[I've got a fun story for y'all today :) I found out one of my blogging friends, Mel, once lived and worked on a cruise ship (!!), and she was kind enough to elaborate on it for us. Perhaps next time we'll feature her story on joining the circus for a year?!]
Some people do crazy things like recycle their toilet paper to save a few bucks. I preferred living on a boat.
Right out of college, I landed a job as a stage manager working for a cruise line. This turned out to be a pretty sweet gig. First, because I got a job working as a stage manager – not a lowly production assistant, or even an assistant stage manager. I actually started out as a stage manager in charge of a 16 million dollar theater. This was clearly nuts. Although if you know anything about ship life, nuts is sort of the norm.
Second, I was actually making more than most of my friends with theater degrees on land AND my housing and food was part of the deal on top of my salary. As well as health insurance. Booyah.
I started at the bottom of the pay scale for stage managers at $90/day and finished up at $126/day. This created a weird phenomena where whenever I get offered any salary now, I immediately divide it by the number of days in the year so I know what I’m making per day… and only then does it make sense to me. The only problem was that you didn’t get any paid vacation. So the 2-4 months a year that I would spend on vacation, I made nothing and had to budget accordingly to get by (or side hustle – I definitely rocked that as well).
Unfortunately, we didn’t get any cool perks like a 401(k) or any retirement benefits in my position. The nautical department and some of the other positions that were geared towards lifers did, and if you worked in the corporate office on land you did get some pretty sweet benefits, including a pension. Not the case if you were a lowly stage manager like me.
I considered myself lucky to have that health insurance, and if anything actually happened while I was at sea, I was 100% covered medically speaking. No co-pays, nothing to worry about, even when I didn’t have insurance (because, yes, I was that uninsured early 20-something for the first 3 years I spent at sea). The health insurance was really only necessary to get you through your vacations.
The one thing we had available to us was the option to buy company stock at reduced rates, which I actually should’ve taken advantage of – but my personal finance knowledge in those days consisted of “never carrying a balance on your credit card” and “paying off your student loans.”
Life & Work on a Cruise Ship
Do you ever remember seeing movies like Animal House and thinking “yeah, that’s what college will be like!” Well, I don’t know what your college experience was, but mine wasn’t like that at all. I remember thinking back on those movies and wondering where the heck those schools were? Maybe they were never really based on colleges, but cruise ships instead. Because when I said nuts was the norm, I meant it in more ways than one.
Within a week of joining a ship, a person knows whether or not they’re a ship person. If you’re not, you either wind up quitting or you’re a “one and done” type where you finish that contract, return to your normal life and never look back. Most of the crew you’ll meet are “ship people.”
Personally, I used to drink a little too much in the Officer’s Bar after a bad day and loudly tell everyone that “this is my last contract.” Multiple times a week, starting with my second week ever on the ship. It wasn’t until five years later that it actually became true.
Despite the fact that days could be rough, I wouldn’t trade my ship experiences for anything. Here was what a typical day out on sea looked like:
- 9:00 AM – Travel Guide Talk
- 10:00 AM – Port Shopping Talk
- 11:00 AM – BINGO
- 12:00 PM – Rehearsal for evening show.
- 2:00 PM – Travel Guide Talk
- 3:00 PM – Shops Talk
- 4:00 PM – BINGO (cruisers love their BINGO)
- 5:00 PM – Check e-mails. Attend to paperwork. Make next day’s schedule.
- 6:45 PM – Check house. Open doors.
- 8:00 PM – Showtime
- 10:00 PM – Showtime
- 11:00 PM – Strike current show. Build next night’s show.
- 1:00 AM – Go to the bar.
Not all days were smooth though. If you want a detailed look at a rough one that is ingrained in my mind forever, you can check out this post I wrote here on what a day in the life of a cruise ship stage manager was like. It’s pretty crazy.
Socially, I’m a pretty hardcore introvert. There is no such thing on a cruise ship. Everyone is together all the time. You can stay introverted and hide in your cabin, but you’re likely to be miserable. Because after a 16 hour day where everything possible crashed and some cast member with PMS just screamed at you for thinking she’s fat when you were just trying to help her zipper her costume, vodka becomes your friend. And so does whoever is sitting next to you on the other bar stool too who needs to vent about their crazy day and what madness happened in their department.
