“One more contract and I’m done”
An attempt to explain cruise ship employment addiction
We’ve all heard it before: “I swear this is my last contract” or “One more contract and I’m done.” These phrases are used a lot, mostly by people on their first contracts as cruise ship employees. They’re very serious about it as if they really believe what they are saying. The rest of us cruise ship veterans just smile at each other and shake our heads. We remember when we were young, naive, and new to ships, and we told ourselves the same lies. Being a crew member on a cruise ship is incredibly addictive. Well, some people hate it and never do a second contract. For the rest of us, quitting ships is like trying to kick a drug habit.
The first step towards recovery is admitting you have a problem. So, I will attempt to explain the addiction that has controlled my life since I first got hooked five years ago.
Your first hit
It’s actually really hard to adjust to “ship life” at first. You arrive on board all bright eyed and excited. Then, before you’ve even found your cabin, they bombard you with trainings, policies, rules and documents with lots of fine print. Some recruiter lured you there with some really beautiful instagrams of good-looking crew members on a beach, but for the first few weeks all you ever seem to do is work and go to safety trainings.
|Crew member bait|
The average crew member will tell themselves that they’re never coming back multiple times a day at the beginning. - Just like you tell yourself when you’re hungover that you will never drink again. It doesn’t take long for the sparkle in your eyes to be replaced by a really disillusioned “Is this really what I signed up for?” look when reality sets in.
Then it starts to take hold
After a while though, you find your feet. The new, unusual and daunting parts of the job start to become more routine and mundane. You make friends. Though you’re exhausted, you go to some parties, you start to enjoy the perks, and eventually, just when you thought you’d never get off the ship, you find yourself posing for the same type of pictures that lured you there. Somehow, despite yourself, you really start to enjoy yourself …while simultaneously still hating certain aspects of the job.
|Me hosting the 11:45am ice-carving demonstration|
The problem with vices like drugs and cruise ships is that they completely take over your life. Before you know it, you’re working seven days a week for six to eight months at a time, during which, unless you are given a sick day, you will enjoy zero days off. There are no such things as weekends. Working close to 70 hours a week is just not sustainable, except somehow it is. All your working hours have to be recorded on a time sheet so you know just how tired you are. The guests are often under a misperception that you have time between cruises to recuperate. Ha! That’s almost as funny as what they think we earn. They're so cute like that!
There is literally not enough time for you to get enough sleep, have friends, leave the ship occasionally, and do your job well (or even two of the above) and yet somehow we do. And we do it with smiles on our exhausted faces because we’re in hospitality and it’s part of the job. Yes, you get to see the world, but even though you look really happy in those pics, you never get to fully relax without watching the clock. Likewise, you meet amazing people, they become your friends, your ship-family, sometimes a romantic partner, but hanging above each of your heads is a sign-off date, beyond which there are no guarantees you’ll ever see each other again. It’s like ‘ship life’ gives you a little taste of some of the most amazing things the world has to offer without ever allowing you to fully revel in it or claim it as your own.
|Working late at the office|
Somehow the transience of it all becomes normal to you, but as much as you try to savor the best bits of the adventure you’re on, there’s another part of you that pines for something more permanent; like meaningful longterm relationships and family, a sense of belonging, and a place to call home. While you may start off thinking that your adventure may lead you to these things, the more time you spend on board, the more you realise how completely incompatible they are with ‘ship life’.
As much as I love to travel, I would be lying if I didn’t say that there’s also a part of me that wants to bake cookies, decorate a home (with unicorns and flamingos), have a longterm possibly indefinite relationship with someone whose life is geographically and culturally compatible with mine, have pets, and procreate so that I too can recount inappropriate birth stories in way too much detail with other moms (because that’s what they do). And I am sad that this dream exists in direct opposition to the one I’ve been living for the past five years. I know I am not alone in feeling this way.
For people who have spouses or children back home (probably the majority of cruise ship crew members), the feeling of being torn between these two worlds, land and sea, is so much harsher. Not to mention the guilt experienced by missing out on the significant events in your children’s lives. Inevitably, we all find ourselves tormented by Facebook posts about weddings, engagements, pregnancies, birthdays, anniversaries and other milestones, pining for what we are missing back home in ‘the real world’ (probably about as much as people who are stuck on land pine for the adventures we document online).
