On a recent Alaska cruise on the Sun Princess, I was fortunate enough to meet Terri, a fellow passenger who previously had a career working in the Purser's Office on a number of cruise ships. Terri was kind enough to allow me to interview her about her former career.
WALKER: Terri, how did you start work on a cruise ship in the first place?
TERRI: I started working on shore with Sundance and Princess as a "port contact" in 1986 (Vancouver's "Expo" year). I was one of the temporary staff who would greet arriving passengers, make sure that there hotel reservations were OK, get them on the right bus, and so on. When passengers were embarking, I would be part of the check-in crew. Perhaps some passengers don't realize that a large part of the cruise line staff who are on-shore during the embarking/disembarking process are not actually employees of the ship - most of us were hired just to be there on the turnaround days.
The following year when I was 19 (an adult in British Columbia!), I sent my resumé to a number of different cruise lines, and Admiral Cruises (who used to be Sundance Cruises), was the one that responded. They asked me if I was good-looking [laughs] - and of course I said I was - what are you supposed to say? You're ugly? I had a ten minute interview on the phone - where I was asked my height and my weight (all the things you're not supposed to ask). Clearly the cruise industry relies a lot on the appearance of their employees. The job they wanted me for was as an Assistant Purser ("Third Purser" they called it in those days).
When the ship arrived in Vancouver the following week, I had a short meeting on board, and was invited to join the next sailing - in two days time! So I quit my job of only two weeks as a hotel front desk trainee, finished my hotel management exams at the British Columbia Institute of Technology, and in fact caught the ship right after my final exam - and then had a ten-hour shift the same day as we sailed away to Alaska!
WALKER: Was the cruise ship experience a surprise when you actually got on board?
TERRI: It really was. The previous year I really hadn't interacted with the crew on board. I did have my "hotel management" courses under my belt, but I didn't know anything about what it was like to live on board, or even what a "purser" was for that matter. I soon found out that I was the low man on the totem pole, with duties primarily at the front desk. However, you're still considered an officer, with one stripe. We would have six hour shifts (longer on the first day), between 6 a.m. and midnight (in those days the Purser's Office wasn't open 24 hours a day). Our duties included taking care of passengers' requests for cabin changes or upgrades, dealing with passengers' accounts, any sort of currency exchange, keeping track of the bingo money - in fact, anything that had to do with money on board.
WALKER: Did you have to "fake it" a little when you started because of your lack of experience?
TERRI: Actually, being one of the few Canadians on staff, I was called upon immediately for my geographical knowledge as we sailed up the coast of British Columbia - a lot of the crew had never been to Alaska. But in terms of being a beginner - on my first day, I was running to get to lifeboat drill, and I didn't know where to go. I was confused as to which side was port or starboard, and I ran into this guy - right into his stomach almost. I bounced back, and he says "Who are you?". I say "I'm Terri", and he says "Oh, you must be the new purser from Vancouver". "Who are you?" I say, and he says "I'm the Captain". So I quickly learned how to read stripes after that [laughs]. One of my most embarrassing moments on board a ship.
WALKER: And what ship were you on for your first cruise?
TERRI: It was called at that time the "Stardancer," which is now Royal Caribbean's "Viking Serenade."
WALKER: When you started work immediately, how did you get used to all those things that first time passengers have to get used to, such as finding your way around the ship and the ship's routine?
TERRI: It was pretty difficult. I didn't know how I would be as far as seasickness was concerned. I certainly felt my sea legs after being a day and a half on board getting to Juneau. I was learning as the passengers were learning, so it was kind of exciting, but I love travel anyhow. So I learned that there were "decks" not "floors", port and starboard, not left and right, and bulkheads not walls. You also learned that a ship is more than a floating hotel - there's a "navy" side to it, and if you're staff, you can't be late back on board - it's not a building that doesn't move!
WALKER: The Viking Serenade has undergone major renovations since you were first on it?
