Exotic ports! World travel! Great money! Fun, sun, and romance! Oh, if I had only known what I was really getting into! Playing music on a cruise ship can be all these things and more, but there are some surprises lurking under the tranquil surface of those tropical waters.
In Part 1 we covered some of the fundamentals of ship life. Now in Part 2 I’ll be sharing the things I wish someone would have told be before I boarded ship. Pay attention and you won’t get bitten!
The Ship Bubble
The lack of connection to “the real world” creates what is known as “The Ship Bubble”. Ship internet is often unreliable and expensive: after a few emails and a Facebook picture or two, you’ll want to log off because half your salary just paid for those five minutes of internet.
Working on a cruise ship is not exactly travel. At port, you are not allowed ship leave until all the passengers have gotten off, so sometimes you have very little time off the ship. You will be so starved for wifi that the first thing you will do—and maybe the only thing—is find the nearest cheap internet and spend a couple hours catching up with friends and family.
Every once in awhile, there will be a late departure or an overnight that gives you a little more time on land, which provides the chance to schedule some fun. There are great opportunities to get involved with shore excursions, often offered to crew at a discounted rate. Sometimes excursions are planned just for crew and this is the time to do the sightseeing and travel you have always wanted to do!
There is no fraternizing with passengers. This means you are not allowed in passengers’ cabins and they are not allowed in crew areas. I have known people that were fired for going back to the “wrong” cabin. If you have a friend or family member coming to sail on board, you will have to clear it with security to visit their cabin.
On the other hand, one great perk about working on a cruise ship is that if you have your own cabin, you can sign your friends on into your cabin at very little cost to them. It just has to be approved by the staff captain!
Yes, you are strongly encouraged to socialize with passengers on the ship, and I even made friends with some really nice people with whom I have stayed in touch long after my contract ended. However, you must know where the boundaries are. You may not realize it, but when those passengers come see you play or perform, you are a celebrity to them and will be treated as such. You are always “on” in passenger areas and sometimes you will need a break from the constant performance.
The ship veterans I know avoid passenger areas at all costs when they aren’t working. They detach. Getting too close to passengers can lead to some very uncomfortable situations.
The Love Boat
There is a saying that “what happens on board stays on board”. The isolation does things to your psyche. Before you know it, that person living in the cabin down the hall seems like dating material, although on land you would never go near them. Temptation is present and you will be tested.
Make the decision to be smart before you get on board the ship. Know your boundaries and stick to them, no matter what. Again, cruise chip veterans have learned the hard way to stay detached. Truthfully that’s the best way to survive a ship.
I’m a Rocket Man
When you are on a ship, you are gone. You are disconnected from your family, friends, work and anything of normal, stable land life for months. Your ship becomes your home and those on it your family.
While you are away your previous employer has forgotten about you, your friends have moved on, someone in your family has become ill… It’s like space traveling—your contract may seem like one week to you but for everyone else ten years have gone by.
And you have to come back and face those changes.
The Shawshank Redemption
Have you ever seen the movie “The Shawshank Redemption? Morgan Freeman’s character doesn’t know how to function in the real word outside of prison. Well, getting off a ship is a little bit like that.
You’ve just spent months confined to a certain space and set of rules. You also had everything done for you. What and when you eat is chosen for you. Your cabin and bathroom is cleaned for you. Even your friends are built into the job. There are some people who truly cannot get off ships because they don’t know how to adjust to real life. They’ve forgotten what it means to pay rent and bills, how to go make friends and how to look for a job. The Ship Bubble protects you from all that and it’s an easy trap to fall into.
There was definitely an unpleasant period of adjustment getting off the ship and I wish that I had been better prepared to assimilate back to land. Think about it—long before you disembark.
Why do you want an eight-month gig, anyway? It’s because you love to play music! We were handed great material to work with—challenging repertoire and arrangements. Ships hire performers and musicians from all over the world so the talent pool is immense. You would be working alongside seasoned and gifted musicians who really know their craft and love what they do. I was spoiled by working alongside so many great artists.
I wondered how performing the same seven shows over and over for eight months would affect me as an artist. I can honestly say that (with the exception of one show), I mourned the closing of our shows and still miss them and my cast.
There were very few bad apples on my ship and we were relatively drama-free. That is not the norm! Usually there are lots of dramas on ships, especially in the entertainment division. Not getting along with your colleagues can truly make for a miserable experience as you can’t avoid people on a ship. Detach if you must.
So now that you have considered the reality of cruise ship life, please know that the pros are indeed truly remarkable. Admittedly I had incredible adventures on my contract: sailing the Amazon, lobster rolls in Bar Harbor, Carnivale in Rio, brunch in Montreal, swimming the turquoise waters of Barbados—and getting paid to do it!
Plus, I made lifelong friends and have plenty of amusing stories to tell.
Oh. And I pocketed a lot of money.
I loved my job.
And I will personally never do it again.
I worked for a great company, had a wonderful entertainment staff and was treated well. I would never do it again because I had the best cast a person could ask for and I know that it was the exception, not the rule. I hope everyone who does take a cruise ship contract is as lucky as I was.
Does cruise ship work sound like the life for you? There are many agencies that book musicians and endless resources on Facebook to find them. Many cruise lines do “in house” casting for musicians – that is, you can apply directly to their website and audition online. If you do decide to go, just be prepared for those things that no one tells you about beforehand and you just may end up having the time of your life!
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