On the Good Ship Lollipoop

Media coverage of the Carnival Cruise Ship Triumph’s recent ill-fated voyage, which ended in sewage-logged ignominy in Mobile, Alabama last week, says a lot about America’s state of mind.

Media coverage of the Carnival Cruise ship Triumph’s recent ill-fated voyage, which ended in sewage-logged ignominy in Mobile, Alabama last week, says a lot about America’s state of mind. Passengers endured horrid conditions. Passengers got more than they bargained for. Passengers were offered a full refund, cruise waivers, $500 cash, and free chartered flights and bus rides home as compensation. Passenger ordeal. Passenger difficulty.

Okay, guys. Let’s talk about what these passengers went through. Instead of taking a four-day cruise departing February 7th from Galveston, Texas, docking in Cozumel, Mexico, and returning to Galveston on the 11th, there was an engine fire at sea on the 10th which left the ship adrift with its power system crippled, and the ship was eventually towed to Mobile, Alabama, where it docked on the evening of the 14th. Food ran low and the ship’s water and sewage systems ground to a near halt. These are facts not in dispute by any account of what happened.

Sure, that’s an ordeal. It qualifies. Four days of food rations and toilet trouble in a large, enclosed space full of thousands of other people. That’s an ordeal for everybody aboard the ship. Passengers, sure, because they paid to be pampered and isolated from the cares of the world and squeezed dry of their money in the process, and enclosed spaces with sewage issues are very much not a part of that bargain. But, also: crew.

A-ha. Crew.

I’ve lived on a cruise ship, where I was a paid entertainer. It was… not for me. But the experience has left me with some reasonably qualified opinions about cruise ships and how they operate. There are many ways to explain a cruise ship to the type of person who’s never been on one and probably wouldn’t want to. David Foster Wallace did a pretty good job in his essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” or at least I assume he did a pretty good job. I tend not to read anything written in a style that turgid about a subject that A) has replaced high school as the current setting of all of my tension dreams and B) I know more about than the author. I’d also recommend Kristoffer Garin’s Devils on the Deep Blue Sea as an overview of the cruise-ship industry. But if you’re just looking for a quick and easy summation of the basic feel of being on a cruise ship, the fastest reference point I can give you is the third act of WALL-E, only with Filipinos instead of robots.

If your reaction to “Filipinos instead of robots” is something akin to, “How dare you! Those are human beings!” then you’re starting to see the point I’m making about the Carnival Triumph. And also: look in the mirror and recount the last time you hung out with some Filipinos or even willfully thought about Filipino geopolitical issues. Listening to or making fun of the Black Eyed Peas doesn’t count. But I digress.

Look at this passage of an Associated Press account of the Carnival Triumph voyage:

In a text message, Kalin Hill of Houston, described deplorable conditions over the past few days.

“The lower floors had it the worst, the floors ‘squish’ when you walk and lots of the lower rooms have flooding from above floors,” Hill wrote. “Half the bachelorette party was on two; the smell down there literally chokes you and hurts your eyes.”

Well, guess where the fucking entire crew of 1,100 lives, Kalin Hill of Houston, Texas. You know, the crew of the ship? The people that live on the ship and make it work and provide service to the 3,100 passengers who come aboard and disembark in cyclical rhythm once or twice a week? Guess where those poor fuckers were. You guessed it. Below you. Where conditions were the worst.

And how did the crew react to these conditions? From the Detroit Free Press:

"The crew was always smiling," Jenkins said. "They need a huge raise."

So basically, the 1,100-person crew of the Carnival Triumph managed to put smiles on their faces for the benefit of tourists, out of a sense of loyalty to a corporation, while their quarters were soaked in raw sewage.

Now I enter the realm of conjecture. Conjecture is the only tool we have, really, when we struggle to digest the official story as told through the official news outlets. Regarding anything. So: allow me to treat conjecture like an appropriate tool for this drifting shit-boat situation from now on, for reasons I’ll discuss. I want to give ample warning about this, though. It’s conjecture based on the life experience and web-based research of a dude who’s spent eight total months on board cruise ships telling lame jokes to old people. Take it with a grain of salt, and call the lawyers off.

I’m not sure exactly what measures were taken aboard the Triumph, but I know that the majority of crew on a cruise ship does not normally have access to passenger areas (most outer decks are passenger areas) without special permission. I’d assume in this extreme case there was some measure of additional fresh-air dispensation afforded to members of the below-decks crew. But I also know this: it was allotted. Regardless of how lenient the crew captain might have been under the circumstances, there was a time when somebody in charge said, in effect, “All right, guys, time to go back to where all the human shit is and get back to work. And try not to let the passengers see you frowning or complaining or, you know, retching.”

I’m fairly sure that the steps taken to alleviate suffering aboard the Carnival Triumph were prioritized passengers first, crew second if at all. I think it is safe to assume that the crew got the worst of the conditions, both in terms of food rations and amenities, since they get the worst of the conditions while everything is running perfectly. That’s fine. The crew is at work while the passengers are financing the operation. (Forgive me: SOUNDS LIKE A SHITTY PLACE TO WORK, HA HA HA.) These are safe and reasonable assumptions.

