Behind The “Crew Only” Door

Old Salt asked,
”There are a couple of things I’d be interested in learning about your ship-board experience and perhaps othersmight, too.

Tell us about the daily lives of the other crew members. How they work and what they do when not at work.

Some of the logistics of the ship…how do they handle the every day detritus of living…trash, etc.”
The following is totally “unofficial” and you never heard any of this from me  . . .

The daily lives of crew members depend, as it would in any big operation, on your job and your position (in ship-terms, read “rank”). Everything is under the Captain who is kind of the CEO of the ship, and is responsible and accountable to the home office for everything. Yes, ultimately he is responsible for “driving” the ship, although I suspect he spends most of his time filling out reports for the home office. The Staff Captain is second in command and responsible for crew, discipline, the seaworthiness of the ship, drills and most of the actual deck operation. The Deck Department includes Chief Officer, 2nd Officer, yada yada all the way down to cadets, and sailors. Sailors being the guys who run the lines, operate the tenders, maintain the lifeboats and maintain the exterior of the ship. The Chief Security Officer is responsible for the security of the ship and is assisted by security staff. In our contemporary world this has become a very essential and important aspect of keeping everyone safe and happy.

The Chief Engineer is responsible for everything that makes the ship run, and responsible to keep it running. The Engineering Department includes the Chief Electrician, and the Chief Technical Officer (the CIO of the ship) which has become one of the most important positions on a modern cruise ship since almost everything is run by a computer of some kind! The Engineers have to be able to fix anything that breaks while at sea, and Home Depot or a land-based machine shop is a long way away, so we have to carry spare parts for everything. These guys have to understand and be able to repair everything . . . from a TV set to an engine.

Next to the Captain, the most important person on the ship is the Hotel Manager, or “Hot Man” who is responsible for pretty much everything that isn’t nautical or mechanical. He runs what is essentially a floating resort. So the Purser (the CFO) and his department, customer service and the front desk, shore excursion office and everything from the kitchens to the laundry and housekeeping are the responsibility of the Hotel Manager. The Food and Beverage Manager, Executive Chef, Bar Manager, Provisions Manager all ultimately report to the Hotel Manager.

The Medical Department generally reports to the corporate Medical Officer, via the Captain and Hotel Manager. The Senior Doctor and Medical Department are not only responsible for guest illnesses and emergencies, but must handle crew health and be ready to handle industrial accidents as well.

Also reporting to the Hotel Manager is the entire Entertainment Department which includes the Cruise Director, cruise staff, stage manager, stage hands, cast, musicians, guest entertainers, and yes, yours truly, the Destination Lecturer.

It is a hierarchical department and the number of stripes you have on your shoulder (or the equivalent) determine where you eat, what responsibilities and privileges you enjoy, what areas of the ship you can use while not working, if you have a window or not, if you have a cabin by yourself or have to share . . . and the list goes on and on. A single cabin with a window means you are near the top of the heap!

The former “Small Ship” ROYAL PRINCESS was a small ship and about 280 crew members come from all over the world, and all live together, work very hard together, get along with each other in spite of various cultures, ethnic groups and religions and have a lot of fun as a family.  Larger ships may have 600-1000 crew, and the mega, floating-resort ships of Royal Caribbean may have as many as 2,000 crew.

Days are long for most crew and work is hard, both physically draining for many and patience-draining for others . . . no further comment, but you can imagine . . . how do you answer with a genuine smile the same dumb question that you have been asked 3,789 times?

Here’s a shot of part of the “main road” in crew town . . . called the “M1” by Brits and Aussies, and the “I5” by Americans. It runs the entire length of the ship and pretty much leads to almost everything in the crew area. From here it’s down, down, down . . . to the crew bar (only one on this ship . . . ZUIDERDAM and DAWN PRINCESS had a crew bar and “OB” or Officer’s Bar), most crew cabins, laundry, provisions, storage, engine room, shops and the “guts” of the ship.

I joke about living on “V Deck” . . . as in Jules Verne. It’s a long, long way down, but the big plus is that I have a built-in aquarium on the wall. Actually I get a guest entertainer cabin or the equivalent of a 3-stripe, mid-level officer cabin. Sometimes I have a “fleet officer cabin” often with portholes, in a crew area, but with a big desk which is much more convenient for working than the small “desk” in passenger cabins.

This was Christmas on ISLAND PRINCESS …

“Home Sweet Home” the only way to “Escape Completely” when working …

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Entertaining, inside passenger cabin on ROYAL PRINCESS …

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We have two crew dining rooms on ROYAL . . . here is the Crew Mess where most crew eats . . .  The larger ships also have an Officer’s Dining Room.  ZUIDERDAM also had a “Dirty Officer’s Dining Room” which wasn’t for the guys to sit and read HUSTLER but for the Engineers who often, regardless of the number of “stripes,” had to eat in dirty, greasy coveralls.


