Many of us go on cruises to let our hair down. To party with a cocktail or several. Some of us, flush with memories of the whirlwind romances on the TV show The Love Boat, maybe even seek a real-life shipboard love affair.
But what you might not know is that oftentimes, the real partying and at-sea romances are going down on the lower decks, where the ship’s crew lives and plays.
“It’s just an orgy down below the water line,” says Brian David “B.D.” Bruns, a former cruise ship waiter and author of Cruise Confidential, a series of books based on his life at sea. “The best thing about working on cruise ships — they’re like wild parties. I live in Vegas and I would have to go to a private party to find this kind of behavior.”
Cruise ship vet B.D. Bruns says his days at sea were a constant party. (Photo: Facebook)
Not to paint all cruise ship crew members as a bunch of randy, drunken party animals. They are, by and large, a dedicated and hard-working bunch who take their work seriously. After all, in addition to being bartenders, servers, housecleaners, cruise directors, salespeople, and the like, they’re also experienced sailors trained in lifesaving techniques and are ready to assist you in an emergency.
That said, it’s a stressful job with long hours (100-hour weeks are not unheard-of) and demanding passengers. So many cruise ship crew members — especially the younger, unmarried service staff — blow off steam the way 20-somethings away from home for the first time typically do: by partying and hooking up with each other like it’s the end of the world.
Related: A First-Timer’s Guide to Cruising
“Think about when you went to college for the first time,” says Bruns. “That sense of freedom, like, ‘Oh my God, Mom and Dad aren’t here looking over my shoulder.’ So you go to town! Well, now amplify that by 10. Because these [crew members] — who are often from Second or Third World countries — lived in a house with their moms and dads, grandmas and grandpas, uncles and aunts because they’re from a small village in Indonesia. Suddenly they’re on their own and they’ve never experienced freedom like that.”
Lisa Niver looks back fondly at her cruise ship days. (Photo: Lisa Niver)
Bruns and Niver — both happily retired from the crew life on the high seas — shared with Yahoo Travel the side of cruise ships you probably will never see, one the cruise lines generally don’t publicize. The partying. The hookup scene. Your chances of getting with a crew member if you’re a passenger (spoiler alert: not good). And how cruise ship crew members work hard but play harder.
Party at sea
We all know the average cruise ship has numerous bars. What you may not know is that there are additional bars that you’ll never see, bars exclusively for the crew.
“A lot of people that work on the ship don’t have the privilege to go out and about on the upper deck [with the passengers],” says Niver. “So after they finish their shift, which could be anywhere from 10 to 14 hours depending on what their service is, there is really only one place they could go, which is the crew bar. The drinks were very reasonably priced, and it was always a great place to hang out and not have to be in uniform.”
The bartender at the crew bar aboard Holland America’s Eurodam. (Photo: Holland America)
So you mix cheap booze with young, stressed-out workers stuck in a confined ship with tight quarters, and you know what’s going to ensue. “Are there a lot of relationships?” Niver remembers. “The drinks are a dollar and no one has any homework, so yes — draw your own conclusions!”
“Every week you’ve got new people from all over the world popping up onto the ship,” says Bruns. “It’s like an international smorgasbord of beautiful young people far from home.”
The multinational flavor of cruise ship crews means that many crew members like to do their own version of cultural exchanges. Bruns says the only reason he stayed in one particularly miserable cruise ship job was because he was chasing after a certain Romanian waitress (he eventually caught her).
“It was one of the unspoken rules that you don’t date somebody who is from your country or your color,” he remembers. “I thought that was awesome. It was really cool for me to see that. Especially nowadays in America, everyone is like, ‘I hate you, you’re not just like me.’ On ships you’re not supposed to talk about politics or religion, but that’s all we did. It’s because everybody is like, ‘Wow, I want to learn.’ And of course, the ultimate way to learn about a culture is to sleep with somebody who is from that culture.” (Are you listening, United Nations?)
Cruise ship crew members engage in international relations. (Photo: iStock)
While much of the partying and hooking up aboard cruise ships involves young crew members, Bruns says older officers were known to get into the act too. “The officers have their own officers’ bars and they don’t mingle with the crew,” he says. But some did. “The Italian officers loved the ladies,” Bruns says of his time on one ship. “They would go to the crew bar intentionally to pick up chicks. They would always have their ship [girlfriends]. And believe me, there are a lot of women who just wanted to have a better cabin for the six months [of their contracts] — even if they aren’t so stupid to think that the officers are going to remember them, because it’s like, ‘Honey, he’s married.’”
Looking back, Bruns does not blame those who gleefully participate in the cruise ship’s hookup culture. “They’re going to be gone in a month anyway; why not have a good time?” he says. “Believe me, you are a zombie, you’re overworked, you’re exhausted. At least you want to try to have a good time or take some memories with you.”
