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Sex, Sea and Slavery: What It's Like to Work On a Cruise Ship

We went to a cruise ships jobs fair to ask whether life at sea is more than just fat Americans hoarding buffet items and pensioners dying discreetly in their Emerald Suites.

by Gavin Haynes; photos by Chloe Orefice
04 August 2017, 7:00am

Fair Trade is a new column by Gavin Haynes, exploring the allure and scuzz of various British industries via the one place where their hive mind is exposed: the annual trade fair.

Have you ever considered working on a cruise ship?

The question can be re-phrased as: "Do you like sex and having a good time?" People who've experienced the cruising life are often smitten by the camaraderie, the adventure, the sheer immersive quality of the experience.

It's romantic like that. In the 21st century, the French Foreign Legion no longer absolves you of all your murders if you sign up to subdue Moroccan tribesmen. But there is still a bolthole in civilisation called "running away to sea". Cruise ships feel like they might be the last place on earth beyond the bounds of our networked world – that life below decks is more than a career; more, even, than a way-of-life.

Was I right to be so misty-eyed about cruising, or was I just a sad deluded fool? Could they at least represent running-away from an increasingly toxic jobs market for many young people? Or was it all just a bore: basically being a canapé-tray name-badge on a floating Novotel full of fat Americans and cranky pensioners?

THE FAIR

To figure that out, I'd come to the Cruise Ship Jobs Fair, in north London. My guide for the day would be Steve Weller. Steve has learned to lub the land, after the better part of a decade working on cruise ships himself. A former entertainments officer, he's set up his own agency, jobsonaship. His seafaring days were over, but Steve was still determined to help others work 13-hour days in cramped conditions for €1,000 a month and all the casual sex they could handle.

Though as we entered, I couldn't immediately tell who was primed to bump whose uglies. There were plenty of blokes in My First Court Appearance suits, mismatches of black and navy. Plenty of girls with Michael Kors bags, in smart dresses that strategically hid tattoos. Everyone clutched bundles of paper CVs. Within half an hour the queues were five-deep. Within an hour they were ten. The organisers were expecting over 4,000 applicants.

"How many of these will actually walk away with jobs?" I asked Steve.

"About one in five. There are far more people applying than get in. About 20 percent will be just plain under-qualified. Another 15 percent are probably over-qualified for the roles they're going for."


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Embedded midway in a queue, a guy of about 20 with a ginger crewcut was there with his mates, touting his skills as a musician. Six months ago, he lucked out and found a place on a cruise to Japan via a friend. But that had ended, and now he was back to square one. "You've just got to talk to everyone," he said. "It's a matter of covering a lot of ground."

Two booths down, a girl in Barbie-pink was applying for a croupier role. She had to get up at six to get down from Leeds. "I've just split up with my boyfriend, so I thought, 'Why not?' I love to travel."

Where have you been so far?

"Just Spain and Portugal."

MOUSE IN THE HOUSE

The longest queue of all was for Disney Cruises.

Why?

"Because they've heard of it?" Steve shrugged.

Despite the queues, Disney are only a fraction of the total cruising market. In a £91 billion, 22 million-passenger biz, just three companies control 80 percent of the total value. Just one – Carnival – controls a full 47 percent. Of the other two, Norwegian represents 10 percent, Royal Caribbean is 23 percent. Which makes everyone else an also-ran.

This technically gives the big three enough power to fix prices. There are mutterings that Carnival especially has monopoly power, but only that: mutterings. "Some people do suggest it's a cartel," Steve admitted. "But I've never seen any evidence. Carnival owns P&O, Cunard, Costa, Princess and others. But they all seem to be managed very separately from the central holding company."

CRUISING FOR A BRUISING

Either way, a cruise is still cheaper than you'd think. For about £550 per person per week – no more than a standard hotel – you get your cabin, three meals a day, free entertainment and the travel chucked in. For the bog-standards.

For a select few, though, cruising remains the last word in posh poncing-about. Steve pointed to ultra-luxury US company Seabourn. "There, they make you learn the names of all the customers. And they have 800 of them." Then he pointed to the bejewelled chandeliers and bespoke artworks of UniWorld, the river-cruisers. "Really nice stuff, these guys. Yeah. Each room is individually customised."

