As the author of Infinite J__est, David Foster Wallace once put it, "there's something about a mass-market luxury cruise that's unbearably sad."
It's hardly groundbreaking to feel depressed by the idea of seniors being pampered round the clock inside floating monuments to excess, but what of the people doing the pampering?
As it turns out, life for the crew is as much of an alternate reality as it is for the guests—a world of casual promiscuity, free-flowing booze, drug use, occasional suicides, and, on at least two cruise lines, a "Filipino mafia" (a.k.a staff members who run contraband, including everything from high-quality food to booze, drugs, and women).
"The guests think they're partying hard?" Notes Garrett*, a seven-year veteran of a line he'd prefer not to name (crew members speaking about behind-the-scenes ship life could be subject to disciplinary action). "They don't even know what's going on. The closest thing I can compare it to is dorm life, except no one's there to learn anything. Everyone is showing up to work hungover, then going ashore and doing all the touristy shit. And of course, making fun of the guests whenever we can. Plus, what really caught me off-guard at first was how much everyone is sleeping with everyone. Then, the next night you're hanging out and having dinner like nothing ever happened."
In the US, cruise lines are a $38-billion-per-year industry that employs some 314,000 people. Collected below are stories from a few of them, the rugged seamen and women who've been there—stories of hallway defecation and dodging punches to the face, of banging in bunk beds, getting high on the high seas, and why you should never, ever ask for "pineapple water."
I got a new roommate who was going to be the sound guy on the boat, and that was a plus because he had a better position than I did, which meant I got a better room. And when he moved in he said, "Hey, my fiancé is coming on board in a month or so. Cool if she stays over sometimes?" And of course, I said "Yeah." And he said, "If you want to have anyone over, I won't be pissed off. It's a shared space." So I was stoked that we were going to be able to coexist. Then that night, we're out drinking in the crew bar, and when I get back, he's got somebody in his bunk. It was this girl from the Casino. And I sort of shrugged and thought OK, it's none of my business. Then, the next night, she came over again. And she spent pretty much every night for the next three weeks in our room. Which started getting pretty irritating. I guess they just assumed I was asleep. Or didn't want to acknowledge that I was there. Either way, I just kept my mouth shut.
Then one night, after three weeks of this shit, while I was trying to sleep, as usual, I heard her say "Hit me." And he said "No." She goes "Come on. Hit me. I like it." And he still refused. So she tried again. "Hit me." So he gave her this tiny little slap. And she said "No. Harder." And by now, he was getting uncomfortable. She says "Come on. Hit me." And he says "No. I don't want to." And back and forth. "Hit me!" "No. I really don't want to." "Come on." Until finally, I rolled over and yelled: "JUST FUCKING HIT HER!"
And they sort of fumbled around and pretended to be asleep. Then the next week, his fiancee came on board. And we never brought it up again.
This was [actually] the second of my roommates she'd slept with. On the first night I was on board the ship, she'd made out with me, and been like: "I'm so going to sleep with you." And then she hooked up with my [former] roommate instead. So it was a great start to cruise ship life.
I worked on a ship where a passenger died and nobody found the body for three days. We had just docked in Vietnam, and it was super humid, super sunny and super sweaty all-around. I was in the photo lab, there was an announcement over the PA: "Can the photo/video manager bring all his equipment immediately to the bridge?" The manager came rushing in, grabbed everything, and left without saying a word. My immediate reaction was that someone had died—and rightly so.
Apparently, an elderly passenger had managed to open the door to the ventilation room —which was heavy as hell. Even the crew struggle to open them at times. And he'd hit his head on one of the pipes and fallen backwards so his legs were suspended in the air. Unfortunately, this meant all the blood rushed to his head, and he died in there. And because of the warm weather and the length of time, the body started to bloat.
And it was only once a drill was happening that one of the officers had happened upon it. By then the passenger had bloated so badly that he was unrecognizable—not to mention the smell. It took all the officers—anybody with stripes—to be there to help with the situation. The SecO [security officer] was from Northern Ireland, and he'd been in the army. So, having dealt with things like this before, he was the one that had to cut it out from between the pipes, since it had bloated so badly it was impossible to get it out of there any other way.
So, at the end of an already tragic incident, there was also blood and guts all over the Ventilation Room and Deck 14.
I was walking the bridge one morning, and the security officer came up to me and said: "Did you hear about the woman who took a shit in the corridor?" And he pulled up the CCTV footage, and sure enough, this woman—she was probably 50, wearing a nice dress—just walks into a corridor, does a double-check to make sure nobody's around, and then takes a big dump on the floor. Then she kept walking. Who knows whether she couldn't make it to her room, or didn't want to?
