Norwegian Epic and Crew Life

| Tuesday, 05 Mar. 2013

Norwegian Epic has such excellent crew facilities that being a crewmember has never been better.

Unfortunately, I don't have any pictures for this article because they are not allowed by the cruise lines, but I can tell from what I saw with my own two eyes, cruise line crewmembers have never had it better.

I was given an exclusive tour of the crew area onboard Norwegian Epic while I was on the 7-day transatlantic cruise in late June, 2010. What they had told me about the crew facilities were almost beyond belief for me, had I not seen them for myself.

The crew on Norwegian Epic is about 1800 people. Of all of those people, 85% of them live in single cabins, by themselves with their own bathrooms. This is amazing to me, as you will see when you see the kinds of conditions I lived under when I worked on cruise ships.

During my tour of the crew area I was shown the "crew bar" which had a ping pong table, an air hockey table and dozens of couches and chairs. It was probably 2000 square feet and had a DJ booth with a state of the art sound system and a dance floor with all kinds of disco lights.

Next to the crew bar was a "Day Room" with a large screen projection TV and box full of literally thousands of DVD movies. The box was more like a two by eight-foot glass-walled terrarium so you could see what you were picking up. I assume they allowed crewmembers to check these movies out as well, since there were so many of them.

The crew even had an Internet café with at least 20 workstations. People with laptops could access the Internet with wireless access as well. During that cruise, as a member of the press, I was given an Internet card good for 1000 minutes. I assume this is what they sell to the crewmembers, although I do not know the price they pay for such a card. I can tell you 1000 minutes is more than enough to stay online just about as long as you want to during any cruise.

There was even a crew gym that has the exact same state of the art weight training equipment as the fitness center used by the passengers. All of this is free to use for the crewmembers. By the way, on the bow of Norwegian Epic is a crew area where they also have their own swimming pool. They can go out there at any time and sit in the sunshine. What is funny about it is that when they are out there it seems no one can see them - except of course the officers on the bridge who can easily look down on the pool. But in fact the area is shown plain as day 24 hours/day on the "bridge-can" video camera which shows up on the television in every passenger stateroom.

Another interesting aspect to the Norwegian Epics crew quarters is that there are crew cabins on most of the passenger decks going all the way up to deck 14. Why? Simply because they can. There are obvious advantages to having a crewmember that close to the passengers, to respond to late night requests for example. Many of these cabins are clustered around crew elevators in the middle of the ship. In fact, the more O looked at the studio staterooms, like the one I was occupying, the more it occurred to me they look an awful lot like a "cooler" version of what might be a standard crew cabin.

Needless to say, the crew on Norwegian Epic has it made. Never have I heard of a cruise ship where 85% of the crewmembers have their own cabins. That alone would be an incentive for many crewmembers to want to work on that ship, coming over from other NCL ships or even other cruise lines. This is especially true for job positions like Spa attendants and shop workers, positions that almost always have to share cabins on most cruise ships.

My Personal Experience Working on Cruise Ships

When I took my first contract on a cruise ship I was forced into a crew cabin that did not even have a shower or a toilet, and I was one of the privileged cruise staff. I was working as a stage manager on Royal Viking at the time, back in 1983 although this ship was actually built in the late 1970s.

I was lucky enough to be living alone, although I had to leave my cabin and go to a public bathroom every time I needed to use a toilet or take a shower. To tell you the truth, all of us had stools in our staterooms so we could get high enough to pee in the sink if it was late at night. Honestly the nearest restroom was quite a walk away and you did not want to have to go all the way there in your pajamas.

In fact, I was especially lucky to have a room of my own. The band members who lived next door to me had to share a cabin of the exact same size and facilities, but there were two of them. When I was transferred to the exact style of ship with the same cruise line I was honored to have a passenger cabin (many of us did) at the rear of the lowest passenger deck.

I have to say - those were wild days. We were all young people lucky enough to be on a small ship (600 passengers) sailing all over the world and never repeating an itinerary. When I had a passenger cabin I had a TV and a great bed. For a while I even had a cabin with a bath tub.

When I took a contract on the Norway (NCL) back in 1993 and I was once again put on the crew deck in a crew cabin. I was lucky enough to have my own cabin once again, and I even had a bathroom, but I had to share that bathroom with another officer who had his own entrance on the other side. Who ever got in the room first would lock both doors and the other would have to wait until the first was through.

Still, it was a nice, large bathroom with plenty of room. As I recall it even had a bathtub. And I never even met the other officer as we were on vastly different schedules. I don't even know where he worked (I believe he in I.T., although I did not know what that meant at the time).

For those who are familiar with the Norway, I lived on what was popularly called "Slime Alley"- so called because it was on the same deck as where the garbage piled up during each cruise, and where we took on provisions every Saturday. The thing it that this place had to have the garbage unloaded first thing every Saturday morning in record time, and the whole area had to be hosed down before the provisions could be brought onboard. There was only one hatch for both on this older ship built back in the early 60s. Every Friday those garbage bags were filled to the brim and stacked up so deep you were lucky if you could walk around them. Often something was leaking so there was a smelly goop on the floor you had to walk through to get to the other end of the ship. There was no way around it - that I knew anyway. By the way - that is the exact area where some six people died in a boiler explosion on the last cruise the Norway ever took. The boiler was on the decks below that spot.

