It took lots of research over a couple of years time before actually getting hired to work on a ship. It isn’t an easy job to get and deciding to end my contract early was not easy either. Working on a ship is nothing like working a land job but like land careers it has its pros and cons. I’ll attempt to share enough here to satisfy the curiosity of anyone considering shiplife or perhaps you are just wondering what it was like. There are endless YouTube videos on the subject but you might want to hear from someone you actually know, namely me.
A little background
I’ve always had what you might call a safe job. Fairly regular hours, mostly decent pay. We do what is needed to provide for our families. I’ve done this for most of my life. Even so we still struggled to make ends meet and never succeeded in getting ahead. When my wife of almost 30 years lost her battle with cancer, it gave me cause to evaluate my future. With the kids grown and I found for the first time in a long time there is no one to take care of but me. For the most part my life seemed to consist of one stressful job after another. One day I changed all that by working at the Grand Ole Opry. This changed my perspective on what is possible.
Deciding what it would take to be happy was and is still a work in progress. A friend and colleague told me about how he once worked on a ship and how much he loved it. That conversation was 7 or 8 years ago and although I did not act on it, the idea stuck in my head. At that time most of my kids were still at home and my wife was well. I’m sharing this part just to let you know when I first heard about shiplife. Fast forward to about 2015. I decided to find work in an environment where people were mostly happy and excited. Thus began my research into jobs at hotels, tourist attractions, spas, amusement parks. I also began to develop a desire to travel. After much research it made the most sense to look into ship life. Free housing, free food, free travel to places I’d otherwise only dream of.
It wasn’t easy. After applying for several positions over the course of a year with no results, a friend stumbled upon an ad that seemed custom made. And so I began the application process. This included a lot of forms needing to be completed and a lot of waiting. Then a physical to determine if I was fit for duty. Having made it through all that, I received my travel package to Vancouver so I could join a ship there.
Preparing to be homeless, sort of
I was living in an apartment. Obviously I could not take my furniture, cookware, decorations, etc. with me to a tiny crew cabin. Even most of my clothes would be unnecessary since the crew basically spends most of the time in a uniform suited to function. And so I started giving things away to any of my family that would take them. Once they got tired of being offered second hand items, I started giving things away to neighbors, community centers and whoever else would take them. My goal was to only be left with what would fit in my car. I succeeded in this and also gave up the apartment. If part of the goal was to be rent free it would not make any sense to keep paying for an unused apartment. I knew it meant I’d have no where to call home but that really didn’t bother me at this point. The notion of a “normal” life lost its meaning after I lost my wife.
I was now prepared to leave behind all that was familiar for a way of life I could not visualize except for the videos and pictures that others shared on the internet. After arranging for a family member to carsit, I left for Vancouver. Here I was, after hardly ever going anywhere, leaving the US to meet a ship in Canada. Thus began my adventure. After spending a night at a hotel, which was paid for by the cruise line as was the flight, a shuttle took us to the port. I say us, as there were several others who were transferring ships or beginning another contract. I was the only newby in the group.
On the ship
To be honest, I don’t remember a lot about my first ship. It was the Nieuw Amsterdam. I was guided to my cabin by my manager, a young man from Bosnia. There I met my roommate from the UK. The room was tiny, tinier even than I could picture from all the videos I’d seen. Bunk beds, as I expected, a desk and chair, side by side closets, drawers under the bottom bunk for shoes and such, and of course a bathroom. I found that it was easier to stay in bed while my roommate got ready for work to avoid having to maneuver around each other. I didn’t know it at the time but this was to be the first of a total of five ships that I would be assigned to before eventually returning home. Who knows how many more ships I might have worked on if I had stayed. Let me say at this point that I was told how unusual it is to transfer to a second or third ship so soon after joining and I went through 5! My team on this ship was from all over: UK, Thailand, Argentina, India, and the US. Subsequently I would work with people from Bosnia, Serbia, Russia, Alaska, Brazil, Turkey, South Africa, Scotland, Italy and everywhere else. It was fun hearing so many different accents in such close proximity and such a brief time.
I learned quickly that this was not casual photography. People would not be lined up awaiting their turn to have a photo taken and then happily purchase them. My previous work at the Opry spoiled me as there was really no pressure on guests to have their photo taken or to purchase. This was going to be much different. Sales and numbers were all important. Plus there was almost everything about photography that I did not know. I had a lot to learn.
