Glamour, grit working on a cruise ship

My Ship Life StoryEver seen the Love Boat?  I used to watch that television show as a little girl and think, “Wow, Julie really has the life!”  That was Julie McCoy, the cruise director.  Meeting new people, wearing fancy dresses, falling in love every week…cruising seemed like a great experience.  Two years ago I decided to chuck my job and find out for real.

Getting hired to go to sea can be a lengthy process.  I was lucky.  A friend alerted me to an ad in the Toronto Star stating that a cruise line was coming to town to hold interviews and three days later I went.  It was a nerve-racking experience, one of the worst of my life.  There were about 200 talented people applying for only a few openings.  The cruise line was also recruiting in Britain and Sweden.

We were told even those chosen to do the training might have to go home afterwards and wait for an opening.  As we each made our two minute mini presentations, I was thankful for the two years I participated in the Toastmasters public speaking program.  I was in cosmetic sales at the time, and as someone who didn’t go to University, I needed to boost my self confidence and communication skills.  Thanks to this training, I was ready when my turn came to make a mini presentation at the cruise interviews.  I saw many others show so much talent while practicing, then flop in front of the judges.

Days later the big phone call came…”We would like to offer you the position of Social Hostess.”  Okay, so I got a little excited.  Time to shop for those beautiful gowns!  And throw a cocktail party to practice for the real thing!

The training course took place in England.  For a few weeks- no days off- we went from 8 a.m. until 11 at night.  The last days were gruelling as we waited to see who would get rostered immediately on to the ship.

I was one of the lucky ones.  I had been offered a position right after my interview, knew I’d be sailing.  But many of us became friends during the training and waiting to learn who would be sent home was stressful for everyone.

When I arrived at my ship, I was assigned to the 30 person Entertainment team.  My pay would be $600CDN a week tax free, meals and lodging included.  Our ship had just been refurbished and we’d be making the inaugural voyage.  The energy our team had during orientation was amazing.  We took turns making each other laugh and telling stories about bizarre situations as we went about getting to know the full ship’s company of 520 people.

Then came the moment we had all been waiting for…Bring on the passengers!

Life at sea soon settled into a routine.  At each port, I started the day before breakfast at the Gangway, saying goodbye with a big smile to the hundreds of passengers going ashore that day.  Then I’d work out the next guest list for the captains table and write up the invitations.  I passed the day calling bingo, overseeing the sports deck, doing an interview on the shops radio station, teaching line dancing in cow-girl gear, solving passenger problems.  My position was a new one so everyone passed their little jobs off to me.  I can laugh about it – now.

At 5, I’d be back at Gangplank to welcome returning passengers.  The sail away was next and I’d mix with people, hear about their day, sip champagne and watch the sun go down.  Next was pre-dinner drinks with the Captain and his guests.  The conversation at the dinner table was always stimulating.  One night a man got down on bended knee and proposed to his girlfriend.

Nights at sea were always active.  On “theme nights” we stayed on duty, dancing in the disco until the staff curfew at 1:30 a.m.  Then we usually continued dancing … below decks.  Out of sight of passengers, we threw cabin parties where we drank copious amounts of alcohol and gossiped about who was sleeping with whom.  Sometimes the girls held a girls night when we’d sauna, do our nails and choose gowns for the next formal night.

Below decks, the only social hierarchy was the living quarters.  The sailors, the waiters, everyone socialized for the most part.  After all we were all in the same boat, so to speak!

A tip for cruise-goers:  Bring two formal outfits for one week, more if you’re staying for two.  And get as glammed up as possible, because the Entertainment staff always are!  Why not?  It’s so much fun when people are dressed up and feeling good.  When in La la land, enjoy it.

I have wonderful memories of people I met on the ship.  My first captain was a real bon vivant, very witty, lots of charm.  He was such a hearty mixer, people got confused after a while.  Was he a “show captain,” they’d ask?  Who was really running the ship?

Among the passengers I remember were a mother and daughter, with us for two weeks, having a blast getting to know each other again.  And an older man grieving his wife lost to cancer.  I made sure to chat with him everyday.  He enjoyed reliving the memories of his wife and I enjoyed listening.  He said to me, “You know, it’s almost like she’s here with us.”

My favorite part of ship life became time spent in the ports .  Some times, I’d go ashore on my own.  If you’ve never traveled alone, try it!  One you get your confidence, interesting things start to happen.

In Naples a little old women I met in the fruit market invited me home for lunch.  Her house was beautiful, 200 years old and in her family the whole time.  Almost the whole family was there: I made number 14 for lunch.  My Italian isn’t great, but we had a wonderful afternoon with lots of cheers over the homemade red wine.  Then it was time to get back to the ship to call bingo.

That night I wrote in my journal, “Life is great, people are wonderful and I am soooooo glad I am experiencing all this.”  The journal and my photographs from my travels are priceless to me.  When I get older I’ll love sitting in my rocking chair reminiscing.

Of course we all have our bad days, but on a cruise ship your not allowed to show it.  The Entertainments team told me I was a better actor than most at keeping a big smile in place.

What I learned is that no matter how much fun you’re having in La La Land (which is any kind of lifestyle that inspires others to say, “Wow, you’re so lucky to be doing that”) there will come a time when it balances out.  Many on board who had worked at sea for years confided that they were afraid to go back to the real world.  Whenever they went home between sailings, things had changed so much they didn’t feel as if they fit in.  Ship life, I decided, is something to do for experience, not forever.

As the months passed, the cruise life started becoming monotonous.  Our team spirit began to fade.  To many stories caused jealousy, to many bad habits and pet peeves can become inescapable irritations on a ship.  The differences among 37 nationalities doing jobs that ranged from seagoing officers to entertainers, hairstylists and waiters began to cause friction.  Enough gossip ran around the ship to fill an on board version of the National Enquirer.  I can see the front page now!

“Officer sleeps with Dust Buster” – Details, photo of chambermaid, page 3 or “Gay man wears glam cocktail dress, boyfriend confused!” – page 4 or “Beyond the Mile High club – Join the many who have done it in a lifeboat at sea” -Story page 6.

We were sailing the Western Mediterrean in the summer of 1998 when NATO planes began bombing the Serbians occupying Kosovo.  There wasn’t much ship talk about this near by war going on.  It wasn’t a holiday topic.  But one night I sat with a couple and they told me some good news, that the bombing had just ended.  The next day over cappacino, I told a team member the was was finally over.  She said “What war?”  It was then I realised I was loosing touch with the real world.  After traveling to 25 countries and living in the Cayman Islands for a few years (Another La La Land!) it was now time to move on back into reality.  I handed in my 5 weeks notice.

Those last weeks were the best.  I took advantage of free time and discovered all 12 ports we visited.  In Villefranche – the fashion was incredible – I bought some unique jewelry, sampled French cuisine.  (Crepes with goats cheese and ham, yum!)  Barcelona contained beautiful architecture which told stories of it’s history.  (And, amazing shopping)  Looking back I can truly say that anyone who’s never been on a cruise should try it at least once.  I thought I would get seasick, but on a big ship I hardly knew we were moving.  Cruising was a great way to taste different cultures so I could either say, Been there, thanks!”  or I want to go back.”

A year has passed and I now live in Sydney, Australia, and am brainstorming the country doing journalism and video projects.  I am enjoying life in the real world again, but I wouldn’t change my past travel experiences for anything.  I have been Julie on the Love Boat … the true to life “uncut version.”

This story was printed in the Toronto Star Special Section

By Beverly Bowman

Thursday April 27, 2000