Who are the biggest partiers at sea?
The shipboard entertainers (dancers, singers, musicians, comedians) often aren’t official crew members. But Bruns points to them, especially the musicians, as the hardest partiers of all those working aboard the ships he’s been on.
“I hung out with a lot of the singers on one ship in particular,” he remembers. “We had a great time, but man, these poor people. And they’re just drunk all the time.”
Cruise ship news flash No. 1: Musicians know how to party. Cruise ship news flash No. 2: Water is wet. (Photo: iStock)
Of course, the story of musicians drinking and hooking up at sea is as old as music and water. But Bruns says it’s especially noticeable on cruise ships.
“These guys make no money — they’re like the proverbial starving musician types,” he says. “They’re the only ones that have free time. They work like two to three hours a night doing a show. Because everybody else [in the crew] is working all the time — and they’re like, ‘Well, we don’t have enough money to go into port’ — these guys are bored out of their minds. So these guys drink like fish and they sleep with each other all the time in their own little entertainers’ circle.”
Passenger and crew flings? Forget about it.
Maybe you’re reading this and thinking you might be able to indulge in a little shipboard romance with a crew member on your next trip (hey, those uniforms can be pretty sexy). Sorry to let the wind out of your sails, but forget it. Niver and Bruns — in addition to just about every single cruise crew member, past and present, we’ve talked to — say the same thing: Crew members just don’t hook up with passengers. Mainly because it is so against the rules.
Niver compares the no-fly zone cruise lines place around passengers to her previous job at a Club Med resort, which was a tad more, shall we say, permissive about such matters.
“At a staff meeting, the chief of the lodge looked at the team and said, ‘There’s a lot of single women coming next week and I want them to be happy,’” Niver says. “That is not a conversation we’d have on a cruise ship!”
Says Bruns: “Every single time somebody tells me a story [about passenger-crew romances], I call bulls*** on it.”
Looking to make out with a member of the ship’s crew? Don’t make any bets. (Photo: iStock)
Not that crew members aren’t ever tempted to hook up with passengers. You could meet a cruiser who’s extremely attractive, for instance. Or, as Bruns points out, the appeal of hooking up — and potentially starting a relationship — with an American passenger has benefits beyond the physical, especially for some of the foreign crew members.
“You need to understand, some of these crew members would love to have a green card,” he says. As one of the few Americans on the cruise ships he worked, he remembers some fellow crew members even going after him for the same reason. “Me being the American, I got people knocking on my door offering everything you can imagine because they wanted a green card,” he says. “You’ve got a supermodel chick from a small town in the Czech Republic, a village of 50. She wants out of there and she is smoking-hot. She’ll do whatever it takes. Likewise, these crew members would love a green card, so they’re thinking, ‘Hey, if I can get with an American passenger…’”
But despite the many reasons to hook up with passengers, crew members generally agree it’s not worth violating the strict rules cruise lines have that discourage that kind of fraternizing.
“It is forbidden,” says Niver. “Passengers are not allowed in crew areas.” Also, crew members — unless they have a specific, cruise-related reason to be there — generally are banned from passenger cabins.
“If they get caught even talking to a passenger inappropriately, in an inappropriate location, they get fired, no questions asked,” says Bruns. (He adds getting fired from a cruise ship is no picnic: “An officer just points to you and says, ‘You, get off at the next port with your luggage.’ Some cruise lines fly you home from there, some don’t. In fact I was abandoned in Copenhagen once.”)
Think you have what it takes to get these guys to risk their jobs? (Photo: iStock)
In short, crew members generally aren’t going to risk their jobs for a quick romance. “These crew members fight tooth and nail to get these jobs,” says Bruns, noting the small salaries crew members tend to make are often small fortunes back in their home countries. “They will not risk that job, and all that money, just for the very slim chance that ‘I’m going to meet this person for seven days, and I’ll convince her or him to marry me.’ They’re not that stupid.”
“Certainly it’s not never, but it’s at great risk,” says Niver about crew-passenger liaisons. “You have to be like, you don’t care about your job or you’re going to get fired anyways. I can’t say never; I would certainly say it’s rare.”
Love: exciting and new
Cruising is hard work, and long days at sea could wear on anybody. So it’s comforting to see that cruise ship crew members know how to have a deserved good time to help them deal with the real pressures of the job.
“One of the best things about working onboard is there are people from all over the world that get to meet all different people,” says Niver. Such people are ideal to party with. If an at-sea fling with a fellow cruise member results, so much the better!
“You’re dating someone from this other country, and you have them for two or three months before they leave their contract and you have to find somebody new,” Bruns says. “On a ship you live so much so fast because you know people are going. You make the connections real hard, real tight, real fast. I still have friends from all over the world. That’s awesome. That’s what ships give you.”
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