TERRI: Yes, there used to be a car deck - it was originally a ferry in Scandinavia. This was an unusual ship to go to Alaska - all the fifth wheelers would drive up to Vancouver, take their vehicle on board, and then drive off in Haines or Skagway. Sometimes they overbooked the cars, and as a result the cars were so tightly packed together that you had to let your passengers out before you drove in - unless you wanted your passengers to have to climb out the car's windows!
WALKER: I don't know of any cruise ships nowadays that take cars on board to Alaska, except perhaps for the Alaska State ferry fleet. Are there any?
TERRI: None that I know of. The car deck was always full going to Alaska, but not nearly as full when we did Mexican Riviera cruises in the winter. Often there was enough room that the crew would play basketball on the car deck when off duty. It was obviously uneconomic to retain the car deck, so the owners turned the car deck into cabins.
WALKER: I THOUGHT my cabin smelled of old cars when I was last on the Viking Serenade1 Just kidding. Were you on any other ships?
TERRI: Yes, on the Emerald Seas and the Nordic Empress, which both did three & four day cruises to the Bahamas.
WALKER: We passengers see something of what a purser does because everybody's at the Purser's Desk at some time or another. But what don't we see?
TERRI: Passengers might not understand how much time the Purser's Office needs to spend on immigration and customs matters. Maybe some people think that the Purser's Office is like one on the "Love Boat" - more socializing than working. But the Purser's Office is vital for completing the port papers - which can be quite complex - and if mistakes are made, both passengers and crew members are stuck on the ship until the port clearance is obtained. Each country and in fact, individual ports within the same country, require different paperwork. In some places (and I won't name places except to say that they're not in the US or Canada), require a little bribery - alcohol, cigarettes and maybe free lunches for "friends", to expedite the port clearance. I don't know about today, but in my day, crew members on some ships were into drug smuggling, and ships would be delayed while the Customs people brought dogs on board to sniff around the crew's quarters.
Another function of the Purser's Office which is perhaps overlooked by passengers is the need to look after all the crew from a Human Resources point of view - their inquiries, illnesses, payroll, etc. Payroll, by the way, was in cash. We'd often have over $200,000 which we would have to stuff into pay envelopes for the crew, and you can imagine the problem if the cash didn't balance at the end. Extra paperwork was also involved if a crew member was disembarking - either from illness or at the end of a contract. Also, if somebody died on board, there was a lot of paperwork before the body could be taken ashore (and it was our job to comfort the family as well).
Despite computers and cash registers, all the accounting for each cruise was done by the Purser's Office, including reconciling money from the gift shops, bingo etc. While there's a lot of responsibility, it's a good job if you want to have fun and see some of the world before settling down on land at a real job [laughs].
WALKER: Getting back for a moment to when a ship docks, it's a common complaint of passengers that there's this huge delay between the ship tying up and actually being able to get off the ship. Is it really that complicated?
TERRI: The Port Authority people come on board first and review all our port papers. They have breakfast [laughs] - in fact, they can delay us as much as they want to (especially in third world countries). It's important that the Purser's Office maintains rapport with the port authorities in order to keep this "official" time as short as possible - but it usually takes an hour and a half at a minimum. The very first visit to a cruise port, or even the first visit of the season, usually takes longer. Of course, in "turnaround" ports like Miami, Los Angeles and Vancouver, a lot of extra time is needed to unload the thousands of bags of the passengers - and the speed of dockside workers varies considerably from port to port. In some ports (and I won't mention names), not tipping the longshoreman who loads your luggage onto the ship increases the chances that your bag may end up on a different ship - especially if there are five ships in port at the same time.
WALKER: I understand that you've had some unusual cruises when the ship is taken over by a single group?
TERRI: Yes. We had several cruises which were chartered by a particular religious group. Because of their beliefs, most of the bars were closed as well as the casino, and we played no bingo. On the other hand, we sold more bottles of booze for cabin consumption than we did on any other cruise, and there were more ladies caught illegally in the crew quarters. We also had one cruise that was all Trekkies, and they would make comments such as that the elevators were old fashioned, having square doors.
