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My first job at sea was on The Pride of Aloha cruise ship in Hawaii working for Norwegian Cruise Line America. I was worked 12 hours a day or more as a waitress without a day off for six months. The ship was 850 feet long, we had more than 2,000 passengers per week and approximately 800 crew. We did a weekly cruise from Honolulu to the major islands in Hawaii such as The Big Island, Maui and Kauai where we ended in Honolulu again. The next day we started the route again.
Passengers were from all over the world, all ages and income levels. Safety and health onboard was taken very seriously by officers onboard and we were punished with either a warning or being fired if any of the rules were breached. We were frequently breathalyzed coming onboard and, if anyone had alcohol on their breath, they were escorted to their cabin, where they would pack with an officer watching them and then taken ashore.
Funnily enough, however, we had a crew bar onboard and were allowed to drink onboard as long as we didn’t seem drunk or stand out in any way.
Other crew amenities were a smallish gym, a computer room and a crew mess where we would be served a buffet three times per day.
As a waitress, I shared a cabin with three other girls. We had four bunks in our room, one small locker each and a small head where the shower had no border between it and the rest of the head.
Every Friday, we had cabin inspection and if we didn’t pass, we couldn’t get off the ship during our breaks. Inspections were very strict.
The ship was normally docked or anchored by around 6 a.m. My day consisted of working in the breakfast buffet in the morning, wiping tables, sweeping floors, stocking and restocking food and dishes. I would serve guests drinks or whatever they needed while they ate. Then I would clean their tables afterwards. If I worked lunch, I would work in the main dining hall, running food and cleaning up tables.
After serving lunch I would often leave the boat…er…ship (I was told over and over it’s NOT a boat) to explore the Hawaiian Islands. A few of us would rent a car, drive around, go swimming, eat lunch and shop.
Around 6 p.m., all passengers and crew were back onboard and we’d start cruising again. For dinner, the ship had two main dining halls with a galley the size of a football field in between them. I’d receive the food ticket from my head waiter for any amount of tables and make my way to the galley where I’d stack as many plates with lids onto a large oval tray. I did this with drinks as well. I’d drop them off at the station only to find another stack of tickets. I’d clean up old glasses and plates in between.This was tiring and by 10 or 11 p.m., it was time to clean our stations and get ready to leave.
We had a three bucket system for cleaning top to bottom, inside and out. One bucket had hot soapy water, one had sanitizer and one had plain hot water. We could not leave until our manager got around to inspecting our station with a checklist.
In my time there, I also worked in the bar and in the fine dining restaurant as well. They were a little more relaxed and had better service and food.
I remember being so tired once, I slept in my uniform and got up the next morning only to brush my teeth, put on my breakfast uniform shirt and off I went for my next shift.
The pay wasn’t great for the hours we were working. However, we only had a few hours off per day, so saving was quite easy. From what I remember, I was being paid around $2,500 to $2,800 per month which was more money than I had made in my life yet. As a 24-year-old with little debt I saved just what I needed to travel to Europe.
Because we were Americans, we were paid overtime and holiday pay as well. Rumor has it that Norwegian Cruise Line discontinued their American branch of ships because Americans were just too tough to work with. We demanded a lot and had to be paid a lot.
The training facility where we did our “silver service” and STCW was in Maryland. We arrived with a group of 29 people which became our “class.” We did all of our studying together, we couldn’t leave the facility at all, and they had the same rules as they had onboard the ship to prepare us for life at sea. There was a zero alcohol tolerance, sanitation and safety rules. We stayed in dorm rooms similar to the ship.
Normal contracts onboard were for five months and then we would get five weeks off. You would then return for another contract. Everyone advised us to make it through our first contract as then there was a better chance of being promoted. New recruits were definitely picked on and tested by management.They really wanted to weed out the crew who could not adjust to living life in rank and being treated as a number.
It took a lot for any good work to be recognized by management. It took very little to be given a PIN (Performance Improvement Notice). I had chapstick in my station drawer in the restaurant, for example and was given a PIN for a health and safety violation.
If you collected three of these PINs you would then meet with a variety of managers and they would decide whether or not to fire you.
Yes, life onboard was strict, exhausting and a bit difficult at times. Still, I made some of the best friends and, in hindsight, we still had a blast. My only regret is not enjoying it even more. We often took things too seriously because we got wrapped up in all of the drama at sea.
Personally, I feel life is much better working onboard yachts. Depending on the boat you work on, there is more freedom, better pay, a higher quality lifestyle and you get to travel to different places more often. Still, there is something about working on a cruise ship for the experience that I wouldn’t rule out entirely, especially if you only want to do it for a season.
Find info on working on a cruise ship visit www.cruiselinesjobs.com.
Angela Orecchio is a chief stew and certified health coach.This column is from her blog, Savvy Stewardess, The Smart Girl’s Guide to Yachting. Contact her at www.savvystewardess.com.