Updated: Jan 16, 2021
August 10, 2012, 4:07am
It is surprisingly busy on the roads at this time on an early Saturday morning in Mississauga, just outside of Toronto. I can’t help but wonder whether these cars contain high school students up early to get to their part-time weekend jobs on time, or business sector employees who are on their way home to bed. In the latter case, perhaps this is following that after-work Friday cocktail with the people from the office where time got lost in last calls, and last rounds…very much like the crew bar on a luxury cruise ship I will soon learn.
I am on my way to the Toronto airport in order to catch a plane to Miami where I will board a cruise ship. Again. This feels very different today, however, than it did on February 8th, 2003 when I flew from the same Toronto airport I am now traveling towards to Fort Lauderdale to board my first ship. Today I am not nervous or anxious, I am just mentally preparing myself for the inevitable dirge of stalled waiting lines as passengers first board planes, and then cruise ships. Note: passengers are called "guests" on a cruise ship. I will explain the importance of that semantic distinction later.
A decade ago, I did not really know what to expect when I was in a cab like this one making my way to the Toronto airport while trying to predict what the next six months had in store. Following the completion of those six months working on a cruise ship, however, I decided that in spite of the many great times that I had, and the many great people I had met, I would not be working on a cruise ship ever again. That was ten years ago. This morning I am heading to my tenth or eleventh ship, I forget. Since that first ship experience a decade ago, I have done contracts as long as six months, and as short as three days on and off for the past ten years. That is the funny curse of cruising: whenever anyone says they are done with ships, add two more contracts. Minimum.
One of the main allures of being a ship employee is the whole adventure of it all and the great potential to experience new things and meet new people. The seeming non-separation of work and play is a unique existence. You can view it as either all work or all play depending on your view of things, especially at my position as a member of the entertainment division where I am the drummer in the orchestra. It is a challenging musician job, requiring the musicians not only to be good music readers but also to be well versed in a lot of different musical styles and genres.
The oft-celebrated stereotype of any drummer is that they are crazy, a debauchery magnet, stay up all night every night, and have the attention of the ladies. I would soon find out that in spite of myself, I found these drummer stereotypes to be true to various degrees and notably apparent in the micro-world of a cruise ship.
One of the greatest strengths of anyone, cruise ship employee or otherwise, is how we take the negative aspects and episodes of our life’s journey and turn them into positive learning experiences so that tomorrow we are better than we were yesterday, last week, last year, last decade.
On a cruise ship, you have a unique opportunity to be the best version of yourself because in this new world your past doesn’t mean anything. Not only the best version of yourself but the real version of yourself. I have met many, many crew members that identify as LGBTQ individuals who on a ship feel liberated from the oppression and fear they feel in their home cultures and societies but within the ship community, feel support and love. I can't even imagine what kind of relief that must feel like.
When you arrive at your new job on a ship, you are a clean slate, as though you are walking out of the womb for the first time. Every time you leave a cruise ship job and then sign on to another vessel, you can take the lessons and experience and apply them to a new Ship Life. Every time you leave and then join a new ship, it’s kind of like a re-birth.
In other words, life begins and ends with your sign-on date and your sign-off date respectively. Just as the great moments in life seem fleeting, this sense of time passing is in overdrive when you are living in the cruise ship bubble. Once you sign-off of a cruise ship contract, it can feel like you died to your friends left behind on board. You may exchange a few emails (before social media) with a few friends that you got close with onboard, but once you are no longer intimately affiliated with the day-to-day life on a ship, you do not have much relevance to anyone onboard anymore. It sounds cold, but it's not meant to be.
My favorite way to look at life on a ship is as a microcosm of the whole world. At any time on any ship, you can have employees from fifty or sixty nations working and living together. This introduces someone to a whole other world of social customs and personalities, not to mention a whole new world of views towards women, hygiene standards, food preferences, and dating pick-up tactics.
You learn a lot about yourself and about the world by living and working on a ship because it is like reducing the scale of the world to a place that is within your immediate grasp all of the time. You cannot escape it. Living on a ship brings the beautiful and negative aspects of the human condition into a focus that is amazing, sometimes disturbing, and almost always surreal and educational. It is basically life on planet earth but experienced in an overwhelmingly concentrated proportion of time and physical space. It brings your self-awareness and the awareness of the world into vivid focus. That is part of the allure and the fascination of Ship Life.
