc. Now I am aware of the distain that many (most?) crew have for the passengers.
    That’s too bad.

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Susan – I think you read it the wrong way. Crew members are not automatically labeling passengers or thinking about them in some negative manner. Crew members are actually very open minded when it comes to the passengers and love more than anything to have genuine, positive interactions with them, something that does happen all the time. But for crew members, what remains in their memories at the end of a voyage is often the negative passengers that yelled at them, gave them a difficult time, really were just unpleasant to deal with and treated the crew members with little respect. Unfortunately, this does happen often too, and as you can imagine, it’s not enjoyable to deal with over and over again.

      But again, when crew members are treated with respect, their interactions with those passengers are real and as genuine as can be. Nobody is going to label you before you even interact with them. Like I said, every crew member would love to have a positive, genuine interaction with you and looks forward to that hopefully happening!

      1. Bonnie

        I so enjoyed every word and have had this site open for four days until I had a spare minute to read it thoroughly. As a cruise agent and having done about sixty cruises personally, you really answered some questions. In some cases I almost assumed answers.

        Like myself, when my clients are respectful of my knowledge and service, I respond to them far more generously. Some are yeller’s and screamer’s and at the end of the day would prefer them finding another booking agent. Life is so short to be demeaning and nasty when my primary goal is to help.

        Your experiences are priceless but I can certainly relate to the fact it’s not a day to day “real world” experience and would become old over the years. The best part is the experiences you gained and now can move on to the next phase of your life’s experiences.

    2. Mike

      Ai yai yai. Just because one person decides to write about disdain for rude and obnoxious “guests” on a cruise ship and having no recourse but to smile and take it, you’re going to destroy the pleasantness of your vacation? How does that make any sense?

  6. H.Mc Allister

    I worked for Princess for twelve years and thought it was a wonderful job.Mind you,It was hard work in boutique.We had long hours and stores were the worse.Lifing and lugging heavy tables with merchandise to sell to the pax.There are heart aches and crew member don’t all get along.But that was the life we chose,so one did the best we could.Plenty if countries to visit and remember the great people we worked with.Happy time on board…

  7. Sarah

    Hi…. love this post.i was a dancer on the ship and had a the best time. …but yes your right before you start again you forget all the “bad times” you had.
    currently jn the process of trying to find a job for my bf (who we met on the ship.)on land.
    Crew office assistant now im scared that each time he has a contract to fall back onto he won’t put his all in to it.
    Your paragraph that state this is totally true. 2 weeks at home then all of a sudden your back. And really he actually enjoys ship life. Dispite his argument that he hates his 14 hour days! We shall see i suppose
    it is a wonderful life and I feel privileged to have done it. But glad I don’t have a small cabin as a home any more. Which is what I want him to get
    thanks

  8. Kai

    Welcome to land life!
    Fellow ship staff here. Made the switch almost a decade or so myself. Glad I did my time, miss it at times, but I’ve no real desire to go back. You’ve captured the entire experience beautifully. Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

  9. John

    Earl Superrrr
    I worked on ships for almost 20 years it helped me secure a good future for me and my family I can relate to almost everything you mentioned in your post.
    True any one who works on ships its a privilege specially if you have a good position I was fortunate I had a good position so never paid for any shore excursion s or spa treatments including haircuts it was a give and take thing.
    Thanks for the post I have been home since 2011 and honestly for my time spent working on cruise ships I am 52 now and really don’t have to work for a living. Is that not worth it.
    Thanks again
    God Bless

  10. Dean baker

    Gave up my job as Slot manager 7 years ago still miss it. But didn’t want to be 55 and still on there well said sir well said.

    I still dream I’m on the I95 walking back to my cabin

  11. Giovana

    “I had to leave it behind before ‘ship life’ became the ‘only life’ I would know.”