But the beautiful thing about the Norway was that it was one of the biggest cruise ships in the world at the time, which meant it had a huge crew. The crew bar on that ship was immense, with a pool table, pinball machines, a bar, a disco and dance floor, and more. We also had a "crew store" where we could buy shaving cream, beer, soda, etc for about ½ the price of anyplace we could buy it on land. As I recall, a six-pack of Red Stripe and about $3.50 - even though I did not drink alcohol at that time.

After 13 weeks on the Norway I had arranged to work for Holland America. I got off the Norway and flew to Vancouver to catch the old Westerdam (the version that was out before one the line has now). When I saw my crew cabin I was in awe of it. I had the most beautiful cabin I had ever seen. It had a whole wall full of wooden cabinetry, a queen-sized bed, a television and a regular cruise ship bathroom just like any passenger cabin. There was even a porthole so I could look outside at the water, which was often just a few feet below the level of my window.

If the work on that ship had not been so hard I would have been in heaven, but I was the only stage manager on that ship and they had brought me onboard along with a new show. I was up all night helping the new show design lights, etc, and also trying to learn all of the duties I was supposed to tend to during the day.

But that cabin was unbelievably nice. On Holland America I was also set up to eat breakfast in the crew mess and lunch and dinner at the passenger buffets. Back in those days the lunch was eaten with the passengers, but the dinner was prepared up in the buffet area just for us crewmembers. No passengers were told about it - they were all supposed to eat in the dining room. Every once in awhile a passenger would wander up there and see the buffet was open for us staff members - none of us ever told them they couldn't eat there, but it was surprising how seldom any passenger ever found us out up there.

Who ate up there? The Holland America singers and dancers, the band, people from the pursers office (who we never talked to) and the Steiner Girls (from the Spa). The one thing about the Steiner girls I will never forget is that they really liked to drink - almost always with beer or wine.

I was only on the Westerdam for six weeks (Vancouver to Alaska) before I was sent to the brand new Statendam (the same one that is still in service, now the oldest Holland America ship in the fleet not counting the Prinsendam which has built for Royal Viking Line in the 1980s.)

When I transferred to the Statendam they did not have a cabin ready for me. I had to fly from Vancouver to New York City to spend one night with my girlfriend before I flew to Rome the next day. When I arrived at the brand new Statendam they put me up in the infirmary. I slept on an examination table for almost two weeks before my cabin became available. I had a bathroom in my room I could use anytime, but my room did not have a door (the bathroom did). The table was about four feet off the ground and only about two feet wide, fortunately I was never one to toss and turn very much.

When a cabin finally became available it was very similar to the one on the Westerdam and I was feeling extremely lucky to have the same room again. Even better, the Statendam had two stage managers, one for sound and one for lights, and so I only had half the work to do. In fact, I had less because this ship had the first computerized light board in the fleet and so all of my scenes were pre-set.

This was a cake job. We also had Filipino assistant stage managers who could set up microphones for us so we did not have to prepare any bingo games, etc. The only bad thing about this ship was the fact that we were both soon moved to much smaller digs, we both ended up in inside crew cabins with single beds, but we still had TV sets and the same bathrooms as the passenger cabins.

Once again we had the same dining arrangement as the Westerdam, with breakfast in the crew quarters and lunch and dinner in the buffet areas. As I recall, we were even allowed to go up to the buffet for breakfast when we wanted. I actually do not remember eating in the crew mess very often - just long enough to get my morning coffee.

But it is important to remember that I was a cruise staff member, which means I had special privileges others did not get. Even the cast performers had to share cabins while I had one of my own. Not the guest performers like Pearl Kaufman, though. They always got the deluxe suites up on the Navigation Deck.

On all of the ships I worked on the crewmembers - kitchen cleaners, room stewards, busboys, etc, all had to share cabins, with sometimes as many as three people in the same room. On the Norway they didn't even have a toilet in the same room. Generally there were Caribbean natives living together on the deck below mine. In truth I never even had a reason to go down there. I did once because a guy asked me to try to fix their television connection. That was the only time I ever went down there. I once a reason to go to the engine room and I recall it as being a frightfully cark and hot place. The Norway was the last cruise ship with a direct steam drive engine.

The equivalent "crew deck" on the Holland America ships was the deck below ours. I went down there once or twice although I do not remember why. Those ships had lots of Indonesian crewmembers onboard, many of whom were Moslem. I know I saw something that I believe must have been a small mosque down below, but I can't really say for sure. It might have been a Buddhist shrine because I believe it had some icons, and generally those are not allowed in Islam.

In any case, the Filipino and Indonesians all lived in cabins for two to three people, but I remember more importantly that their crew mess was right outside the door that shut our wing off from I-95 (the name for the common hallway on all crew decks on every ship). They were often eating fish head stew and always lots of noodles. I was lucky if they had coffee in the mornings since they were always tea drinkers.

At night I had access to the nightclubs onboard, but I rarely went up to them. For me a regular night after a show would be to go to the midnight buffet and then back to my cabin to watch a movie. We always had two movies on, the passenger movie and the crew movie. The crew movie was always better.

In any case, I can tell you that life as a crewmember is a fun and fulfilling job, and I have met very few crewmembers that do not working on ships. Some people stay on ships for decades, while some only for a few contracts, but no matter what, it usually ends up being one of the most memorable things a person can ever do.

Read more about how staff and crew are organized when working on cruise ships.

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