And when they confronted her, she denied everything. She said, "Yeah, that's me, but I didn't take a dump." And they kind of went "Um, OK." How can you argue? Of course we have rules, and there are things that can get you kicked off of a ship. And that's one of them. But unfortunately stuff like that can also fall into a grey area. What if it's a medical issue? You can't remove someone because of a medical issue. And it just ended up being too complicated. So what do you do? You just move on. Shit happens.
I almost got punched by a male guest once. I was managing the floor in our atrium, and we were doing a photo session with some of our performers who were dressed as princesses. And we had a very specific timeframe to do it—about 20 minutes, and after that, we'd close it down to make sure things kept moving. The line was already closed, and someone called me over to say they'd seen a woman who trying to force her way through the exit. So after a bunch of persuading, I managed to get her out of there, but then she spotted her husband, who had managed to shove his way into the front of the line. So I went over, gave him a big smile, and told him, you know, "Oh, unfortunately you can't get a photo today, but here's a list of all the other times you can visit them." And he suddenly got all red and sweaty, and got all up in my face—and I'm not a tall girl. And he started threatening me. I was trying to keep my cool, of course. But then he took a swing at me. Luckily, his wife stopped the punch. She stepped in front of him and said "What are you doing?" He'd lost his mind. He thought he'd have to take a swing at me just to go and see a princess.
We used to get stuff like that all the time. Our company was a bit more expensive, so for some people, it was a once-in-a-lifetime vacation. And they thought that because they'd paid $2,000, they could make a million dollars worth of demands. I can't tell you the number of times I was yelled at, or threatened, or spat on, so people could get what they wanted. It happened quite often. People are crazy. I'm not sure what happens when they cruise, but the minute they step on that gangplank, they're unable to be civilized.
Awhile back I had two suicides in a single contract—both of them people jumping overboard.
The first one was in the middle of the day, and in the middle of the ocean. Normal day. Until the phone rings, I pick it up, and someone says: "A lady just jumped over the side!" It was the wife of a couple in their 50s. They'd had an argument, she'd left and jumped. It was from the open deck, right in front of people. Everything kicked off then, and we got the boat back to the spot where she jumped really quickly. But after more than 32 hours of searching, there was still no sign of the body. Her partner was interviewed, and didn't show any remorse. In fact, his main question was whether or not he could date crew members.
A few months later, some people found a crew member's clothes at night, which initiated a missing person search. CCTV confirmed suicide; he'd stashed his clothes in a public toilet while everyone was partying, then jumped. We never found the body. We were two hours behind when we started looking. Reviewing the CCTV footage took a while, and we were crossing a time zone, so there was another hour of night time. The death certs said "lost at sea."
I had two in one contract. That's as many as most people have in a career.
One time I was re-boarding the ship after a day in port, and this customs guy pulled me aside and said: "So, if you were me, and you were looking to find illegal drugs, where would you look?" I'd only been on board for three or four months, and I hadn't even heard about that being a thing, so I kind of shrugged and said, "I don't know." And getting back on board, I told one of our sound guys—who was a veteran—about this, and he goes: "Oh yeah, it's all in the rafters above the stage. That's where they hide it."
On the cruise line I was on, the "crew" was separate from the "staff." And the crew came from two different agencies—one from Indonesia, and one from the Philippines. The Indonesian guys would end up working with the engineers, and the Filipino guys were in guest care and security. And they're the ones moving stuff on and off the boat. Food, and cargo, but also booze and drugs. The crew aren't supposed to be drinking in their quarters, for example, but the stuff that gets moved through the cargo bays is managed by them, so they'd take it off the side and distribute it themselves.
And there were a couple of cabins—passenger cabins—near the back of the ship that never got occupied. If you wanted to book this cabin, there was a password which I think at the time was, "aqua pina"—which is "pineapple water" in Spanish. And they would give you a time, and inside there would be one of the very few Filipino women on the crew, and it would be stocked with booze and condoms.
The rules are different for [Filipino staff]. They had all these restrictions on what they could do and where they could go. And there's a separation of where they room the white people, versus the Filipino people. We were neighbours, but we weren't, really, because of where they put us. As Westerners, we could just go buy certain stuff—booze for your room, for example. But they couldn't. The guys below decks, they would do 12 months back-to-back. They'd never go home, and if they did, they'd be risking their employment. So, of course they formed this community. They needed one.
I'd been working on the ship for three or four months by this point, and I'd met all these people, and I had no idea that this was going on on the lower levels. And I said "Jesus Christ. This is kind of like the mafia." And it turns out that our A/V Tech was more or less the Don.
This was a few years ago now, but I assume it still happens. Just don't knock on any strange doors and ask for pineapple water.
*Name has been changed.