    That describes my life perfectly… I’ve been home for 6 weeks now and I asked for longer vacations hoping I would fall in love again with life on land, it’s not happening tho 🙁

    I’m glad to hear that there is life after sea 🙂

  12. Gunnilla

    Loved reading the article, such a spot on description about ship life … the love hate feeling … I worked quite a long time at sea, and of course now the fact of long days, rude pax etc – fades away but all the fun, many friends around the world, all places, countries visited, late night parties and so on stays with me and I do not regret a second … and I do not think there is one other place where you get the privilege to encounter all this and get a huge life experience of meeting with all mix … and for a lasting friendship that some mentioned earlier in this thread ..I just want to mention that a couple of years ago we were about 200+ in Norway for a reunion ..with 10+ nationalities. .. from a cruise line that hasn’t existed for the past 20 years ..!!.. so I think you can have lasting friends from your days at sea…… Unfortunately I believe that the best time as a crewmember, as well as a passenger, in the cruise industry is gone… when I see all these mega large floating hotel with 4000-5000 pax … A familial feeling can hardly be there for the guests … but that’s another story .. Thx again, great reading. 😀

  13. Adam

    I worked on Crystal Cruises for Seven years. The beginning of your story gave me chills and amazing wonderful thoughts of my days as a crew member. Working in the casino I can appreciate the tour staff and the many adventures I was blessed with around this beautiful world. Thank you for sharing it gives me a glimmer of hope my children can have the same opportunity.

  14. Cornelia Sengutta

    Great post and very well described 🙂 Not easy indeed to leave your sea legs and adapt to land life! I worked 12years on cruise ships and being constantly surrounded by people made me have a slight depression when I remained on land…
    But I was lucky to meet my husband on ship<3
    I am also lucky to say that I am privileged NOT having to choose between ship life and land life, as I am now working from home for a Cruise Company and I still get to sail or just visit ships very, very often! But what makes me happier is that I get to teach others all I have learned in these 12 years!
    I would love to read your book!
    Best of luck to you!

  15. Shin

    I love it! it’s very inspiring! I’m dreaming to work on board too… ever since childhood. Still wonderin how as entry level, I do have experience being barista, but shipping job always hunts me ..

  16. Lou

    Great article – I’ve travelled on the QM2 a couple of times and you would certainly never see any of that in the staff – they’re all very professional! We were unfortunate enough to see some awful guests mistreating the staff which is always a shame, but hopefully you have your ways to offer vengeance somehow – although I know you’d never share them!

    1. Mike

      Cunard was the worst company at sea I worked on. I’m curious what not seeing “that” means. The reason you didn’t see things from the crew is that Cunard has an outdated class system and they do their best to make the crew feel like a lower class servants who don’t even deserve the bread crumbs given to dogs.

      1. Wandering Earl

        Hey Mike – It’s interesting how everyone has different experiences. Cunard was actually my favorite cruise line to work for as I felt the crew experience, at least while I was there, far exceeded that on the other cruise lines I worked for. Obviously there are a lot of factors involved but it really was a good time for me on the QM2 and even QE2 just before it was sold.

  17. Gulmira

    Hi, Earl. Thank you for your post. Was enjoing reading and laughed at some moments. A month has passed as I finished my first contract on a cruise ship. It’s like I was reading about my life onboard. Long days, unhappy guests, drill in the morning when I finally got off, nights in the crew bar, friends and day off in a port far away from the ship. I promised myself never come back. My next contract starts in one month and I am drawn back to the ship. I decided to go different direction, but I do not regret the time spent on board and I will miss it.
    Good luck, Earl and take care

  18. Alana

    Thanks for your post about life on sea. After spending three years abroad in Korea teaching ESL and traveling all over Asia on vacations I am looking for some professional experience. Because I have traveled so much so far and want to start a career/profession/gig introducing me to tourism I think that starting on a cruise ship would be a great start. I know that any job that I take will not be any holiday, I will have to work very hard. I see myself at least trying this as it would be a fantastic opportunity where there will be endless challenges and friends to form.

    What is the BEST way to get started applying for jobs on cruise ships? Is it best to apply directly to cruise lines on their websites? Is it smart to apply to more than one cruise ships?

