Below Deck: Tales From HAL Crew Members

8 April 2015
Read Time: 6.3 mins

Crew members aboard the world's cruise liners are ever present during our voyages. Yet how much do we know about the people who make our holiday so memorable and what goes on behind the scenes under the pools and restaurants?

During a recent cruise on Holland America Line's (HAL) MS Oosterdam, I sat down with seven high-ranking staff and discovered a lot about their lives, hearing tales of bomb hoaxes and unclaimed dentures, and learning of the joys and difficulties that come with working on a cruise.

Jessica Schumann

Hotel Director

Jessica Schumann "It's an unwritten rule on all Holland America ships, on a Sunday you know exactly what is going to be in the crew mess room; it's nasi goreng and fried chicken. And you think that the world as you know it is coming to an end and that there will never be another meal again the way people will go attack that lunch."

You're guaranteed professionalism when interacting with cruise staff. This was no different with Jessica Schumann who, when we first met in public, refused to shake my hand for hygiene reasons (good hygiene among staff and guests is highly regulated while at sea).

However, when we sat down to talk I encountered a much more easy-going side to the ship's Hotel Director.

"I think Thomas [her husband] and I have one of the more bizarre lost-and-found stories. It was after a large lunch function and one of the [crew] comes into the galley.

"I remember from afar he had something pink on a plate, but he had the strangest grin on his face and kept shaking his head. As he came closer to us we realised it was someone's dentures."

Jessica shared one more peculiarity that came with working on a cruise, something that created a strange transitional period when she returned home after a contract.

"We got home and I guess we'd never removed the [alarm clock] battery and it's ticking away four rooms over and we woke up in the middle of the night hearing it, because it's just so quiet in the house.

"On a ship you continuously have noise and if you don't there's something wrong [laughs]."

Manish Lopes

Executive Housekeeper

Manish Lopes "It was a couple of cruises back we found a set of fluffy, plastic handcuffs in the room. That is one of the most weirdest things I have ever come across."

One of the stories Manish Lopes shared with me was from his first day working on board a cruise. I have yet to hear a more outrageous work tale.

"The day I joined the ship – I joined as a junior supervisor – a lady called the captain and said 'I have planted a bomb.' My supervisor at that time was not the best and he hands me a map and keys and tells me I have to go and look for the bomb."

Many of the new staff on cruise ships work because it's their best chance to financially support their families back home, but life on the sea far from loved ones can sometimes accentuate heartache. Locating a bomb (which turned out to be a hoax) couldn't even prepare Manish for the hardest moment of his career.

"Just recently yesterday was the most difficult situation I've ever faced," said Manish, turning the mood sombre.

"I had a laundry attendant who was in tears, because he lost his son who was just two months old. He had never seen him."

Fortunately, the company does everything possible to get crew to their families when tragedies like this occur.

Thomas Schumann

Executive Chef

Thomas Schumann "I still remember my first day. I joined in San Diego and I woke up at five in the morning and I saw the ship coming in. I still remember. This huge ship, the Prinsendam – that's our smallest ship – but I was still amazed from the sight. It was the eighth of January 1998. That's something you never forget. I call them the two-second and the five-second heartbeat memories."

I could tell the ship's Executive Chef, Thomas Schumann, was a respected man by the way he held himself. He was proud to talk about his position and I never saw him without his white chef's hat.

Working so closely with the crew for months at a time, it's not unsurprising some staff develop romantic relationships. This was the case for Thomas and his wife Jessica, Holland America's Hotel Director.

"It was my second contract and her first contract and yeah, we fall in love," he said in his German accent.

"I was working in the kitchen and she was my subordinate, and now it's the other way around [laughs]."

I underestimated Thomas' passion for the kitchen, asking where on the ship I would find him on a good day and expecting a far different response to the one he gave.

"In the galley [kitchen]. Yeah we spend more or less most of the time in our favourite place.

"On the Rotterdam [another Holland America Line ship] we have a large communal balcony under the bridge and it's nice in the evening when there's no light around and you see the stars. These moments, like Alaska when in June the sun never sets basically, it's beautiful."