There are reports emerging that the Triumph (what a great name for this malfunctioning floating tax shelter) had experienced mechanical issues during the cruise prior to the engine fire. I’m no expert on the mechanics of large ships, but I do know from experience that mechanical issues aboard cruise ships are not uncommon. Probably less uncommon than you’d think if you cared to think about it. I’d go so far as to guess (and it’s an educated guess based on my experiences aboard two BRAND NEW cruise ships) that some amount of mechanical failure has occurred on a large majority of, if not every single one of, the world’s existing cruise ships. If this surprises you, talk to somebody you know who’s served time in the Navy or owned a boat. That person will tell you that anything people make that floats on water is going to develop problems faster than just about anything else a human can build.

I also know from experience that due to the amount of money that cruise ships generate every time they set sail, within regulations, any repair which requires long docking periods is avoided in favor of manageable fixes which will allow the ship to operate with a diminished engine capacity, and that’s just par for the course.

I mean, I don’t “know” these things like “privy to the decision-making conversations,” so much as I “know” them like “it seems pretty impossible that a sweater can't be $10 at Old Navy without something bad having happened somewhere.” What I do know is when there’s a problem with the stabilizers the itinerary is more prone to weather-based changes, and the passengers get all upset about it and treat the service crew worse, and then everybody on the crew is grumpier and grumbles about it without being able to do anything. Ships are not a democracy. Mechanical issues are accepted without question by a majority of the crew. They don’t have a choice. Those decisions come handed down from a very high pay grade along a chain of command patterned on the military. The average crew member on these things just has to hope that whatever fix is going to work and something bad like this isn’t going to happen before either their contract is up or the whole thing dry docks for an overhaul.

I’m not saying that the cruise-ship industry is patently irresponsible or doesn’t take regulations seriously. Another thing I’m not an expert on is maritime and international law. I’d imagine it functions the same as law does anywhere else, which is to say that the richest people can exert the most pressure to create advantages for themselves. The cruise ship companies are very rich. Infer from that what you will. Of course like all companies they have a responsibility to their backers that includes limiting the damage from any large-scale PR disasters like this one. So while nobody’s perfect, and profit motives urge these ships out into international waters as often as they possibly can in order for their tax-free casinos to become legal, this kind of thing really isn’t likely to happen. I’ll say that much to the credit of the cruise-ship industry. Clearly it’s not impossible for something like this to happen. It’s just not likely.

Have we heard anything about the Carnival Triumph’s voyage from members of the crew? Of course not. We’ve heard official statements from Carnival’s CEO instead. The crew isn’t going to say jack shit. If you’re curious as to why that is, imagine yourself left for dead in Manila with the money you have in your pocket and no visa. You’d probably prefer to keep your mouth shut and take your chances back on the shit-filled boat. And you’d smile as wide as they asked you to until you got yourself out of this mess.

The story of the crew aboard the Carnival Triumph is probably not all that remarkable. If the same thing happened aboard any given cruise ship, the crew’s reaction would probably be about the same. Put a good face on it, go to work, and bitch and moan bitterly behind closed doors until the ship’s management, for morale, throws an occasional crew party or commandeers the theater’s big screen for a crew viewing of There’s Something About Mary. Then you go back to your small crew cabin that you share with three other professional oil-rag guys. Don’t make waves (sorry) because they have the power to make your life a lot worse than it is.

You give up a few rights, and maybe it’s not so bad because you’re seeing the world and you come from a place where there aren’t any rights to lose. That’s just what your life is like when you work on one of these things. It’s somewhere between way, way better than a Jakarta slum (unless it overflows with sewage like the Triumph did, then it’s about the same) and way, way worse than an average American’s quality of life. Few Americans work on cruise ships. In terms of the international labor pool, Americans tend to be more expensive, entitled, and litigious than their counterparts. So you get a lot of Filipinos and Indonesians. Front of house is Canadians, and Welshmen and Scots, with sprinklings of Slavs and Serbs, and occasional Brazilians, Bahamians, and Jamaicans, because they work hard, and they’re happy to go anywhere warm and sunny that’s not caked in grime. They are good people, most of them, sometimes-naïve adventurers and romantics, and they understand that to work and live on a ship is to occasionally take things like human feces and gastrointestinal distress in stride. “In stride” means “without suing.”

I have no idea what’s going to happen to the crew now. Can you imagine, though, this happening at your work? Covered in shit for four days, asked to smile about it and shepherd a flock of fat complaining idiots facing this kind of difficulty for perhaps the first time in their pampered lives, and then your reward is… what? Is Carnival going to cut these people loose now that the ship is out of commission? Do they stay aboard during repairs, helping to clean the shit off their meager belongings? Do any of them get a waiver for the Motel 8? In Mobile Fucking Alabama? What? What’s going to happen to them? Who knows, because: who cares. They’re just a bunch of Filipinos anyway. Right?

Anyhow, not much of the coverage of the Carnival Triumph’s severe engine malfunction and public-relations fiasco has focused on what did not happen. What did not happen is a lot of people dying. What did not happen is giant flames engulfing a cavernous metal pleasure craft with a functioning casino in it. What did not happen is the ship sinking. What did not happen is a mutiny. Those things could have happened but didn’t because the crew did a good job.

And you know what else the media is not going to cover? What will not happen. What will not happen is the crew of the Carnival Triumph getting a free stay in the New Orleans Hilton and a charter flight to anywhere for their troubles. What will not happen is the cruise ship industry becoming unprofitable, or big fat old stupid American tourists no longer having more money than they need, or huge portions of the rest of the world having as much anything as they should, or the heroic smiling Filipinos and other crew aboard the Triumph suddenly becoming visible, nameable human beings to the fat shit-covered idiots telling CNN all about their horrific ordeal. They are just the “crew.” The crew did a good job. Good job, crew. All of you individual people in the crew.