  19. Anil Raina

    Many Thanks for your reply. I appreciate it a lot. Want to tell you that I have downloaded your book and have been through it yesterday itself. It is certainly a masterpiece as far as the knowledge related to cruise world is concerned. It is more than enough to reply to all the queries any aspirant may have before joining the cruise liners. My applauds and appreciations for you for tremendous effort in getting that book together.

  20. Anil Raina

    Hey Earl !
    Though I am late in reading about your tryst with a life on the Waves, Yet I must admit that I have been touched by each word of your description. I felt while reading as if I am a part of that experience. It was so lively. I want to live that life too. Would you guide me to live this dream Earl ?
    I am presently serving in Marine Special Forces. How can I interact with you more.

  21. Mica

    Beautiful summary, I’ve been a JAP for 2 years now, and the past contract was really harsh. I’m trying to move on, but, what do you do after ship life? Anyway I’m craving some normal life for now. I liked your article a lot! Go on and write that book!

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Mica – It’s hard to try and return to a normal life after ship life of course. However, you just have to get creative and take all of the skills you learned on the ship and figure out a way to utilize them on land. Also, think about all the contacts you made, the people you met onboard…it’s a great network to help you find another job once you decide to leave ships 🙂

  22. Jody

    Hello Earl, Just wondering what it is like working on a cruise ship being a hairstylist or spa technician? I have already applied and was asked to reapply in October. If I am accepted I would have an interview in December in Las Vegas. I’m sure you spoke to many people on the cruise ships about their different positions on board. Would you be able to give me any information on these positions? I know you were in a totally different area on board, but just curious. I have applied with Steiner. What is their reputation and how do they treat people? Thank you for your time and take care.

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Jody – Steiner is the largest spa company with contracts on ships and their reputation is okay. The positions you mentioned are good positions – you work a lot (as most crew members do!) and you can earn great money with tips. It usually depends on the ship they send you to…the bigger the better and the more luxury the cruise line, the better as well. But overall, you’d be quite busy on sea days (working all day) and during port days, you would typically alternate. One port you would have to work and the next port you would have a good chunk of free time. Spa staff are considered ‘staff’ meaning that you would share a cabin with one other person and you would have ‘staff’ privileges, which are in between ‘crew’ and ‘officers’. Even though you work for Steiner, your life on ships will depend on the cruise line as you’ll have to follow their rules too. Most cruise lines treat crew members quite well these days so the chances are good that you’ll have a good lifestyle on board 🙂

  23. Wendy @MySweetJenny

    Hi Earl! I just wanted to reach out and let you know I found your article on cruise ship life spot on. I have included a link to it on my blog, which I began as a way to document my travels as vocalist at sea. I’ve always struggled with cruise ship life, but find the transition from sea to land always a hard one. I’m trying to make a real go at it this time, we’ll see!

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Wendy – Thanks for the comment! I shall check out your blog as I’m sure I’ll find a lot that I can relate to 🙂

  24. Noelfy

    WOW! Your blog is amazing! I wish mine will look at least 10% as good as yours!

    I was an International Hostess for 2 years and I nearly cry reading your post. I still feel the “cabin fever”, even if I had been away from cruise ships since August 2011. Afortunately for me, there is life after cruise ships and I always find good jobs that allow me to keep traveling.

    By the way, I always helped the shorex staff by selling the tours (as the International Host is the only one on board required to speak 5 languages) and a dreamed about changing position and become Tour Manager once, however I was “punished” to stay there as International forever, so I quit 😛 Maybe one day I will be back, but as a shorex for sure!

    Thanks for your post and I will keep reading you when I got back home in Hong Kong!

  25. Alexandra

    Hello there from Ukraine but not from a dancer :). I am in between two roads now trying to find out which way to go in my life, I have been doing Tour Staff as well being 2nd contract JAP for Princess and now have a chance to start again with Celebrity, having doubts how everything will work out. You really touched my heart with your article.

