The Royal Caribbean’s Mariner of the Seas is like a Disneyland on a cruise ship. Fourteen storeys of food, drink and pleasure centre around the Promenade, a shopping strip where animated Dreamworks mascots parade down, and crowds line both sides holding mobile phones aloft to capture every! single! photo! opportunity!
There are the penguins from Madagascar, some Chinese performers bobbing about to what sounds like Chinese New Year tunes in mid-December, and crowd favourite Shrek who delights the kids with his pointy elfin ears and decidedly un-elfin-like belly.
Then, as quickly as all the mascots appeared, they file out of designated exits still dancing, waving to the stragglers along staircases who didn’t manage to secure a good enough viewing spot along the Promenade (self-included). They dance down flights of stairs, disappear behind a pillar and into a corridor, and vanish round a corner. One of the supporting dancers, clad in a bright yellow dress and bright face paint, flashes an equally sunny (if somewhat apologetic) smile as she shuts the door while I am peering in. “Sorry! We’re done now!” she chirps, and then the parade is over.
This is my family’s first experience with Royal Caribbean; our last cruise was on Star Cruises’ Superstar Leo over a decade ago, and in that time I have grown curious about different things. What is it like to work on board a cruise ship? Where does the crew live, sleep, eat, work, play? How much of the world do they get to see, and how much do they miss home while they are at it?
I crave insight into these spaces, where passengers do not go, where mascots can shed their furry animal suits and mop the sweat from their brows and feel thankful that no overenthusiastic child has kicked them in the groin today. I steal glimpses where I can, behind heavy whitewashed doors that read “Restricted access. Authorized personnel only.” Sometimes these doors are left open to reveal crew staircases, parallel to passenger ones, except these sections of the ship have cold steel railings and green linoleum floors, not the plush maroon carpets and brass staircase knobs that are so easy to get used to. Comfort is a surprisingly agreeable bedfellow, even though I am accustomed to backpacking and staying in eight-bed dorms, or the compact space of a four-bed cabin.
It has barely been three months since I left the Republic of Singapore Navy and a part of me misses life at sea. Perhaps I want to live vicariously through the crew of the Mariner, because theirs is a life I will likely not have again. There are other people holding similar jobs on land, because a cruise ship is, after all, a floating hotel. There are other bartenders and chambermaids and waiters and cooks with similar stories about working eighty-hour weeks a long way from home. But they do not fascinate me like this 1200-strong crew that chugs along with the Mariner, keeping her ship shape.
There are obvious differences between the Mariner and all the RSN ships I have sailed on before. She is a cruise liner, not a warship, a hulking behemoth at 138,000 tonnes and twice the length of the RSN’s largest vessel. Her raison d’être is to entertain; she has no country to defend.
But regardless of purpose, there are unifying traits in ocean passage. Crew quickly becomes family, and though a new port is always exciting, in the few precious hours of shore leave one of the first things they do is call home. One day, I peer from above into the darkened glass surrounding the bridge. In its centre is a u-shaped console, just like in the RSN’s landing ship tanks; the radars and charts look familiar in the scattering of colours I never learnt to interpret.
I learn about ship life from conversations throughout the day – with service staff, bartenders, housekeepers. Most of the time they do a splendid job. Our room is cleaned twice a day, and in the evenings when we return from dinner there is always a folded towel animal to greet us on the bed – a bulldog the first day, an elephant the second, a monkey the third – so adorable we cannot bear to unfold them to use the towels.
I linger over the breakfast buffet at Windjammer cafe one late morning, and at 1030h, like clockwork, the crew are already setting up for lunch. They only have half an hour to turn the place around – mop floors, wipe counters, lay tables, set out food – before the next batch of hungry cruisers will descend upon the lunch buffet, ready to raise hell if the doors are open even a minute late.
Another evening Father is displeased with the front desk staff, because he cannot get the information he wants about the next day’s port call. When the assistant front desk manager hears about it he offers to send wine and cheese to our room, by way of apology. I am hesitant to accept it, not wanting to appear like one of the gian png (greedy and opportunistic) Singaporeans I had laughed about before coming on the cruise, and reluctant to conflate the matter. But it is no trouble, he says, and half an hour later a cheese platter and an ice bucket appears in our stateroom.
It feels so easy. We barely have to lift a finger, and everything is done.
And yet I know from my time in RSN that to have things running like clockwork – it is never easy. When the Mariner calls into Phuket and anchors a distance from shore, the ferry ride there is smooth and comfortable, everything efficiently organised, everyone polite.
I think back to the socio-civic mission we carried out in Tinombo, and how the fast craft crew worked non stop for days in searing, relentless heat, to ferry the patients to and from shore. Back then, at least it was easy to discern the purpose of the mission. They were helping people, facilitating their treatment by RSN doctors, and if the going was tough, at least they could see the tangible outcome of their efforts. At least the patients said thank you.
At sea there are no weekends, and the Mariner is always at sea. She will spend six months cruising along the Malacca Strait while calling at Klang, Penang and Phuket, and then six more along the Shanghai – Japan – Korea route, where the seas are rougher, and so are the guests. One waiter tells me that guests from China routinely jostle each other to get to the buffet, and will fight each other with tongs as they are dishing the food. Singaporeans are better, he says, and I laugh. We have our idiosyncrasies too. Mother saw one old man loading his pockets with the tea bags on offer at the breakfast buffet.