Also, everyone rotates out of there on different schedules. So once you’ve finally made great friends with that girl from the Shore Excursions team, inevitably she’ll be disembarking the following week and you’ll have to start making a new friend again. This helped break down a lot of my social anxiety, although I never really knew the extent of it until I left ships and realized that just chatting up total strangers in a bar comes across totally different on land.
Another reason why cruise ships are nuts is that Animal House-esque atmosphere I mentioned. The fact is that there isn’t much for crew to do after work. We watch a LOT of TV. In my position, and for the majority of entertainment department staff, passenger areas were places we could go, but you always needed to put the passengers first and be on your best behavior. You also had to be in your uniform (or a formal outfit on formal nights).
Sometimes you just needed to throw on a pair of jeans and drink a little too much. Which was good, because the only place to hang out on my ships was the Officer’s Bar- where beer was $.90 and a mixed drink would run you $1.40. It always made me laugh to see the painfully hung over Youth Staff at 8 AM, trying to pull it together and look responsible while parents are dropping off their kids for the day. Seriously parents, you have no idea what that chick was doing 4 hours ago – it was hilarious.
What Being a Stage Manager Entailed
Professionally, I got a head start in my career. Coming back to land and returning to assistant positions has actually been driving me insane.
My job duties at 23 included being fully responsible for all aspects of running all entertainment venues on board our 2,000 passenger ship. That included a 900 seat theater with 80+ moving lights, an automation system and a digital sound system. That kind of theater technology isn’t that easy to break into. And now I can claim to be proficient with a fair bit of it.
I also called shows with insane automation cues that literally endangered people’s lives if I ran the show incorrectly. It was a world of difference from Waiting for Godot in a college theater. I was also responsible for the 200 seat theater and about 10 music venues around the ship. Furthermore, I learned a lot about OSHA regulations because I was responsible for making sure all those venues were complaint. I learned how to do purchase orders and payroll too.
I learned how to do all these things through trial by fire, because I’ll be one of the first to admit they were nuts to hire me. I did not have the experience they actually needed, but I worked my butt off to gain it quickly.
How I Got The Job
Part of why cruise ships are nuts is the high turn over rate. People who hate it will literally just walk off the ship sometimes. That leaves the company in a pickle and lots of times they wind up hiring whoever has a valid passport and can fly to Spain for 3 months the following day (err, don’t be too alarmed, the Captain and his crew don’t fall into this category – although the people watching your children do).
To get my first contract, I emailed my resume in through their website on Tuesday, was interviewed on Wednesday and got on a ship in Alaska on Friday. It was that quick. The previous stage manager had been let go and they needed someone to finish the last 2 months of her contract. I later found out from a friend in the corporate office that they were mostly just hoping I wouldn’t accidentally kill anyone trying to call the production shows. They had no intention of keeping me. Like I said above though, I worked my butt off to make sure that wasn’t what happened.
Other Awesome Perks
Financially, cruise ships helped me pay off most of my college loans, pay exorbitant rent in San Francisco for the better part of one year and travel the world for free. I’ve been to 5 continents without spending a dime to get there. Our company also had this awesome system where you could defer your flight home. You would submit a paper 2 months in advance and just ask them to change your flight date. I could disembark a ship in Rome or London or Australia and stay a few days, but then the company would schedule my flight home for whatever day I picked.
I could also escort shore excursions for free; I ate so much free crab in Alaska that way. Man. I miss that crab. And I mentioned how much it cost to hang out in the bar. While on board, I would receive a weekly bar bill. On average, I spent about $30 a week and was making more than $700. I’d often spend another $50-$100 going out in port with my friends, but I was still coming out pretty far ahead.
Like I mentioned in the beginning, cruise ships aren’t for everyone, but if you’re looking for an adventure, or even a weird way to spend just a few months of your life, look into it! There are all sorts of positions on board from performers, youth staff, librarians and fitness instructors to IT technicians, carpenters, plumbers and waiters. Just Google a few lines and click through their career links.
Mel blogs at brokeGIRLrich where she explores topics like how to not panic over adulthood, working in the arts, and retirement strategies that don’t involve living in a cardboard box under an overpass. She was also once a member of the circus.