    1. Ron

      Hello Alexandra,
      Hard decisions to make, but I will give you guidance in your decision. I have worked for both Celebrity and Princess in different capacities. The advantages of staying with Princess in the JAP position is your deck privileges, officer status, promotions within your position (due to retention levels) and the ability to move from the front desk over to the tour desk which gives you better skills and behaviors that future employers would be attracted too. The disadvantage is that your position is extremely challenging dealing with the complaints everyday and the stress of the internal politics that can be associated with some of the front desk teams.
      For Celebrity, it is another great company to work for. The advantage of working for them in the Purser capacity would be deck privileges, lesser hours @ the front desk (dependent on the ship) and learning new skills with their advanced technology. The disadvantage is the lack of officer status and dealing with the complaints.
      Overall, I liked working for both and they have their advantages/disadvantages. If your thinking of leaving Princess due to problems on your last contract and hadn’t experienced during your first contract, I would go back for another contract. Sometimes the internal politics and ego’s of the front desk can be very challenging on CERTAIN ships. I would also evaluate my position with Princess based upon your performance appraisals by your managers. Now, if Celebrity is offering you more money and that is why you are interested in leaving Princess, then that could be deal breaker. Good luck and hope to hear about your decision.

    2. Wandering Earl

      Privet Alexandra! That is a tough choice and I remember going through the same thing when I would switch cruise lines. I think that you should be in the position that you enjoy the most and that brings you the most benefits. And if Celebrity can offer you the same, or more, than what you’re getting now, it could be a good opportunity, but in my opinion, I wouldn’t switch cruise lines if it meant taking less money or a lower position. I wish you the best and please let us know what you decide!

  26. chrisa

    hey! i think in the ship u cant estabish any relationship even friendly cause the peope u see in one contract u dont see the again

    1. Wandering Earl

      Hey Chrisa – Actually, you make many great friends on board cruise ships because you are working and living with the same people for many months in a row. And if you work more than one contract, you see the same people over and over again. Also, when you finish working, you have friends all over the world that you can visit!

  27. Gail Smith

    Hello Earl,

    I enjoyed your article, we worked together on the QM2 for one brief Caribbean Season, I was the Shopping Guide, a former SHX MGR with NCL. I spent 15 years at sea and married an officer. I left my life at sea 9 months ago and never thought it would be so difficult to figure out what to do next, it is nice to know that many feel the same way, so thank you for your website and article.

  28. jack

    Your life is amazing. I would love to work on a cruise ship, I feel I am well suited to the lifestyle. I noticed you worked for CUNARD on the QM2, how did you get the position of Tour Manager? What experience/ qualifications would I need to perhaps get a job like yours, especially for CUNARD. Thanks 🙂

    1. Earl

      Hey Jack – I had already spent 2.5 years as a Tour Manager with two other cruise lines so that’s how I was able to get the position with Cunard. During my first contract on ships, when I worked for Carnival Cruise Lines, I started off as a Tour Staff and after two months was promoted to Tour Manager. And that’s how it all began! As for qualifications, first, you would have to start off as a Tour Staff and normally spend at least one year in that position in order to learn everything there is and work your way up. But for that position, you need to have a university degree, customer service experience, travel experience and any work/education background in tourism would be a bonus but not 100% necessary.

  29. rononeil2000@yahoo.ca

    You hit the mark for ‘ship life’. After being at sea for ten years and working with a variety of different brands, your blog represents the essence of the challenges, rewards, friendships, and the many many memories that you leave with. I think it’s important to also understand that the hard work and the skills that you develop at sea is rewarded when you do come back home to find a job. Also, the cruise lines are continuing to develop better crew welfare programs, which makes life onboard outside of work a better living environment. ‘Ship Life’ isn’t for everyone, but if your thinking of doing it. Go for it, you will be filled with some of most memorable moments in your life working and travelling the world.

  30. eddy

    all u written are very true…im working also in the ship for 2 years now…im still enjoying my job but for sure im leaving soon…but still we got the best experience ever that for sure alot of people in this world wanted to experience working in the ship.