"Nice bit of kit," he seemed to be telling me in Jeremy Clarkson of the Sea, artisanal appreciation. "River cruising is a really fast-growing sector. A lot of Americans, when they come to Europe, want to cover a lot of ground very quickly. River cruising allows them to be taken right up into the centre of each town." I imagined the next extension in this time-saving: an amphibious pod, that would break off the river-cruiser, turn right up the Ponte Vecchio, swing past Il Duomo, right down into the Uffizi to facilitate the obligatory "Michelangelo's David" snap. Who could resist that pampering?

But the most luxurious ship of all wasn't recruiting that day. The World was founded in 2002, and has been ringing the world ever since. It has 165 cabins, individually owned by the people who live on it. About 300 staff tend to its 300 passengers: all ultra-high net worth individuals whose only contribution to reality appears to be attending the group meetings where the residents decide where they want to sail to next.

As Steve explained this, I was mentally refining my screenplay pitch about it. ("It's Lost meets High Rise meets Speed 2: Cruise Control. We'll start with ten episodes. It'll be a puzzler. Big twists. But not too cerebral. Lots of sex. Tasteful, again. Nipples, no bush. I'm thinking Milla Jovovich and Chris Pratt.")

There are plenty of tales of people ending up living on commercial boats, too – many couples who retired to see out their days in constant laps of the globe. When the QEII was sold off, it meant an unexpected end-of-lease for one lady who'd been living there for ten years. Even after her husband had died of a heart attack while the boat was pulling out of Mumbai docks, she'd cruised on. At only £3,500 a month, the ocean liner was a very affordable retirement home.

UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF CRUISING

The paper CVs continued to stack up in their heaps. We drifted between stands collecting free gifts: mints, compasses, pens, branded wine-pouring spouts, whistles, mirrors. The list of jobs available was vast. Art auctioneers. Tennis coaches. Ship's photographers. Dancers. Spa therapists. Guest lecturers.

I scanned the faces around me. Among all the spunk-checked 23-year-olds, there were also a surprising number of middle-aged types. A Thai woman in her forties was queueing upfront of the Holland America stand. "Oh, you know, I just thought I'd try, see what happens," she giggled. "I just thought I'd like to get out of England, you know?"

A Trinidadian of at least 40 told me he was hoping to become a bell boy. "There are a lot of cruises in the Caribbean," he explained. "I been on a couple as a guest. I like it, you know… it's nice."

Well, if it's nice... But I couldn't help thinking that, as you wade deeper into life, you might start to hope you'll be too busy, too entangled in people and things and important stuff to part with a year and not be missed.

Cruising might be Milan Kundera's distinction between a life of lightness and one of heaviness: as much as we're all suckers for freedom, deep down we also yearn to be tied to our possessions, our community. Being at sea is a loophole, a canny out. What you are in the real world can be postponed so long as you're part of this frail travelling coincidence, this floating Neverland.

Steve was more practical. "Companies are very reluctant to employ older staff," he pointed out. "Not only is it a fitness thing; at sea, it's all your social life too. You can't hold back. You've got to fit into the culture – the older ones struggle with that."

THE SEA AND COCK

Ah yes, the culture. "Every night is a Friday night, every morning is a Monday morning," was the stock phrase I'd already heard before Steve trotted it out. Any ship's staff quarters is a hothouse – all the lightning-fast friendships and swirling enmities of a small society. "On a ship, you might have 500 crew. So how often do you think someone on that crew is going to be celebrating their birthday?"

"1.39 times per day," I supplied, statistically accurately.

In his memoir of the cruising industry, Cruise Confidential, Brian David Bruns talked about the opportunities for cultural exchange. "It's kind of a crime on ships to date someone of your own ethnicity," Bruns wrote. "Everybody hooks up with everybody." That most folk share a cabin seems to be no impediment. In this boiler room atmosphere, relationships of vast intensity are born, then die away within weeks.

The greatest pleasure – but the greatest taboo – is crossing the passenger-staff barrier of fluids-exchange, potentially leaving the company open to huge legal liability. "They'll drop you off at the next port if they catch you," said Steve.

Bruns goes on:

"I've met many, many women who have slept with officers expecting benefits, such as promotions. And by promotions, I generally mean elevation from a particularly toilsome job to one that's physically easier (say, from waitress to hostess – a drop in pay but an easier life).

