One of the goals on our trip around the world is to find a way to make money that will allow us to continue our nomadic lifestyle. This is one of the reasons we were so excited to take the Gap Adventures repositioning cruise on the M/S Expedition. We have 5 weeks to get to know the crew, their jobs, and a little bit about what it is like to live on a ship. We are butting into their business to learn what it is they do, tips for anyone interested in getting a job, and how they handle living away from home for such long periods of time.
Today’s focus is on the cabin steward and laundry staff on the housekeeping team.
Many companies choose to outsource their hiring of crew to specialized employment agencies. Gap Adventures is no different, and most of their hires come from a company called VShips. This company provides placement for everything from executive chef to coffee station attendant to laundry services under what is considered “hotel” class jobs. This makes sense in that a passenger ship really is a floating hotel in most respects.
The contracts for this ship are typically from the start of the Antarctic season in November until the end of the Arctic season in September. That’s a long time away from home!
The majority of the hotel staff on the M/S Expedition come from the Philippines. Many have or are in the process of getting hospitality/restaurant management certificates, and almost everyone has previously worked on a larger cruise ship. In other words, they are sea-tested. This doesn’t mean they don’t get seasick, though, and considering this ship regularly goes through both the Drake Passage in the Antarctic season and the North Sea in the Arctic season, two of the roughest seas on the planet, these may be the hardiest of seafarers.
What do they do when they get sick? “Vomit, wash hands, and return to work.” Enough said.
There are 72 passenger cabins on board, and each cabin steward is assigned 15-17 cabins for the duration of the cruise. Each morning the cabins are cleaned while the passengers are at breakfast, and each evening they get turndown service. They also take care of any needs the passengers have in their cabins regarding laundry or extra services.
The cabin stewards all have a sense of humor, and one of my favorite special touches was finding our little stuffed animal mascot Putu sitting in a different place every day to either enjoy the view, greet us as we entered the door, or “sleeping” on the bed. I love that they have both the motivation to do that kind of thing and the freedom from their manager Alessandra to bring a little flair to their work.
In addition to the passenger cabins, there are 26 staff and officer cabins, the bridge, the reception area, and the hallways and stairs that have to be maintained daily. The mudroom, where passengers don their outdoor gear and rinse off after each excursion (where penguin guano is 100% guaranteed to end up on your boots and pants), is also in the domain of the housekeeping staff.
The cabin stewards work 10.5-hour split shifts during a cruise with no days off. All their meals are provided as well as a private cabin, and they have a crew mess where they can relax and hang out with their coworkers.
The laundry department is responsible for all the things you would expect in a hotel plus staff uniforms and officer’s personal laundry, and this is typically done by 1 person with a little bit of part-time help.
You might be asking yourself right now why you would work for the majority of the year with no days off. The biggest reason is financial, in that the Filipino staff can earn sometimes 5 times as much money working on a cruise ship as they can at home. Working a few seasons on a ship can give someone the seed money to start a small business, buy a house, or pay for an education. In addition to their regular pay, they can count on tips from the passengers on each cruise, which are paid in one bulk amount to the purser at the end of the cruise and then divided up among the staff.
One thing you notice immediately when talking to the crew is that they all have big plans and bigger hearts.
Julita works in housekeeping and as a waitress. I laugh a lot, but Julie might have me beat in the happiness department. She is a little bit bossy in the kind of way that you love (think of a sweeter version of “Flo” from Alice), and she likes to tease the chef about stealing all of his delicious recipes and writing a cookbook. She invested in piglets that her sister raises back home in the Philippines and then sells for a profit when they are grown. As the business is building, she continues to work on the ship while her sister cares for her children. Julie is the perfect example of “it takes a village” living; she works hard for her family and coworkers and expects them to do the same for her so they can all benefit.
Pilar is the head steward and one of the first people we met when we boarded for Antarctica. She has the most beautiful smile you’ve ever seen, and she appears to have a world of wisdom behind her eyes. Pilar has been with the M/S Expedition since it was refurbished in 2009, and she takes great pride in the role she and her team play in making these cruises special for the passengers. Pilar likes working here more than a larger cruise ship because of closer access to management and the ability to get to know passengers and crew. She started working in this industry to afford a house for her and her young daughter and expects to have enough saved to also start a small business in the near future. She says that having a family back home makes it easier to work so far away because you always have it in your mind who you are doing it for and why. Pilar is also the owner of the grooviest pair of pirate-themed pants I’ve ever seen. We keep teasing her that we’re going to steal them and raise them on the flagpole.
Lawrence has been working on cruise ships since 2003, where he first met fellow crew member Albert. He says he is used to the lifestyle and the money it brings to help raise his 3 children. In fact, Lawrence actually started working on the M/S Expedition when it was still a ferry boat being remodeled into a passenger ship (along with storekeeper Nelson). He says he remembers when the reception area was a row of toilets! Lawrence does all the laundry on the ship with a little help from the officer’s steward. It is a hot and busy job, and he unwinds at the end of the day by playing guitar in the crew’s Expedition Band.
All of them told me they prefer working on a smaller cruise ship like the M/S Expedition because they have more direct access to management for decision making and because the smaller size makes for a more family-like feel among the crew. They are also able to get to know the passengers from different countries a bit on the cruises, which Julie told me is almost as good as traveling yourself.
If you’re thinking that long days, rough seas, and being away from home for months at a time sound too harsh, consider that this crew has pooled together a portion of their tips to buy enough instruments to form a band. They also have a karaoke machine, and amplifier, and a microphone as well as a couple of bikes to use during days at port. During a cruise, their singing and dancing is kept to the crew mess, but we were lucky to be included in the festivities during this repositioning cruise. The band is quite good, with cabin steward Albert being the liveliest and best drummer I’ve ever seen perform live and Russele giving the lead singer of the Cranberries a run for her money.
Bottom line: the money is good, they get to see parts of the world they would never otherwise see, and they become part of a second family on the sea. Not a bad deal at all, if you can handle the seasickness.
Do you want to try this job?
When asked what they would recommend for anyone thinking of doing this job, they all talked about being aware of the kind of weather you’ll encounter and how you’ll handle it. It is also important to be patient when working and living with other people in a confined area. It is easy to let small things grow into disagreements and bad feelings if you don’t exercise patience and understanding.
You can check out all the jobs available on this and other cruise ships by logging into the VShips site or googling “jobs on cruise ships.”
Chef Tony and his kitchen and restaurant staff, hotel manager Alessandra, the man responsible for ordering 4 months’ worth of food and supplies at all times, as well as the engineering and deck crew.
Do you think you could work on a polar cruise ship?