First Person CRUISE_FI_001_1

Jumping Ship

Even in paradise, working on a cruise ship was no vacation


Self: “Hello, my name is Erica.” (Insert handshake).
Prospective Employer: “Erica, nice to meet you. Tell me about yourself.”
Self: “I just finished working on a cruise ship in Hawaii.”
Prospective Employer: “A cruise ship! Doesn’t everyone on the ship have to be analyzed by a shrink? Who knows whom you may be living with!”
Self: “It wasn’t the crew I was worried about.”

She sat with perfect posture at a table for two next to the ship window, book poised in her hands as if it were a bird. Her eyes flitted up at me when I approached her side. “Could you stand toward the end of the table, please,” she inquired. “My neck cramps when I turn it too much to the left,” she explained.

“Absolutely,” I said, smiling through clenched teeth. Even though the hours outside the restaurant clearly read, “Open from 5:30PM to 9:00 PM,” for the third night in a row, Ms. Smith had arrived exactly five to nine and finished her meal at midnight. Monitoring her staff’s timesheet and realizing I had only worked 48 hours for the week, the manager bequeathed me the late table. “Get her out of here by 11 at the latest,” she hissed in my ear then turned and stalked to her office.

“I can’t stand the idea of touching that thing! Its filthy,” Ms. Smith exclaimed, recoiling as I attempted to hand her a menu. “Could you hold it for me please,” she asked, batting her lashes upward.

I obliged and she, resting only her wrists on the tablecloth, bent forward until her reading glasses were inches from the paper. “What are this evening’s specials?” she asked. “The menu on the left-hand side changes daily,” I said. “As such, there is only one addition. Cashew-encrusted tilapia served with herbed couscous and a coconut beurre blanc.”

“No, no,” she adamantly shook her head. “I will have the Caesar salad. Now I want this done a specific way, take notes,” she said.

My eyes widened slightly, and narrowed in feigned steely concentration. “Try me,” I said with a smile.

“Trust me, you are going to wish you wrote this down and if you mess this up…” she trailed off.

“I’m ready,” I prompted.

“I want Caesar salad, with ONLY hearts of romaine. I need the dressing and Parmesan cheese on the side and also anchovy and lemon on the side as well. After that, I want time to read my book. I will let you know when I am ready for the next course. THEN, I would like the salmon. But I need it to be poached gently with lemon, with the caper beurre blanc served on the side. I don’t eat very much. But I like to enjoy what I eat, so I eat very slowly. I’m warning you, this will take time,” she said. “Did you get all that?”

I did. On the ship, word of troublesome guests spreads like wildfire. I had already been informed of her eating habits and dining quirks before Ms. Smith even asked my name.

• • •

“What is life on board a cruise ship like?” guests would ask.

“It is beautiful, freeing, and regimented,” I would say.

Restaurant workers didn’t get a single day off when entertaining guests on a week-long cruise through the Hawaiian Islands. Unlike our guests, we hadn’t come to the ship for a vacation.

We worked morning and evening, hoarding savings, arming ourselves with financial backing for when our time on the water ended. With one firm eye on the future, we kept the other rooted in the present. Free afternoons became our most valuable commodity because they fed the very curiosity that brought us onboard in the first place.

Venturing the shores of Hawaii between shifts was as succulent as a bite of ripe papaya during a sugar-free diet. By the second week onboard I could go from work to vacation (land) in less than five minutes. I would clock out and skip down the two flights of stairs to my room, unfastening buttons as I went. Just inside my cabin, my uniform hit the floor before the door closed. The bikini hung by the door next to my favorite sarong and a floppy wide-brimmed hat. Within minutes I was back up the stairs, abandoning central air and fluorescent lighting for a free breezes and sunshine.

Operating with such purpose led me to live richly. In one week, I drove the windy hills of Maui, top-down in a red Jeep; meditated beneath the Banyan trees of Hilo; drank the strong fruity coffee of Kona; made drunken love on the beach following a luau in Kauai, and finished it all with a soothing pedicure in Honolulu.

Between my off-ship adventures, I also worked 60 hours per week. I was a Front Waiter in the largest restaurant onboard. Housing 550 seats, she was fondly referred to as the Thunderdome: Her servers were either rendered helpless by her chaos or sparked alive by her energy.

I was of the latter crew. Wearing fuchsia lipstick and glitter swept from the corner of my eyes up into my hairline, I was a cat-eyed pixie, bouncing table to table: three four-tops that could be swung open to encompass six, and one window table for two.

Sitting down, “What’s good?” new diners demanded, inquiring about the menu as well as adventures on land. I delivered advice on both, and the next day the same group would be back in my section, this time inquiring about me as well. Like this we built a working friendship. I made them laugh, gave them travel advice and fed their bellies. They basked in my attention, leaving me a thank you card stuffed with cash and sweet nothings after their last dinner.

Alas, no matter how sweet, the connection was broken when the cruisers disembarked in Honolulu Saturday morning. The busiest day, the ship emptied by 9AM only to refill with strangers by noon, and we shoved off on route to Maui, racing once again to make friends by nightfall.

• • •

An unruly wave, lurching the ship, temporarily washed away memories of my most recent thank you card. Catching my balance, I glanced up to catch the crazy lazy beckoning madly.

“Could you get me a new serviette? This one has touched the table and I couldn’t possibly…”

“Absolutely,” I cut her off, already dashing for another to lie across her lap just as the Caesar salad arrived.

“My water,” she said, beginning yet another request.

“Absolutely,” I nodded, dashing for the water pitcher with, “not too much ice.”

It should be noted that some weeks, I didn’t connect with guests at all.

“I know what you’re thinking, this crazy hoot,” she said with a laugh. What she didn’t know was that, every guest on this ship was a hoot.

I stood in the stairway leading down to my watertight, an underwater section of the ship sealed by watertight doors, and a friend and I recapped the evening as shipmates stumbled to their rooms. We commented on each as they passed by.

“Oh, how is Foxx?” I asked. “She’s still recovering from her brother’s death,” Erina said. “Can you believe the fight she had with her girlfriend?” I asked. “NO! But at least it didn’t turn out as badly as Arlou and the firefighter,” Erina replied. Arlou had caught her man cheating and slapped him across the face on the smoke deck. The assault was caught on camera and, adhering to Coast Guard law, both Arlou and the charlatan were fired and dropped off in port the following morning.

The stories were endless. While the crazy hoot in my section was certainly an unusual case, I could argue that she had more in common with us in her quirks and peculiarities than not. On the ship, we all found our place, and made some small stride toward a personal goal. The water gave us the liberty to function. In the end, that was all the difference.

Note: All names have been changed to protect the character’s identities and conscience.
Illustrations by Mackenzie Anderson

Erica Hope recently returned from a seven-month hiatus working for Norwegian Cruise Lines in Hawaii. Buckling down, Miss Hope is writing in the Philadelphia area and wrapping up her degree at Drexel University. She has contributed to They Eat That?, Restaurant Business Magazine, Heady Times, The Triangle, and Follow her on Twitter @SheIsInsatiable.


  1. Keneke says:

    This is brilliantly put. As a patron cruise ship mate, the relating is prevalent!!! Keep it up! Can’t wait to hear about your next adventure!!!

Leave a Reply