In the early summer of 2014, I was about to graduate from university with a degree in politics. My plan was to take a year out to go travelling before coming back to do my postgrad in journalism. I had thought about inter-railing around Europe but couldn’t find anyone who wanted to come along, and to be quite honest, I couldn’t find the funds either. A friend of mine, Ben, was constantly uploading travel photos to Facebook, it looked like he was in a different city everyday. Curious about what he was up to, I dropped him a message. It turned out he was working as a shop assistant in the onboard duty free shops on a cruise liner.
It was amazing, he told me. You were on the ship for a six month contract, working in a team of like-minded young people. Sometimes there was hard work, but mostly a lot of fun. You see, when a ship docks in a port, the onboard shops can’t open because of duty and customs laws. If the shops can’t open, that means a day out in port unless there are deliveries or stock counts. I found out that on most port days, the ‘shoppies’, as they’re called, spend the day out exploring and then come back to work from about 6pm to 11pm. A day at sea is a little different though, and you might clock up to 14 hours, but Ben assured me this was worth it for essentially being paid to travel. Not to mention all the crew parties, and sometimes you might even be able to go and watch a show or eat at one of the nice restaurants.
I was hooked on the idea and immediately applied. This was about July time, just as I was graduating. By the end of August I had passed a telephone interview, travelled down to Bristol for a group interview, and been offered a job. I just had to wait for a ship to become available, which could take up to a few months. There were a few more things I needed to get before I could embark on any ship. The first was a medical exam. The type of medical I acquired was the ENG-1, the most basic seafarer’s medical you can get in the UK. I had to go to a specialist doctor, thankfully there was one not too far away from where I lived, who checked all my vitals, my mobility, hearing, sight, and tested me for drugs. I passed the test, although my certificate did note I wasn’t fit for lookout duties due to a slightly lazy eye… it’s a good job I wasn’t trying to get a job as a lookout.
The next things my new employer required me to get were a USA C1D visa, or an ‘Alien in Transit’ visa, and an Australian MCA visa. These visas are required by any sea or air crew passing through the countries, and while I might not visit these countries, it was still essential I obtained them. The MCA was quite easy to get, I applied online and once I was approved a day or two later, I was informed the visa would automatically be registered to my passport number. The C1D, however, was slightly more complicated. I had to book an appointment at the US Embassy in London weeks in advance. No bags or phones were allowed in the embassy, so luckily I found a pharmacy nearby that had a locker service. I queued outside the embassy in the rain for about an hour with hundreds of other people. Once inside I was assigned a number and waited another couple of hours for it to be called. I then had to explain to the embassy official (or convince them) why I deserved the visa. Thankfully my company had provided me with a letter to give to them assuring them my employment was real. The embassy took my passport and told me I’d receive it back in the post a few weeks later with the visa inside. Oh, and that’ll be $160 please, but don’t worry, I was reimbursed.
By October I still hadn’t been assigned a ship and I was starting to worry. I had come home after graduating and was now working full time in a supermarket to keep me going. I was desperate to get out. In mid-November, one Monday morning, the email finally came. I would join my first ship in two weeks. Before I could join though, I had to do something called STCW training, a sea-safety course required by some but not all ships. I handed my notice in at the supermarket, worked my last shift and travelled straight to Liverpool for the five-day training course. When I arrived at the hotel which had been booked for me, I met Cyndi, another shoppy there for the training. Cyndi had already done a few contracts at sea and had trained to become a jewellery sales specialist. I found out jewellery specialists were picked up for their strong sales skills to sell high-end jewels, and they also made commission on everything they sold, meaning they made lots more money than normal shoppies if they sold enough. As I was getting closer to joining the ship my nerves were also starting to grow, but Cyndi assured me I was going to love my new adventure.
The STCW training was intense. Two of the five days were spent watching informational videos about the dangers of being at sea, as well as the basics of safety operations, although every ship would have different specifics. You see, even though I’d be working in the shops, every crew member has some sort of duty they perform in an emergency. Another day was spent learning first aid and practicing on Resusci Anne. The other two days were the real deal though. The first was spent learning what to do in the water, you know, if the ship sank. That wasn’t a daunting thought at all… We all headed to the local swimming pool and practiced stepping off the edge of the pool with life jackets on, pulling each other through the water, and inflating the life rafts. The hardest task, however, was to flip an overturned life raft upright and pull yourself into it unaided, all whilst being sprayed in the face with a hosepipe by the instructor. This was to ‘emulate rain’, he said.
With one of the elements down, the final training day was spent tackling fire. I mean literally. We learnt about different classes of fire and the appropriate types of extinguishers, and practiced putting out small fires. Then, in groups of three we had to battle a real, huge fire. The instructors had built a makeshift house setting out of some shipping containers. They set a fire in one compartment and we had to put on real fire suits and oxygen masks and go in there to put it out with a fire hose. I can honestly say it’s one of the scariest things I’ve ever done in my life! The containers were full of black smoke making it near-impossible to see anything, and the heat was the most intense heat I’ve ever felt. I was worried that because of my asthma I’d use up my oxygen too quickly, so tried to control my breathing. We had to follow each other along with linked arms. I was the second in the line and was thankful I didn’t have to lead. We edged our way through the black smog and had to go down a flight of stairs backwards so we didn’t trip, which is harder than it sounds, believe me. We saved the ‘casualty’ inside – a particularly heavy dummy – then brought the hose in to tackle the biggest, hottest fire I’ve ever experienced. At the end of it, I found out I’d used hardly any of my oxygen, in fact I had one of lowest usages out of the whole training group of about 10, and was quite impressed with myself. Now the chances of me having to put out of a fire of that scale on a ship would be slim, as there would be fire teams onboard, but it was still worth learning, and while it scared me so much at the time, I’m really glad it’s something I’ve been able to do.
So, on the Friday after training had finished, I travelled back home with just a couple of days left to pack and spend time with my family before I flew out on the Monday to what would be my new home for the next six months, the Saga Pearl II…
To be continued.
If you’re interested in the next chapter of my cruising journey then please stay tuned for my next post! While I’ll be doing longer posts on my cruise journey and the placed I’ve visited, if you have any questions for me, or would like to see me cover a particular subject, please let me know and I can always do some shorter posts.