The first person assigned to a cabin gets to choose bottom or top bunk. So as the NEOP, the term used for new hire, but also if you are new to the class (size) of a ship, I was given the top bunk. A short ladder was standard in each room to get up there but usually it was quicker to step on a chair then onto the desk and up into bed. You could not sit upright in the top bunk or you would hit your head. There was a curtain across each bunk that could be drawn for privacy. Each bunk also had it’s own light for reading and a switch to operate the room light so that you would not have to get out of bed to turn it off. Since there are no windows in crew cabins, without a light it is pitch black. There is no sunrise to awaken you so you better have an alarm. The bunks are not uncomfortable once you get in them. On one ship the room always felt very warm so I only used a sheet as a blanket. On another ship I was so cold that I used two blankets. Once you become accustomed to the size of the room and develop a rhythm where you and your room mate are not both getting ready at the same time it’s not bad at all. Cabin availability is a bigger deal than one might imagine. You might even be transferred to another ship simply because there is not enough room. Several times I was fortunate to have a room all to myself but this is very uncommon and usually very temporary.
The ships all have a crew mess on “A” deck. This is the same deck where most petty officers and other staff live. A deck is just below deck 1. There is also an officers mess which may be somewhat nicer than the crew mess but that varies with the ship. Crew are the people who clean, cook, and maintain the ship. Staff are photographers, retail, entertainers, etc. I was staff and a petty officer so we were permitted to eat on the Lido deck. Every ship of every line has a Lido deck or so I’m told. This is informal dining where you may eat just about anything you can imagine. I still could not tell you of some of the foods I tried as I couldn’t identify them. In the crew mess much of the food is oriented toward Indonesian and Phillipino diets. There are deserts galore and as much as I tried to resist I was not able to.
I mentioned earlier that being a photographer on a ship is not easy. During embarkation we set up a shooting area for passengers boarding the ship. They are weary and many are grumpy so it’s not always the best time to take a photo. Once on board we, the photogs as we’re called, walk around the ship and try to take photos of guests as we start our voyage. We also set up studios around the ship trying to get anyone to stop for a portrait. We photograph them each time they leave the ship for shore excursions, each formal night as they are eating dinner. We also try very hard to book them for upscale photo shoots. If you do not have a somewhat aggressive personality and love photography then I would not recommend this job. The photos are displayed in a gallary in the hope that they will be purchased. It’s the photogs job to sell them and maximum the number sold. I’m not gonna lie. If you have the right personality there is a lot of money to be made.
You cannot help but make friends. After 5 ships I met a wide variety of people from all over the world. Within minutes you are sharing stories and building close relationships. I still keep in touch with several of the people I worked with. You must remember that when you work on a cruise ship it is also your home. It’s where you eat and sleep. It is a community of people who are literally all in the same boat. One night I walked into the crew mess and they were having a birthday party for one of the crew. Before I knew it there was a plate handed to me and I was thrust into the line for food. I didn’t understand a word they were speaking but I was part of the family.
I joined a ship that was cruising to Alaska. I’d never been there and heard it was among the most popular of cruises. To say that there were beautiful and amazing sights would be more than an understatement. If any of you who are American, in possession of a passport and pretty good with a dslr camera then you may have a fairly easy time getting hired. Only Americans may work in the Alaskan ports. Even now HAL is seeking American photographers. The Alaska run varies slightly with each ship but mostly you can expect to visit Vancouver, Ketchikan, Skagway, Juneau, Sitka, Victoria and you will see glaciers, lots of amazing, breathtaking glaciers. Seeing them is a surreal, change-your-view-of-the-world experience. Had I continued with the rest of my contract I would have ended my run in Australia or Singapore with many other amazing places along the way.
If you can get a job aboard a ship I advise you to take the opportunity. A word of advice though. Find out all you can about the available positions. Make sure you are qualified for the work. Make sure you are willing to do it for 6 months or more. In my case I entered into a position which was not at all in line with my personality or skills and that was my mistake. For that reason I made the difficult decision to end my contract early. Now I am investigating other positions, the correct term is function, so that I can go back and pick up where I left off. If you have any questions I’ll try my best to answer.