Going away on your first contract at sea can be quite daunting. While you can try and mentally prepare yourself for what’s ahead by reading up on it (maybe that’s what you’re doing by reading this blog), or by talking to others you know who work on ships, you can never know how you’ll cope until you’re there, in that situation. Even if you know yourself really well and think you’ll know how you’ll deal with things, you can never be certain.
I honestly didn’t have a solid idea of how I’d handle life at sea. I knew that being on the ship for six months would be hard, but it wasn’t as if I’d never been away from home before. When I applied for the job I had just graduated from university, and my uni wasn’t really close to home, so I was used to being away from my family – although at uni I was only a few hours away and could speak to them whenever I liked. On top of this, I was never really away for more than a few months at a time with all the holidays. Being on a ship would be completely different, I’d be thousands of miles away from home depending on what country I was in and having access to phone service and internet wouldn’t always be a given unless I was willing to pay for it.
Coping with your first contract isn’t just about coping with one single thing though, so let’s break it down.
The first obstacle I had to deal with when joining my first ship was getting there: I had to join the ship in the Cape Verde islands, just off the west coast of Africa. The most adventurous solo travel I had done up until that point was getting the train back home from uni, so the thought of flying alone was terrifying to me. Once I got to the airport I was worried I wouldn’t find my gate, and seeing as my flight wasn’t direct, I’d worried about missing my connection. Thankfully the flight went smoothly.
The next step was making it to the hotel the company had booked for me. You see, my company booked my flight and a hotel for me to stay in the night before joining the ship, but making my way between the airport, hotel and port was my responsibility, although I’d be reimbursed. My flight landed just after midnight, and the airport seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. I had to walk quite a way from the airport in the dark with my suitcases to find a taxi rank, but I made it to the hotel safely.
So, my first experience of travelling alone had been pretty nerve wracking, but looking back on it, it wasn’t that bad and I was really glad I’d done it as now I am much more confident with solo travelling!
Coping with the new job:
While you might be joining a ship to travel the world, let’s not forget the real reason you’re there: to do a job. For me, when it came to learning the new job, I felt like I picked everything up quite fast. To be honest, when it comes to work, I always have. I would say the hardest part for me was that my first ship was so small that it was just me and my manager in the shop. My manager had been doing the job for a long time and I think that sometimes people in that position can forget what it’s like to be brand new, on you first ever ship. Even though I thought I was picking things up fast, sometimes it seemed as though she expected me to know everything straight away, and she had no patience with me. On top of this, I didn’t have any other colleagues to observe and learn from even faster, and I didn’t have anyone else in a similar position to talk to.
Even though I was working in the shops – probably the department onboard that clocks the least hours overall – I was working harder than I ever had before. On sea days we were working for twelve hours; my feet had never known pain like it in the first month. Being the only shop assistant meant I was doing a lot of physical work, lifting heavy boxes and moving them between the shop and stockroom all the time.
If you aren’t prepared to work hard I wouldn’t suggest working on a cruise ship in any job. For me, while I found it hard at first, I soon got used to the work and learnt that I actually have a really strong work ethic.
Sharing a cabin:
One thing I found quite difficult to deal with at first was sharing a cabin with someone I didn’t really know. I was lucky that my first ever cabin was quite spacious because I did struggle at first with learning to share my personal space with a stranger. As I was the only shop assistant, and my manager was entitled to her own cabin, my cabin mate was from a different department. In some ways this was difficult as we didn’t always know when the other would be in the cabin, but it also sometimes meant I’d have the cabin to myself. Something else which was difficult was the fact that on this particular ship the bathrooms were shared between two cabins, meaning it was shared between four people. Thankfully I never came across this on other ships that I worked on.
My first cabin mate was quite hard work. She was often quite loud and inconsiderate and didn’t always seem to understand the concept of privacy. At first, I was a bit to shy to say anything to her about it. Things escalated quite quickly after she had a break up which she didn’t take well. She began drinking a lot and would slam around the cabin drunk in the middle of the night and bring guys to the cabin while I was sleeping. When the behaviour continued even after I’d confronted her about it I had to complain to the ship’s management. Unfortunately for her she also wasn’t performing well at work, and after getting really drunk one night, she slapped the ex-boyfriend. Because of all this, she was fired. It would be horrible for me to say that I was glad of this, but to be honest I was relieved, not just for me, but for her too. In reality, she wasn’t coping and being onboard wasn’t the best place for her to be at that time.
For a couple of weeks, I had the cabin to myself while they found a replacement for her. Having the time and space to myself was so nice and, to be honest, I was kind of dreading getting a new cabin mate after my first experience, but I couldn’t have been luckier! Jayne joined the ship and we became so close! We just clicked as we had the same sense of humour and sharing a cabin with her wasn’t difficult at all as we were always clear with each other.
So, I think the key to sharing a cabin with someone is communication. While I didn’t exactly have the best first cabin mate, I also wasn’t very vocal about what I expected from her until the very end. While you might not always be lucky enough to be best friends with your cabin mate, I think it’s all about finding a balance.
On most ships you join, your first stop for making new friends will be within your team – even if it’s only one other team member – or your cabin mate. For me it wasn’t as simple as that. My first cabin mate was nice enough, but as you might have already figured out, we just didn’t click. My manager was much older than me and wasn’t interested in being my friend, and I didn’t have any other teammates.
During my first few days onboard, I was too shy to go to the bar on my own after work and would sit on my own in the mess (dining room). Thankfully a girl from another department who knew I was new onboard asked me to go out in port with her one day, and with her I began socialising more. I became more confident and as new people started joining the ship I was able to build some really good friendships.
My advice for anyone joining a ship is to just have a bit of confidence when it comes to making friends – ask your colleagues if they have plans to go out in port or if they want to go to the bar after work – by the way, you don’t have to drink but the bar is always where I have done the most socialising on ships – and never sit alone in the mess. You can build friendships really fast on ships because you’re seeing the same people all the time, you just need to be open to it!
While I was always missing home and my family, for the most part I wasn’t really suffering from home sickness; maybe all the other things going on around me were distracting me from that. The one point in the contract when I did feel really homesick was about three months in, half way through. On one turnaround day a lot of people I had grown close with all finished their contracts and went home. For about a week or so I felt really lonely but I soon made friends with the new people onboard, in fact I built even stronger friendships in the second half of my contract, and obviously got a cabin mate who I became inseparable with.
How homesick you are will depend on a lot of different things. I think if you are feeling really homesick you need to judge whether everything else you’re getting is making it all worth it. For me, it was. There have been times on all of my contracts when I felt like going home, but the fact I was travelling the world with great people was always the reason I stayed.
So, in conclusion, I don’t think you can really box ‘coping with your first contract’ into one particular thing like missing home, you’re in a completely new living and working environment, having to build all-new relationships with people in constantly changing situations. It’s a lot to deal with and everyone will cope with it differently; a lot of people can’t cope with it at all. I’ll be honest with you, I actually surprised myself at how I handled everything. You see, I’d never really been the most confident or independent person before joining ships, I’d always looked towards others to follow, but here I really started to come out of my shell. I learnt to put myself out there to make friends, and while the work was hard – and my boss a little intimidating – I took it all in my stride. At the end of the day, getting to see new parts of the world, which had always been my dream, made all of the hard parts absolutely worth it!
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