"They may get to share a nicer cabin with their officer and experience some sense of elevation over their peers, but that's about it. Officers almost as a rule have an annual ship squeeze, ditching her when they go home to their families and then finding a new one at the beginning of the next contract."

Yet Steve remained coy on his own sexploits, talking only vaguely of "a few dalliances" and "having my time".

CAPTAIN MY CAPTAIN

For all the free and easy interracial swinging, there's also a less comfortable, much deeper economic apartheid. In the 21st century, the boats are the global GDP pie chart in miniature. Poor Filipinos and Bangladeshis live below-deck, chopping vegetables and shining trays till they fall over. They hardly see the sun. They work all the days. Yet their wages reflect their countries of origin: a dollar-an-hour in many cases. Then, the low-level serving staff are Eastern Europeans. The top jobs, the top money, goes to the Westerners, in arts and ents, massaging and engineering and accounting.

For all the oversupply, staff turnover is also huge. Steve himself hated the sea at first. He quit after his first tour – until he was sucked back in two years later. He explains one way the operators try to thresh the keen from the merely curious: the mandatory Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers. STCW is a one-day safety-at-sea certificate that costs about a thousand pounds to complete. "It's a way of figuring out who is keen. Because if you're taking someone to sea, you need to know they're going to stick around."

Ship safety is having a moment right now. "The Costa Concordia was a real wake-up call to the industry," said Steve. "In my day, we spent so much time doing safety drills…" The day after the cruiser hit the rocks in Isola del Giglio, Tuscany, killing 32, the Costa corporation's share value shed $1 billion in a morning. In May of this year, Captain Francesco Schettino handed himself in to begin a 16-year sentence for manslaughter. "Captain Coward", the media dubbed him, after he fled the boat before it went down.

"As always, Italy needs to find a scapegoat," Schettino has since claimed. But by long-established convention, the captain is top-to-bottom responsible for every mouse that sprains its ankle aboard his ship – a CEO-slash-landlord who sits directly in the legal crosshairs for whatever goes wrong. The captain's cabin sits right below the control deck in case of emergency. Or, as in the case of the Concordia, so that it can become a convenient base for the captain to pack his wash bag and find the nearest life-raft.

The safety situation has been complicated lately by the fact that ships have started hiring two captains. There's an increasing distinction between the guy who gets things done, and the guy who is paid to schmooze with the passengers in the dining halls.

"In olden times, people would just accept that the captain was a grumpy bugger," Steve explained. "But now, it's all very professional. People are paying thousands of dollars; they demand someone who can schmooze them."

Now, it's more of a CEO vs Chairman of the Board distinction. The Captain is selected more for his personality: a conciliator, a ring-kissing suave gentleman who can wear his naval whites while small-talking Doris and Leon from Des Moines. Meanwhile, in the background, his less civil cognate, the 2-i-c, is actually running the nuts and bolts: CEO of a floating city, plotting the course, sending annotated emails about the insufficiency of rubber sealant on the heating units, or briefing the lawyers on the next HR bloodbath.

THE SEA, THE SEA

The stands were already winding down by the time Steve sidled over to someone clutching a stack of paper CVs, slapping him heartily on the back.

"Sorry," he explained after the pair had been jawing for a few minutes. "I haven't seen that guy in five years. But, y'know, when you've worked at sea together, you have that familiarity that sticks with you."

That's the bond of the sea for you… When you've looked a roomful of honeymooners in the eye and told them the Secrets of the Atzecs day excursion is cancelled due to a lack of insurable dune buggies, you just know. We all have our own 'Nams. We can all recall precisely the atheists we prayed with inside our foxholes. Bonded forever, because the outside world will never, ever know what you know about running out of garlic-fried scallops before the end of the buffet service.

It sticks with you. Which is why I can't quite shake the sense that Steve has left an important part of himself somewhere in the oceans.

"I spent the last month of my last contract trying to talk myself out of leaving. Every day, I'd be thinking: 'Why am I quitting this? I have the best job in the world…'"

So why did you?

"Basically, it was time. I was in my late twenties. I wanted normal things – you know, a flat, a cat, a girlfriend…."

Do you still miss it, Steve? Did you make the right call?

"Sometimes. When it's pouring down with rain in London, I do think: 'Oh god! Why am I here?'"

He looks wistful.

"But no."

Then recovers. "I think I made the right decision."

He looks off… "In the long-term."

@gavhaynes / @chloeorefice