For a guest onboard, by contrast, a cruise ship is equal parts a floating Las Vegas, Disneyland, college dorm, palliative care center, retirement community, Midwestern American mall food court, jail, and vacation rolled into one. The infrastructure you would need to make any city exist can be found on a ship from hairdressers, doctors, a church, fine dining establishments, an Irish Pub, a Broadway theatre, and almost anything else if you ask for it.
I love reading memoirs, especially if penned by musicians, actors, or others whose career is to perform, like athletes. They can be tragic and inspiring, and I suppose like any good story or movie, memoirs are almost always a tale of someone living through every part of the human experience and living to talk about it. The best books recount episodes of great joy balanced by adversity and then concluding with a ‘this is what I learned’ coda.
I am not a celebrity, not on land anyway. But as a musician on a cruise ship, I am Mick Jagger. To many ship travelers, you are playing the role of "Rockstar" in their “vacation of a lifetime” fantasy. It is a quirky, yet endearing part when you realize how far a little gesture can impact a guest. I recall one guest being blown away simply because I remembered her name from the previous day. She went as far as writing a letter to my supervisor where she said, “Imagine this superstar remembering the names of us normal people! Can you imagine how that feels?!” When my supervisor showed me this sweetly genuine and flattering note, I mused that this must happen to Jon Bon Jovi every day.
There is a job/role for you on any ship if you want to discover something new, exotic, and different, and to do something that has the potential to be incredible and educational in every way. Practically anyone from any country can aspire to land a job on a ship. I am not a cruise vacation salesman or a workforce recruiter, and I will share that I am not certain that everyone can handle the pressure cooker of ship life, and that’s fine, but almost everyone from anywhere can try it.
We all experience life somewhere, and many have the opportunity to experience the world by stepping onto one collection of rendered metal in the ocean as well if land life leads you to Ship Life. The tales of “how did you get here” can be incredible! Just ask anyone who is having a cocktail next to you in the crew bar. That is the big picture when living on a cruise ship - you see and understand the complexities and diversities of human nature by having the world come to you. You can circle the globe by spinning on a bar stool in the crew bar.
This is my story, the journey of a guy who decided at the age of twenty-six to try something a little extraordinary. What I aspire to do in this recounting of my time on ships is to illustrate the world we live in through the microcosm of Ship Life and to share what I have learned, observed, and implemented to affect myself and others in the best way possible through the conduit of being a musician onboard. I would like to believe that my viewpoint is unique and engaging to you!
My position as a musician, by nature, is to connect to people in an audience, and any performer will tell you that you can perform the same songs the same way for months and months, yet some audiences will really resonate with you, and some won’t. You are you, and sometimes people get you and love you, and sometimes people don’t. Thats okay, and that is life in general, and this is especially amplified in the reduced and concentrated sphere of Ship Life.
Of course, you will read many anecdotes that sound way too fictitious to have ever happened, but believe me – the world, and especially the world of planet ship is entertaining, shocking, and always too wild and crazy to just conjure up. It is my hope that you will laugh and cry as you read these pages, because Ship Life, after all, is really the story of human life. The recounting of interactions, triumphs, and downfalls are here to learn from and be inspired by. I know that sounds a little lame and cliché, but then again, so is the singer in the ship’s main theater ending their show with Frank Sinatra’s, “My Way.”
My very first roommate on my first ship said that you can break down being a cruise ship entertainer into thirds: one third, vacation; one third, college dorm; one third, prison. A musician agent further commented that you cannot develop a first impression of Ship Life until at least two weeks pass on any ship. These two statements are far and away the most universal truths with regards to balancing the positives and negatives that make ship life so intriguing, and the reason why so many swear that they are done working on ships - yet they just keep coming back. I said I was finished after my first ship in 2003. It is now 2020, and I have worked for five ship companies and been on twenty-something ships.
I have lived a lot of Ship Life and lived on many ‘planets.’ In ‘Book One: The Old Testament of Ship Life' I chronicle my drumming years between 2003 and 2012. In ‘Book Two: The New Testament of Ship Life,' I recount the time period from 2012 to 2020 where I changed musician roles and worked a number of different positions as a guitarist, singer, and music manager/music director.
Anyone who has ever worked on a cruise ship will have their own extremely unique path as to how they arrived there and they can all write a book sharing incredible tales and life lessons. Some crew come right out of University or College and long for a post-education adventure, some are there to work to support their infant children who are growing up in Indonesia on the other side of the planet, and some are 58-year-old men on their second divorce and looking for a life reset. Everyone has a story.