    1. Earl

      Hey Eddy – That’s exactly how it works and I’m glad you had a positive experience on ships as well! Eventually, we all reach a point when we choose to leave ship life behind but even today, I have a huge smile on my face every time I think of my time on board ships. Some of the best memories I have!

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    1. Earl

      Hey Roy – Ha! I wonder if you hang a calendar in your cabin and mark the days that pass…just counting down the days left until vacation once again!

  33. Kristin

    I love this post. I have been considering taking a break from school, I am studying Hospitality Managment at the moment but, I am thinking about taking some time and trying out ship life. Can you make a recommendation on a line? Is every contract 6 months? Thanks again, this really gave me an insiders look on what to expect!

    1. Earl

      Hey Kristin – Thank you for the comment! As for recommending a cruise line, that’s a tough one as there are so many out there and it all depends on which position you want to apply for. Contracts generally range from 4 – 6 months for most positions, although that does depend on the cruise line as well.

      My suggestion would be to have a read through this page of my blog as it offers something that I think you’ll be interested in: http://www.wanderingearl.com/travel-resources/work-on-cruise-ships/

  34. Matt Bailey

    Earl, I must say, most of your essay makes ship life sound not to great. Although he perks interest me. Either way, as we both know, I am applying, and will hope for the best. Maybe a 4 month to start would be best. This article definitely made me think twice though.

    I just hope I can keep up with my online business! haha

    Thanks for doing the interview btw.

    Have a great time in MExico.

    1. Earl

      Hey Matt – I can see how you might make that conclusion, but trust me when I say that despite what I wrote, ship life is the best thing that has happened to me. Every crew member goes through a similar battle but in the end, ship life is overwhelmingly positive. The difference is that it all takes place in an environment that is unfathomable to those who have not experienced it, which is why that environment can be interpreted as negative in this post. But that is far from the truth and once you’re on board, you’ll understand what I really meant with this post. As Samantha commented below, despite the challenges of ship life, every crew member misses ship life the moment it is gone and every crew member finds it extremely difficult to say goodbye to ship life as well.

      It must be quite a positive lifestyle on board for that to occur!

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  36. Samantha

    Dearest Earl – I have just returned from contract number three as a Concierge onboard and your every word reverberates strongly within the rhythms of my life as I know it. I thank you sincerely for your ever honest representation of our daily grind. Your ponderings reflect those of my own as I too battle with the choices of ship vs. shore; I know only that I shall be sorry when my last day comes to be. Wherever your sail is taken by the next wind to blow: I wish you good luck!

    1. Earl

      Hey Samantha! Thank you for the comment and it is always great to connect with another who understand the unique world of ship life. The battle of ship vs shore is more difficult than most can imagine and yet I find that almost every crew member feels the same way as you – no matter what you choose, you will undoubtedly miss life on board once it is gone. And if you’re like me, you’ll miss it every day! I hope you reach a decision that you are comfortable with, although keep in mind that if you leave ship life now, you can always return later on. Once you’re in, you can easily find a job with another cruise line, something I ended up doing twice 🙂

      1. CC

        I truly loved your post! It took back to ship life completely, the idea of just doing one contract and always goin back. I did 3 years and a half, almost 4, and right now I just quit and decided to start a “normal” life on land. The decision has been tough, because unfortunately you can`t have both worlds, you always have to pick one or the other; but one thing is true ship life will always be there waiting.
        I do miss ship life and have been away only 2 months haha, but it sure is a great way to get along with so many different nationalities and all live in peace.
        I was what is called a cruise staff, so got to enjoy a lot of great things onboard.
        Good Luck to all wherever you are land or sea! 🙂

        1. Earl

          Hey CC – I can tell you, as hard as it is to leave ship life behind at first, eventually it does become easier 🙂

  37. Christy @ Technosyncratic

    I’ve always been interested in working on a cruise ship – in fact, many years before I ever considered becoming nomadic full-time I applied for a summer-long gig on a few cruise lines, but no luck. So it’s nice to read what it’s really like – the perks and the drawbacks!