But these things – nicked towels, food smuggled out of the buffet spread – are chump change to the Miami-owned Royal Caribbean company, which turned a profit of $492 million in 2014. According to the same Wall Street Journal article, it is aiming to aiming to double its per-share earnings by 2017 over 2014 levels.
To do so it must keep its fleet sailing, every day, non stop. Port calls last less than a day, with the ship coming alongside at 0800h and slipping off before sunset.
When the crew signs contracts for six, seven, eight months, they will work 12-hour days with no days off. One of the younger crew members confides this to me – “But don’t tell anyone,” he says. When I ask why, he simply says it is not good to reveal these things. Not good for the company’s image.
I understand. I’m not sure what they can and cannot say, although I’m sure there are rules. Some of these rules, concerning hairstyles and regulation footwear, are plastered on noticeboards on decks one and two, next to reminders about safety. These decks house the crew quarters, small cabins with smaller portholes, home for the next six, seven, eight months.
What the crew can reveal, and take pleasure in talking about, is the end of their contracts. They all have theirs on the tip of their tongue, right down to the exact date. When they leave to go home for ten weeks most will already have signed the next one. For these veterans, cruising has become a lifestyle.
If there are other aspects of the job they enjoy, like interacting with guests, or sailing with crew who have become their second family, these come secondary to the money they make. One Filipino waiter tells me he holds a management degree in his country. But work opportunities there are scarce, and he says he would not be able to make the same kind of money back home.
Salaries are not available on Royal Caribbean’s official job portal, but international recruiting site Glassdoor, which also compiles salary reports, estimates that a waiter on board Royal Caribbean cruises can earn about $1800USD per month.
So for the past ten years, home has become a shared cabin, on a ship that his contract dictates.
The food is impressive on various counts. At Windjammer Cafe’s round-the-clock buffet spread, portions are heaping and variety is overwhelming. Not everything is tasty, but I am spoilt for choice. The first day at lunch, I fill my plate with samples of everything I like and when it is full there are still entire buffet counters I have not walked by.
The three-storey main dining room, which runs two dinner seatings every night, is staggering in its old-school opulence. A glittering chandelier hangs in the middle of the cavernous space; the floor is carpeted in maroon and the chairs upholstered in matching velvet. The waitstaff assigned to our table are earnest to a fault, recommending food in line with our preferences from the previous day, ready to accommodate every last request. They pull out chairs and place napkins on our laps and make us feel much fancier than we really are.
They are so eager to please, and so afraid to offend. One day, a waiter drizzles my tenderloin with the wrong sauce – an honest mistake, but not the end of the world. His colleague interjects, her brow furrowed with worry, her apologies so profuse that I feel compelled to reassure her, to smooth the situation over because she looks ready to jump up and demand another plate from the galley.
Later, Mother requests lemon sorbet, but they are out of the flavour and can only offer raspberry. No problem, we’ll take it, she says, but the same waitress apologises three times for not having lemon sorbet like we wanted. And by then we are wondering if this reaction is from enthusiasm and initiative, or fear?
These venues are free (or included in the cruising price). There are paid restaurants – Chops Grille for steak and Giovanni’s Table for Italian, and we look past the cheesy names and flyers clearly designed on Microsoft word and make reservations at the former. Everything is so good. We feast on beef carpaccio and truffle mushroom soup, crab cakes and seared scallops, a glistening slab of slow-cooked Berkshire pork that glides down our throats and goes straight to our waistlines. The lobster is springy and briny-sweet, every forkful delicate. I devour a 12-ounce steak oozing just the right amount of pink and promise to diet when I’m back in Singapore.
On the last day, I exchange email addresses with the waitstaff assigned to our table, promising to send the selfies we snapped, or to offer food recommendations on their next trip to Singapore. We talk about what they will do when they get home. Not everyone will renew their contracts – 25-year-old Miao Jiali, an only child, is going home to China, where she will try to find a partner and settle down. “I am old already,” she says, and though I want to protest, I know the rules are different elsewhere in the world. She uses QQ and Wechat; I am on Facebook and Instagram. In a different world she might not be my family’s waitress but my friend.
We catch the Mariner’s signature ice-skating show, Ice under the Big Top, so popular that performers do four runs over the cruise to accommodate all the guests. For 45-minutes the skaters recreate a circus on ice, complete with clowns and jesters, acrobats, and blue-eyed blondes in leopard print cropped tops baring toned midriffs, their bodies sinewy and leonine.
During a solo, one of them misses a step during a stunt, and it brings her stumbling to the ice. The audience applauds louder in encouragement as she picks herself up, soaring through the routine as though it had never happened. But though her smile doesn’t waver, her confidence does, and less than a minute later she stumbles again.
We clap louder, as if to say it’s okay, we understand, these things happen. Collectively we will her to finish the routine, and she does. Her jumps are not as smooth towards the end, her landings less assured, and from my seat in the first row it is clear that she is shaken. But she will pick herself up, reappear in the next act, and keep skating, keep twirling, keep spinning – because as long as the Mariner is at sea, the party on board must never end.