Ship Life

Here’s another landmark to add to the still relatively young 2013. As you will most likely already know from my previous posts, I’ve been waiting to be assigned a ship for my new job. Six weeks ago, whilst on Koh Tao, sitting in the office of a small production company, I got an email. This was the email I had been waiting for. It simply read; ‘Ship Assignment – ENCHANTMENT OTS – Baltimore, MD – April 13th’. Which is American for the 13th April. At the time, this was only three weeks away. Which was great, something was finally happening. But it also meant that I would be leaving Mos far sooner than we’d expected. But as we’ve discussed many times, this was going to be great for our future. My new job on the ship would allow me to take home plenty of tax-free cash, and, they’d be able to hire Mos too. We’d be able to build our savings account to the point where we could buy a house in the UK, or, retire in Thailand in the space of a few years. And of course, you need money before starting a family.
Shortly after I received the email Mos and I started running around the island doing last bits of shopping that I’d neglected. Socks for example. Living in Thailand socks quickly make their way from the wardrobe to the bin. We had parties, sometimes multiple parties each day. On an island like Koh Tao, the resident community is small, and as a result people want to say goodbye when someone leaves. But as most of them are small business owners finding a single date and time for a party is nearly impossible. So, and I’m not complaining about this, we have lots of leaving parties.
Royal Caribbean, my new employer, had booked my flights from Bangkok to Washington DC. But I still had shopping to do and more importantly a visa to get! So I headed off to Bangkok to start the process, which annoyingly, was at precisely the same time as Songkran, Thai new year. Songkran is effectively the worlds biggest water-fight. It’s brilliant. But it also means that the entire country, including foriegn embassies close down for the week. Luckily I managed to get my visa granted, hours before the shutdown.
A couple of days later Mos traveled up from Koh Tao to meet me in Bangkok. As this would be the last few days we’d spend together for possibly up to seven months we decided to treat ourselves. We went for nice dinners, shopping, sightseeing and even to Siam City theme park. Where Mos proved to me that roller-coasters really can make someone projectile vomit. Despite this, we had a great day.
Once Mos and I had exhausted our time, money and bodies it was time for me to leave. I picked up my new suit, tuxedo and shirts from my tailor. Packed my bags and headed off to the airport. Mos and I had one last milkshake together before I disappeared into customs. I hate leaving her, especially at airports.
I flew with Qatar, who I’ve flown with a few times in the past and they have always impressed. This trip was no different. And in case you’re wondering, Doha airport still has a huge amount of camel themed souvenirs along with countless diamonds, jewelery and watches for sale.
Once I arrived in Washington I was met by the US Immigration team. And like all crew, apparently, ushered into a waiting area where my visa and passport where double and triple checked against their various databases. After an hour I was let through. The first thing you see when you leave Washington Dulles airport is a huge American flag. Today it was back-lit by the sun with perfectly trimmed grass surrounding it. It was like I’d walked into a film. After a short wait my van arrived to pick me up and take me to my hotel.
Maybe it was the 32 hours of traveling. Maybe it was the feeling of elation after finally getting through customs. Maybe it was just me being acclimatised to rock-solid mattresses and hot, humid rooms in Thailand. But the Holiday Inn at Washing Dulles airport had the best bed. Ever.
During the day other new crew arrived at the hotel. Most of us had arrived by the time we had our complimentary dinner in the restaurant. I met a guy from Serbia who was going to be signing on as Stage Staff. His name is Srdan, but it’s pronounced the same as the English word ‘surgeon’. It turns out Serbia is one of the biggest denominations of crew on this ship, behind the Philippines, Indonesia and India.
The following morning we were all picked up by a coach and driven to Baltimore, which is just over an hours drive away. Once we arrived at the port, US Customs and Border Patrol met us and led us into a secure crew area where our belongings were x-rayed and we were searched. Finally we were moved to  secure holding room with tea, coffee, pastries and the usual tea trolley bits. We had to wait for the passengers to get off the ship, once they were, staff distributed our contracts and other paperwork and took or passports. Then, we were led to the gangway of the ship. On the ship we dumped our luggage in the middle of deck one, which, apart from a small area for guest embarkation, is completely for crew. We waited in line at the HR office to have our photos taken and information checked. Once we had completed that, each persons supervisor came to pick them up and begin to show them around their relevant work, living, leisure, eating and emergency areas.