And yes,they have much of the same food the guests eat at the Lido Buffet, along with some ethnic foods the Indian and Filipino crew prefer. Strictly self-service.

Here’s the Staff Dining Room for officers, staff and concessioners (casino, photographers, salon andshop folks). Here there is a buffet as well as the menu from the guest dining room. Since the chefs all eat here as well, everything is always served to perfection!

I can eat anywhere on the ship [Well, I USED to … now at least on Princess I have to eat with the passengers, playing the “consumate host” although without any privileges to buy wine for the table.  How “consumate host” is that?] . . . sometimes it feels like everywhere and all the time . . . so when my daughter, Rebecca, and my wife were on, we ate in guest areas. Now that I’m alone . . . . so sad! . . . I eat in the Staff Dining Room and it is a lot of fun. Typical evening at one of the large tables you have folks from the Medical Department, Purser’s Office, musicians, entertainers, casino and salon folks . . . usually representing six to twelve different countries, and we all have a fun dinner with stimulating conversation, and yes, some occasional bitching about what we call “special guests” . . . which would include nobody who is reading this! It’s a chance to turn off the “professional” smile, kick back and be ourselves with no one watching, which when you are “on stage” most of the day is relaxing and fun. Nobody is going to come up, just as you are shoveling food into your mouth and say, as one woman did,
“You! You’re you, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I think so . . .”
“Well, what do you think about the tour in St Lucia? Can I take my walker along? And will it rain?”

The worst word in the English language is “but” … “I don’t want to bother you while you are eating, BUT …”

Another fun thing about the Staff Dining Room is that the house wine, at least on Princess, was free! Something about some Italian union contract.  Obviously that is therapeutic and stimulates the flow of conversation.

Now, all those exotic ports the crew gets to visit . . .

I’m fortunate. Since I “work” for Princess as an independent contractor, so I don’t have all the responsibilities (like I did on Holland America) of crew. So I don’t have to do all the crew training, climb into a life raft or “survival craft” and for the most part my job means that I have to go on all the shore excursions and be ashore. Most of the crew only get to go ashore when they a) are not scheduled to be working, b) there is no scheduled crew drill (of which there are many), and if c) they do not have “IPM”. “IPM” stands for “In Port Manning” and no matter how exotic and exciting the port may be, and how much “free time” you have that day, if you have “IPM” you aren’t going anywhere. Even if the ship is docked, emergencies can happen, so the ship must always have enough crew on board to cover any emergency situation. Obviously, all the crew can’t be ashore having a beer at the same time: hence, “IPM.” So before you rush out and sign on as crew for 6 to 12 months, understand that it’s more “work” than “exotic ports”!

But we do have fun . . . and the current fun is that everyone is murdering everyone else. The crew “Murder Mystery” is on. Everyone who signs up and pays $5 is given the picture of someone else and an assignment to murder that person in a particular way, like . . . Stabbing . . . with a banana

  • Poisoning . . . with a red dot under a glass or plate or spoon
  • Strangling . . . over the head with an Hawaiian lei
  • Fatal injection . . . being squirted with a syringe
  • The Kiss of Death . . . being kissed on the face by an assassin, male or female, wearing red lipstick.

When you get killed, the person you killed you now must take on any “hit” you haven’t completed. Murdering can only happen in crew areas while not working, so obviously the staff dining room has become much like eating in a mafia-run clam house in Little Italy. In the end, the winner is the only person standing and takes the entire pot.

Trash is a problem. Nothing goes overboard. Everything is sorted. What can be recycled is recycled. What can be incinerated is incinerated. The rest is offloaded to trash hauling companies in the major ports at great cost. So, obviously, everyone tries to reduce the amount of trash as much as possible. Like all cruise ships we divide waste water into “gray water” and “black water” and dispose it so as to meet all regulations. Obviously we want to protect the oceans on which we sail . . . and we want to avoid the tremendous fines for noncompliance. ROYAL PRINCESS is presently, while we sail, installing an even more sophisticated plant for processing waste water in order to be able to comply with Alaska’s even more stringent regulations since ROYAL will be sailing this summer in Alaskan waters.

It is a wonderful thing for folks from 30-35 different nationalities, different religions, colors, and languages to all come together, work together and play together to achieve the common goal of delivering guests a memorable cruise.

Holland America used to close out the cruise with much of the crew on stage singing this song, which unfortunately they have abandoned.