WALKER: Did you find much crossover between your job as a purser and other jobs on board - such as sometimes working as part of the cruise director's staff?
TERRI: Not really - although I myself had a unique experience. The staff knew that I had ten years of dancing experience (although I hadn't danced for several years), and when one of the dancers took sick, I stepped in for three days - it was a scary but fun experience, especially with my friends sitting in the front row. But that's one thing about a cruise ship - there's rarely anyone to replace you when you're out at sea, so if you're not feeling well, you still have to work.
WALKER: How were your personal living conditions on board - your cabin and your meals?
TERRI: As officers, the purser's staff (and the casino and entertainment staff) had different quarters and dining arrangements from the rest of the crew. We ate the same food as the passengers, but on some ships there was a separate buffet where we could eat more quickly, and get back to our jobs. I started off in a cabin for two - two bunk beds, but when I moved up to a "second" purser, I got my own cabin. The poor crew members had four to an inside cabin.
We had our own bar, but we were encouraged to mingle with the passengers in the public lounges, and the disco. The only rule was that we should leave the better seats to the passengers, and sit towards the back. I know a lot of the ladies that come on board look for available officers in the lounges [laughs].
WALKER: Any problems in your cruises with really rough weather?
TERRI: Not a lot. I remember a Mexico cruise where the waves were coming up past the dining room on deck 9, and when I went to bed, I could feel the ship lift up on one side - it seemed forever - before it would go down again. I knew that the ship's bell would sound automatically if the list was too high to one side. And then I heard three short blasts on the ship's whistle so I was out of bed, dressed with my lifejacket on, and out of the cabin in a hurry. But I had the sense to phone the bridge, and they said everything was OK. A lot of passengers however were already on deck in their lifejackets.
While I wasn't involved in any serious incidents, I did feel that the crew were well prepared. We had lifeboat drills constantly, and the Coast Guard came on board every 90 days and put us through our paces. If the ship didn't pass the Coast Guard inspection, the ship didn't sail.
WALKER: Did you have a particular role in lifeboat drills?
TERRI: I had several different positions. In the end, I was designated as being in charge of a particular muster station where it would have been my responsibility to command the lifeboat if it were launched.
WALKER: Do many of the staff end up getting married to each other?
TERRI: It happens, but not many of the unions seem to last once they get back on land. It's a fantasy life on board - you don't pay taxes, everything is looked after in terms of your food, accommodation, and laundry, and you're constantly entertained. Economic and social realities set in once you go back to living on shore. However, if you wanted to, you could save a lot of money working on a cruise ship.
WALKER: I understand that you spent four years as a purser?
TERRI: Yes. I started off as a "third" purser, and ended up as a "chief". I was pretty determined - I tried to learn as much as I could - so I moved up faster than some others. There's also a lot of turnover in the business, and I think if I were to go back to sea today, I could be a chief purser fairly quickly. Of course, the new huge ships need a lot of additional staff.
WALKER: And why did you get off?
TERRI: I found somebody [laughs] on board who I thought was going to be "it", but it didn't work out on shore. But I also felt that I didn't want to stay on ships until I was really old - like 30 [laughs], - and then be starting again at the bottom of the hospitality business on shore.
WALKER: Was it a strange experience to be on the Sun Princess as a passenger recently? Did you spend much time checking out what was happening at the Purser's Office?
TERRI: "No" and "no" [laughs] - I was too busy having a good time!
WALKER: Terri, thanks for making time for this interview.
TERRI: You're welcome.
Terri is now a successful Sales Manager at one of Vancouver's leading hotels.
Originally from Australia, Alan has for some time been permanently settled in Vancouver where he is a practicing Attorney. He has been a SeaLetter columnist, reviewer and our resident humorist for some time now.
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