    1. Earl

      Hey Christy – Well, if you’re still interested in working on ships, let me know! I can help you out as best as I can. Even with the drawbacks it’s still one of the most rewarding work/travel environments imaginable.

  38. Brandon

    Hey Wandering Earl,

    Congrats on breaking free. I’ve looked at this a few time as a means to travel but never really got the under-the-hood assessment you’ve given here. Duly noted. Good luck on your future adventures.

    Brandon

    1. Earl

      Hey Brandon – Thanks for the comment! If you have any questions about ship life feel free to send me an email and I’d be more than happy to offer any advice I can.

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    1. Earl

      Hey Gareth – Well, technically, most cruise lines strongly prohibit crew members from socializing with passengers beyond what is required in the normal course of their work. However, such socializing happens all the time and as long as you don’t make it obvious, your superiors will generally look the other way!

  40. Jason

    Earl, I enjoyed reading this post and your insight into what life is like living aboard a ship for extended times. It sounds like you experienced something special during this time, and from my experience in life it seems that times like these come and go and nothing stays the same forever. (nor should it)

    You can just look back on the times you had, have a bit of a laugh and maybe draw some strength from it, as the years go by.

    I suppose it’s on with the next phase of Wandering Earl.

    1. Earl

      Hey Jason – It sure was something special. And I don’t know if I’ll ever again experience being part of such a community as the one found on board cruise ships. Luckily, I understand fully that these times come and go and apart from the few sadder moments when I find myself wishing I was back on board, I’m quite content with the memories and opportunities that ship life provided me with!

  41. Theodora

    They call it “cabin fever” for a reason, I guess, Earl. Congrats on taking the step into the unknown. And what a great way to travel the world before doing so.

    1. Earl

      Hey Theodora – That’s the benefits of ship life…you can travel while earning money in order to ensure you’re prepared for the next stage in life, no matter what that stage may be. And for someone who is interested in travel, it’s the perfect way to get started.

  42. Gray

    Fascinating! I’ve always wondered what you did on the ship. I had conversations with a couple of crewmembers aboard the Epic last summer, and the life just sounded awful to me–such long days, with no days off for 6 months?!? I may not like my job all that much, but it beats that. I felt especially sorry for the guys with wives and kids who had to be away from them for 6 months. It’s definitely a whole other world, isn’t it? On the bright side, you’ve got some great experiences–and connections–under your belt and you should be able to parlay them into your future business enterprises, whatever they may be.

    1. Earl

      Hey Gray – That’s the thing with ship life. The conditions and experiences vary drastically between positions. I have no idea how some crew members manage to survive in some of the jobs on board as they barely get to leave the ship, earn little pay and spend 14 hours per day working. On the other hand, many of these people work on ships for 5-10 years, return home with a large amount of money (in comparison to what they could have earned at home during that period), buy a house, start a business and live quite a good life. So they look at it as a small sacrifice for an improved life later on.

      My job was completely different. I had time off in every port, earned a great salary plus bonuses, managed my own team of staff and enjoyed all of the benefits of a 3-striped officer. So even though it was challenging at times, such a position is well worth it for anyone interested in saving money while traveling and opening up new opportunities for their life!

  43. Dalene - Hecktic Travels

    Wow – I really can’t believe you did that for four years! I’d always wondered what working on a ship is like (sounds a bit like a prison, think I will take it off the list of possibilities in my future)…

    This is so beautifully and poignantly written!

    1. Earl

      Hey Dalene – It may appear to be a prison, but in the end, there’s a reason why so many people stay on board for so long. It’s an addicting lifestyle and to be honest, I recommend it to people all of the time. I’m not sure there is any better way to enjoy a combination of traveling the world, networking, gaining work experience, making new friends AND earning a great deal of money! I certainly would not have had the freedom I enjoy today, nor the opportunities that have come my way, had it not been for ship life.

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