Enchantment at DockEnchantment at Dock.
Thankfully, my job comes with a rank. I’m a 2-stripe officer. To give you perspective, the captain is 4-stripe. And out of the 850+ crew, only 240 of us are ranked with stripes. Starting with half-stripe followed by 1-strip, 1.5-stripe, 2-stripe and so on. The crew is further divided into three groups; crew, staff and officers. Officers are the marine department, the people that stand in the bridge, along with the various heads of engineering and so on. The crew are the people that keep the ship running; engineers, cooks, cleaners, deck boys, painters, laundry and so on. The staff are the people that are neither required to operate or maintain the ship. The staff are the luxuries; executive housekeepers, concierges, cruise directors, managers and me. I work in the Broadcast team. I say ‘team’, really it’s just me and Frank. Between us we manage all of the broadcast related satellite equipment, the encoders, decoders, streaming systems, scheduling systems and just about anything on the ship that involves video of any description. Having said that, the collective term for all employees is ‘crew’.
My job and rank means that I have access to all of the guest areas, all day, I can use any of the crew, staff or officer facilities and most of the guest facilities. In-fact, tomorrow I will be going to the on-board spa & saloon to get a long-overdue haircut. One restriction on all crew, even the captain, is use of the casino. No employees, of any rank or role can gamble on board. Which is fine, because even if you did want to gamble your wage away, there are plenty of casinos in the ports we visit.
Another restriction that applies to all employees is alcohol. Royal Caribbean operate a zero tolerance policy on alcohol and drugs. You’re allowed a blood alcohol content level of 0.04 whilst on-duty, and 0.05 when off-duty. Both of which are far lower than most drink/drive limits. If you’re found to be over these limits at any point you will leave the ship, and the company at the next port. As for drugs, any possession, use, or trace in your system of drugs will result in you leaving the ship at the next port, getting fired and being turned over to local authorities. Which could mean a 25-year prison sentence in a small jail in the Bahamas. Not good. None of which bothers me as I’ve never touched drugs and I very rarely drink alcohol.
During my first two weeks on the ship my predecessor, Homer, was on-board to show me the ropes and get me up to speed. Which on this ship meant showing me all of the equipment that is broken, or about to break and how he manages to do his job around them. Homer is now on a four-month holiday and will be rejoining the fleet in Australia on the Radiance of the Seas. It’s a hard life.
My first two weeks didn’t only involve Homer showing me computers that pre-date most modern civilisations, I also had ‘training’. Training, like most other things on the ship is divided into stuff you need to know to save your life (Marine), and stuff you need to know to make guests happy (delivering the ‘wow’). We had two or three sessions each day. I, unlike most, found the marine training interesting and looked forward to each session. After all, it could literally save your life. The training that they call ‘Delivering the WOW’ bored me to my core. There are hour long presentations on how to smile at guests, how to point at things in ways that don’t cause offense, how to converse with guests and various other life-lessons that anyone who wasn’t locked in a box from birth would have picked up by the time they were ten years old. I hated it. With a passion.

