It Was Supposed to Just Be a Gap Year, but I’m Still Working on a Cruise Ship Years Later

We’re all probably quite familiar with the role(s) of a flight attendant, given how popular the job is. But have you ever wondered what life’s like when you’re working on a cruise ship? It sounds like it could be pretty similar to a flight attendant, but the jobs on cruise ships are widely varied and more specific. To sate our curiosity, we spoke to Cassandra Tuan, a Malaysian who’s currently living her best life aboard a cruise ship as an Entertainment Technical Supervisor. Initially meant to be a gap year experience, this stint has become a long-term thing, and Cassandra spills the tea on why she stayed on, and what life’s like at sea!

By Chance

First of all, I didn’t have an original plan. I stumbled upon the job on a job hosting website when I was still in the UK, and I went straight onto a ship out of college. As I studied theatre production, I started off as technical stage crew, then got promoted to a supervisor role that manages all the stage staff, and heads the stage shows. I was then a props technician, maintaining and touching up props and scenery when necessary, and running backstage tracks and assisting with scenery changeovers. Currently, as an Entertainment Technical Supervisor, I assist in managing a team of technicians and stage crew for day-to-day operations, including the main shows that happen at the main venue, as well as the smaller shows like pop-up events across the ship. I wasn’t expecting to be on a ship for more than two years, but here I am!

Staying On

I chose the ship as my gap year initially as returning to Malaysia to hunt for a related job in my field of study or staying in a foreign country to try and get work were both difficult and less-than-ideal situations. Once I was on the ship, what got me to stay is the easy access to a high-tech environment in terms of stage production. I get to play with a lot of really expensive and new toys, and broaden my horizons in many different ways on board. And I’m not gonna lie, it pays well. There are perks, and you learn, grow, travel, gain different skills and experiences, and meet people from around the world. Fun fact: I got COVID last year before the vaccines were even a thing, and I had to be hospitalised for four to five days in Malaysia. The hospital bill came up to about RM5,000, and I was able to claim it from my then-employer (I just jumped ship to a new company), so that was a sweet benefit! However, it’s not always as easy as it seems. There are downsides to it as well.

Not Just a Job, But a Lifestyle

How do you feel about small spaces? You know the typical storeroom/maid room in a Malaysian household? That’s how big the cabin is. I’m a small person, but I can touch both sides of the walls when I extend my arms out – that’s how small it is, so if you’re not great with small spaces, I wouldn’t recommend working on a cruise ship. Plus, you usually have to share a cabin in entry-level positions, but I was lucky enough to have my own cabin as a technician. You also work and live in the same place, so there’s no escape at all. Your colleagues are your friends, and your friends are your colleagues, whether you like them or not. I should also mention that about 90% of the cabins don’t have windows, so you don’t see sunlight unless you go outside on open decks. You also don’t get off days when you’re on board, but there’s a set amount of work hours and off hours. You get a contract, and it can be different lengths depending on the position. Six to seven months is the norm.

The Pandemic

If you’re wondering what we did during the pandemic, we partied, mostly. The crew was on board, and I was actually in Port Klang when news dropped that the next cruise was going to be suspended. It was a big ship too, with a guest capacity of 4,600 and 1,500 crew. Suddenly, the ship was empty with a thousand odd crew just standing around, not really knowing what to do. We did the reasonable thing: party. We also got to enjoy lots of good food, originally meant for the guests. We thought that it was fine, and we’d be back in service after two months or so. Well, that didn’t work out, and eventually they had to cut our contracts because they couldn’t afford to keep paying us (as long as you’re on board, you have to get paid). The ship then turned into our own Uber, dropping people home at different ports, and even going as far as chartering private flights to fly people back home. I was stuck on the ship for about 150 days, being one of the last 200 on board, which was super weird because the ship had never been that empty. The days also became really repetitive, and our meal times were restricted (we had 24/7 access pre-COVID), so if you don’t eat at the allocated time you don’t get a meal, and people were panic buying from the mini mart on board to the point where they had to limit how much stuff a person could buy.

An Emergency

It was a minor one compared to some others. This was actually during the pandemic, and we didn’t have any guests on board. We were just leaving Busan after getting some food and oil, and it was almost midnight. I remember it very clearly because there was a birthday party going on at the crew bar. The DJ was playing loud music, and suddenly everyone just went up and down in a sort of wave. Clearly, something hit us, or we hit something as there was a huge bump. As glasses and bottles rolled and scattered everywhere, the music kept going. Finally, somebody knocked on the crew bar door and yelled, “Bravo!” That’s an emergency response code: Alpha for medical, and Bravo for fire or collision. The crew has different cards corresponding to each code, and mine was not a Bravo response; I was with the next step, with the lifeboats. However, no one knew what was going on, so we could only return to our cabins, change into warm clothing, and wait. People were running about trying to determine if we had a hole in the side of the ship. We didn’t but it was a really big dent – a barge had hit us, and if it had hit us any harder, it would have been a hole.

You Wanna Work on a Cruise Ship Too?

If you’re adventurous, you should definitely try it. If you’re afraid of being alone or lonely, then don’t, because it can get pretty lonely sometimes. Also, figure out what job are you going to try for, because different jobs come with different benefits, workload, and pay. If you’re looking to do entertainment, welcome aboard! Personally, I still really like this lifestyle because I get to see a lot of places, and be free. I’m used to being away from home for a long time, so it’s really a no-brainer for me. Last but not least, it’s a great way to see the world, not just in terms of places, but the diversity as well. It shows you how big the world is just on one ship, and it’s quite unique in the way that it helps people grow and be independent while also being very accepting towards differences in cultures, mentalities, and everything else you could possibly think of.

Story contributed by Cassandra Tuan, who’s currently somewhere sequestered on a cruise ship. All images courtesy of Cassandra Tuan.