The dirty tricks I learned while working on a cruise ship
Deciding to work on a cruise ship, I had imagined it like riding on a floating bubble of romantic isolation. I thought in a way, a ship embodies our planet, sailing through galaxies of vast oceans with life boiled down to an essence that holds something for everyone. I envisioned that everything a ship has to offer is a short excerpt of what life has to offer, confined within a much smaller space and therefore within much closer reach.
Spending time on the open seas would be almost like a cheat code, I thought, a shortcut to experiences of which, who knows when I was going to tap into otherwise. And of course, because I love pirates.
It turned out I was onto something, but with one major exception — not everything on the ship was structured to serve my own childish daydreams, but rather to follow its own set of rules … or the lack of such.
The first crack in my rose-tainted pirate glasses came almost as I set foot onboard. Instead of a special greeting from the Captain — telling me what an honor it was for him to have such a unique individual serving guests on his ship — my supervisor gave me an exactly 5-minute tour of the maze that is a 16-deck cruise ship.
With a laid-back Jamaican flair (which, in other circumstances, I would have found pretty damn cool), he started ducking in and out of almost invisible doors all the way to my cabin, then pointing to a board where the bar schedule hung. He showed me my name and … that was it.
There were 14 bars on the ship, neither of which I had ever seen before. And there I was, having to be on duty in a couple of hours without a clue how to get back to my cabin. I had no idea where to get my uniform from, where to eat, where to pee if I can’t find my room. Trying to ask crew members for simple directions was pretty much like being a tourist nobody cared for, in a town where you don't speak the local language and busy locals had no interest in speaking mine.
I was the new kid in high school all over again. Certainly not the romantic isolation advertised on the imaginary brochure I had been reading in my head.
Later during the week, I got to meet the Captain in a group meeting after all. But it turned out to be the second crack in my rose-tinted glasses, which had now started to turn gray.
“What is everybody here for?” asked the Captain. And without almost any wait for the group to reply, he continued, “To make money, for you and your families.”
Money is great and all, but what happened with crossing the seas on a beautiful floating town, seeing the world and meeting people onboard from all its corners? I was actually making decent money before I embarked. Nobody else seemed puzzled about his question.
The Captain had been spot on: most crew members couldn’t care any less if we were in the Caribbean or Alaskan waters. Some used to, apparently, between 10 and 15 contracts ago. Money was king on board. Practically everything that was done on the ship, from greeting guests with a smile to sending them away without one, was about getting paid. Money was the real Captain.
I soon found out the salary is directly proportional to how willing you were to lie to customers, since selling turned out to be a huge part of the job description. Embarkation days were major paydays for the top sellers whose names hung proudly on the corridor walls. Guests were welcomed by members of the bar department the way sharks probably greet fish into their wide-open rapacious mouths.
After being encouraged to upgrade to the most expensive alcohol packages, guests were often told the particular brand they bought the deal for was "out of stock" — most times it wasn’t, we just said it was. Either the crew drank it, or it was onboard and barboys were told not to distribute it in order to save costs. A lot of bottles with premium alcohol that were served to customers were actually filled with the cheapest booze, too.
Saved costs went directly into managers’ pockets.
I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t mention that I also benefited from the whole alcohol situation. Since packages were unlimited, practically everyone was stealing. And me being a bar server, I had more than my fair share of free, premium quality alcohol. This was the first pleasant surprise I encountered onboard, and the fact I was introduced to it quite early made it all the better.
In a way, booze (especially the free stuff) brought me close to colleagues that later became friends. By introducing me to the hidden perks of the job, they also showed me life onboard can in fact be a rose hue, or at least blurry enough so you don’t differentiate the colors.
"Life onboard is how you make it for yourself, my friend," the Mauritian bar server who gave me my first drink told me. That was one of the sweetest drinks I have ever had.
From there, I learned how to manage my time better and go out in ports as much as possible. I understood how to drink and fly under the managers’ radar. I found out that I could make at least some money while still keeping guests happy and my conscience clean. I even formed real friendships and had some heartwarming contacts with some of them, made somewhat bittersweet by the fact I will never see them physically again, just like some of the remote places and vibes I had been dreaming of experiencing.
Life on a cruise ship was an excerpt of life, a melting pot of what else is out there — I had just been imagining the unrealistic stuff. However, completing naïve and silly dreams isn't impossible; I got to fulfill the unlikeliest and wildest of them all: sneaking a joint on board from an overnight stay in Barbados, smoking it in open waters with my two best friends on the ship. I committed a crime in open waters. You know what that makes me according to the law? A pirate.
And not just any pirate, a pirate of the Caribbean.