Enchantment in ArubaEnchantment of the Seas in Aruba.
Our ship, the Enchantment of the Seas, is now one of the smallest in the fleet. She is rumored to be second in line to be sold off or given to one of our subsidiary companies. This rumor was as good as confirmed when she was scheduled to leave her 14-day cruises from Baltimore and move to a 3/4-day cruise schedule from Port Canaveral. 3/4-day cruises are like a hospital ward for the terminally ill. Ships are sent there to keep them running and operational until they die, are sold off or scrapped. I joined the Enchantment on the 13th April 2013, which was her last ever voyage from Baltimore, as she repositioned to her new home port of Port Canaveral.
We arrived in Phillipsburg on the island of St. Maarten after three full days of sailing from Port Canaveral. I’m not sure what exactly I was expecting from Phillipsburg. But I wasn’t surprised at what I found. Disappointed, but not surprised. Phillipsburg, much like all of the ports I have visited since, was full of brand name shops. Each of the ports has the same 8-10 brands. Each port has the same arts and crafts markets selling branded trinkets, most of which are made in China and printed with the name of the port you happen to be in. Phillipsburg represented everything I dislike about the classic package holiday. I’ve never understood why people travel half way around the world, get on a ship, and then get off and shop in the same shops they have in any mid-size city back home. I also dislike the time restrictions. When I go to a new place, I want the freedom to explore the local scenery, meet local people and eat local food. Cruise passengers pile off the ship, go to the generic beaches, eat in McDonald’s and shop in the brand shops. Maybe I’m the strange one…
On the evening of the ninth day of the voyage we had to divert into Nassau, Bahamas due to a medical emergency with a passenger. Probably a case of too much McDonalds. People on cruise ships eat like machines. It’s amazing to watch.
Before reaching Port Canaveral I had to familiarise myself with all of the equipment before Homer left. As I said before, this was less training and more showing me what was broken and how they work around it. For example, the edit suite is a 2006 vintage AVID with less processing power than pretty much any new $300 off-the-shelf laptop. I won’t spend this entire post complaining about the dated computers, miss-used equipment or broken machinery that we have in broadcast. Largely because I’m not sure I have enough time to make the list. I’m only here for seven months afterall.
After the various Caribbean and Bahamian island stops, which all fitted nicely into the crew shopping motto of ‘same shit, different port’, we arrived in Port Canaveral. Our new home. From this point on we will be only taking three and four day voyages. The three day itinerary is as follows; Day 1 – Port Canaveral, Day 2 – Nassau, Day 3 – CocoCay, then we arrive early in the morning back in Port Canaveral in order to disembark the guests and pick up the new ones. The four day itinerary is; Day 1 – Port Canaveral, Day 2 – CocoCay, Day 3 – Nassau, Day 4 – At Sea.  Port Canaveral is in the US state of Florida, the other two stops are both in the Bahamas.
CocoCay, which you may not have heard of, is our private island. It is owned by Royal Caribbean and is for the exclusive use of our guests. The island is a nice small island, there is snorkeling, hiking, jet ski hire, swimming, beaches and so on. There is also a very large, free, barbeque. Which I’m pretty sure is the reason most people really go. Cruises seem to be almost entirely centered on eating.
Nassau is a small town in the Bahamas, with western prices. We’ve also been warned by our chief security officer that the Bahamian police often set up drug selling operations to try and sell you drugs and then arrest you. The prison sentence in the Bahamas for drug possession can be as severe as 25 years in jail. Nassau, lives up to my earlier description of the ports we visit. One thing that is particularly depressing about Nassau is the large amount of puffer-fish and starfish that have been caught and dried out to be sold as souvenirs. Having seen many varieties of both these species in their natural habitats around the world, I can’t see the attraction of having a dead one sitting on your mantle piece.
As far as life on a ship goes, it’s great. I get free food, free gym time, free accommodation, I pay no tax, I have no bills and I get paid to effectively be on holiday. Much of my time is now spent trying to get Mos, my wife, onto the ship. Part of the deal when I signed up, was that they would provide Mos with a job on my ship. So far they are proving to be as useless at this as they were during my sign-on period. However, tomorrow our ship gets a new HR manager. Hopefully that will speed up the process!
We are currently sailing from Coco Cay to Port Canaveral, where we are due to arrive in nine hours. I hope to be getting off, I need to open a US bank account to keep my cash safe. It also makes it easier to buy online and send money back home to Thailand. Not sure if I’ll be going with someone or not. Most of the people I know are ‘management’ level, so they don’t have timetabled work hours. Like me, they just have to make sure they are there when something breaks.
Port Canaveral itself is fairly basic. There are taxis or a shuttle bus for the crew to head into town. There is a small shopping center (Mall), a Walmart, Cocoa Beach, Hooters, McDonald’s, a Post Office and various other eateries and shops. Most of the crew head to Walmart to stock up on luxury snacks, toiletries and drinks. The on board crew shop – ‘The Slop Chest’, is fairly limited in selection. It’s also our only American port. Which means that any crew that are signing on or off their contracts change over here. Which adds to the chaos.
Changeover day (Port Canaveral) is where we load on the new guests. Which means that at 15:45 each changeover day we have a full emergency drill for the passengers (PAX Drill). I am part of a seven person life boat team based at muster station 2. Which is good because it means I get a seat on a life boat rather than a life raft in a real emergency. But it’s bad because I will have to control 143 scared and panicking tourists.  I don’t mind it too much as I get to shout at them for 40-minutes detailing how they will all die if they don’t listen to me.

This is my life boat, lowered and ready for lowering in Nassau, Bahamas.

Enchantment Lifeboat