It starts to take a toll
Regardless of who you are and how long you’ve been at this, when you are nearing the end of your contract, you will start to go a little crazy. Your temper gets significantly shorter, being polite to rude guests becomes harder, and you start counting down the days to vacation. If you extend your contract or if your contracts are longer than six months, after this point it is not pretty. You start snapping at your friends. Any unexpected hiccups or extra duties require more energy than you have left. You hit the level of exhaustion that when you eventually climb into bed at night and you realise that you are drifting to sleep, you become so excited by this, that it actually wakes you up a little. You start considering other employment options and debating whether or not you want to do this again, whether or not you’re even physically able to return after your break.
|Yup, that's me lying on the helicopter winch pad, hoping to be rescued|
After working seven days a week, on a giant floating hotel with intoxicated vacationers asking the same (often stupid) questions every cruise and being rude to you when you try to help them, reaching levels of exhaustion even parents of newborns can’t fathom, being away from your family, in an existence so far removed from reality that your life seems in limbo except it’s not, you get to the point where you just can't take it anymore. Then, your sign-off date arrives, you hug your friends and colleagues-turned-family good-bye and you leave a piece of your heart behind. You find yourself simultaneously desperate and reluctant to see the end.
Once you have woken up from your semi-coma (you take a few days to sleep), you reconnect with your friends and family, and eat all of the food you missed on the ship. You cherish the memories that you made, but you cannot fathom putting yourself through that ever again. You resolve that you will not return.
You try to go cold turkey
Life is good …for about 45 minutes.
Then, you start going through all of the withdrawal symptoms:
- Smiling and greeting strangers when you walk through your local shopping mall.
- Feeling for your name badge every time you leave your house.
- Repeatedly referring to your bedroom as your ‘cabin’.
- Sweating, vomiting, seizures and hallucinations. No wait, that’s something else.
As you start to remember how to live on land again, a restlessness sets in. The pace of real life suddenly seems awkwardly slow. You are confronted with this huge vacuum of nothingness where the crazy intensity of life in a floating metal pressure cooker that is ‘ship life’ used to be …and you start to miss it.
You lie awake at night tormented by the silence and stillness of your bedroom (It’s so quiet!) contemplating your existence. When you’re on the ship you’re either working, hanging out with amazing people from all over the world, or sleeping, so you never really stop to think. Suddenly, you have the freedom to do whatever you want with your life, but trying to figure out what that is when you have this much free time is overwhelming.
In the time you have been away, your friends and family have moved on without you, your job has been occupied by someone else. No one needs you here. Your place is gone. But people do want to hear your stories, the ones behind the pictures you took, the ones about the people you met and the adventures you had. Suddenly, you are that interesting person who works on a cruise ship and your job is not just part of your identity, it’s one of the most interesting things about you.
After making toast for yourself three times, you remember how much you hate cooking. Your money doesn’t go very far, you have to buy food and petrol and - after using all your income on internet, crew bar drinks and other luxuries - you start to remember what ‘necessities’ are. And then there’s tax!
Suddenly you forget the terrible crew mess food, the incessant safety drills that got in the way of your port time, the ridiculous rules, and the fact that you had a curfew in your thirties! You forget about the silly policies that make no sense, and the mean people who hide behind the silly policies that make no sense, because even though they can help you, they don’t feel like it. You forget the rude guests who are impossible to please, because they are just horrible people. You forget the fake smiles that you gave the rude guests who are impossible to please, because they are just horrible people, but they paid your salary.
You realise you have a problem
After a few weeks, when you can’t come up with a decent plan B, when every job out there seems boring, when life seems so painfully slow and you’re missing your ship family, the nights you got no sleep, and the crazy things you did on port days, when you remember how much life on land sucks, (and there aren’t even any Latin boys in South Africa!) you start drafting that email that you know you have to send one month before your expected return to either confirm or cancel your next contract.
You feel like a mermaid (or merman): One part fish, one part woman, torn between land and sea, family and independence, roots and wings. (Okay, mermaids have neither roots nor wings, but you get the picture.) The more you nurture the one half of you, the more the other pines for attention. The idea of ever finding completeness again seems impossible. The only thing worse than being this restless, the only thing worse than being torn between these two worlds, is only knowing one of them.
I’ve decided that it’s time for me to get off this rollercoaster (as mermaids do …this metaphor is getting complicated), but I’m not leaving the fun fair.
After five years, I need to find my feet again (also, there are a number of reasons I need to be home right now). It’s hard, and it sucks, and I feel like a fish out of water. Choosing to stay on land is excruciating. It feels like one part of me is dying, because, well, it is. I miss that part of me. But no one can live on ships forever. (Seriously, sooner or later you will fail that medical and they wont want you back.) Eventually, you have to live on land and if you only nurture your fish half, then your land or human half dies and there’s nothing left to build a life with.
And then in a few months when I have finally found my land legs, I might just relapse and return to my life at sea - possibly to the same cruise line, possibly a different one (the ocean is always bluer on the other side) - because that’s just how us tormented cruise ship employment addicted merfolk roll.
But I swear it’s just for one more contract and then I’m done!
|One last walk down the "I-95" (the name of the the main crew hallway on most ships)...for now.|
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