More fun aboard the MS Oosterdam. Cruising For An Art Renaissance With HAL

Uncover celebrity insight. John Malkovich Opens Up About Travel

Joanna Czarnolecka

Beverage Manager

Joanna Czarnolecka "All the people go somewhere for vacation and I go home for vacation. Although on the one hand you kind of get used to being away from home, I think the older you are the more valuable family becomes to you. So with the time it becomes easier and harder. It's weird, but that's how it is."

Hailing from Poland, Joanna Czarnolecka had a very engaging personality and usually smiled when she spoke, especially when she was talking about home.

Joanna told me that as Beverage Manager she was often having to order drinks for three months at a time, a necessity when aboard long cruises away from USA and Canadian ports. I asked her if this strategy had ever resulted in unexpected complications and only got half the question out before she started laughing.

"We have plenty of unexpected occasions trust me. I had a situation when I was pulling my hair because the customs stopped my container with wines and we were about to sail and we didn't have wines on board.

"I'm like, I'm not sailing with no wines on board because people will kill me, my goodness. Fortunately [the wine] was released last minute."

Cruise life for Joanna wasn't all hair pulling. She remembered her nights aboard Holland America's MS Prinsendam fondly.

"On Prinsendam the Sea View [bar] is so underutilised by the guests that sometimes we would do a wine and cheese evening in the Sea View and the engineers would leave the Jacuzzis open for us."

Dave Shea

Cruise Director

Dave Shea "I'd say probably one of the best things about the job is that you work with people from all over the world. I have friends in Australia, Maui, South Africa, Holland, Sweden, Mexico, South America. When you travel and work together you really get to know people well."

As Cruise Director, Dave's voice could be heard most days over the ship's speaker system and many of the girls in my group became infatuated with his Colorado accent.

Dave was drawn to working on a cruise by the opportunity to travel. He travelled a lot as a kid and in college, living in Barcelona and Argentina, but later in life found himself staring at too much of the same scenery.

"I moved back home [after Argentina] and started working as a server in a restaurant and felt like I was in a routine.

"I wanted to continue travelling, so a friend got me an interview with Holland America Line and two weeks later I was on the ship."

That was seven years ago and it was clear Dave's love for cruise life and travelling had not dimmed since, despite the occasional cravings for home comforts.

"It's the small things [that you miss], like driving a car or eating at your favourite restaurant. For me it's watching sports.

"But then you're in Fiji and you get to go see a blue hole that not many people get to see, or you go to Rome and your Wednesday is seeing the Colosseum. When you think of it like that, there's a reason why you do it."

Christine Martinsen

Event Manager

Christine Martinsen "The crew kind of becomes your family. All of my close friends now are on ships. I definitely miss home. It's hard; my grandma's been sick and it's hard to be away, but I'm used to it."

I spoke with Christine Martinsen in her office on the MS Oosterdam's Main Deck. She had a window overlooking the ocean outside and admitted to often watching the sunrise from her desk.

Cabin fever is commonly felt by staff aboard cruise ships who during their contracts work seven days a week and often 11-hour days.

"A little bit more than five months [longest stint at sea]. I'm pretty used to it by now, but once in a while I kind of go crazy and want to get off the ship.

"If you're doing a crossing or several days at sea you just want to get off the ship, you want to set foot on land, walk around and not see the same five places."

For Christine, the long months at sea away from home were worth the experience, especially when she was visiting her favourite destinations.

"I really like going to Alaska and the Mediterranean, but I'm going to Norway again this summer and I'm really excited."

Susana Beleo

Guest Relations Manager

Susana Beleo "When you go home after a contract you reconnect with reality. I think that's what that first trip to the grocery store does. It allows you to reconnect."

I was not surprised to find out Susana was the ship's Guest Relations Manager; her smile was one of the most welcoming I had ever come across.

For Susana, working on a cruise meant being away from her teenage son about nine months every year, something she's had to handle ever since he was a little boy growing up in the Philippines.

"I have two to three months off where I'm twenty-four-seven his, and if you count that in a year that is much more time than a regular parent. Okay I came up with a lame excuse, right [laughs]?

"No, he turned out very well. I think also the distance has made him more independent and our communication is very open. I hit the jackpot on that one."

Susana had seen her fair share of open seas and preferred more relaxing pastimes on the ship when she was not looking after staff and guests.

"Oh my gosh, with e-books nowdays, in the cabin," she exclaimed when I asked where her favourite place to camp out on the ship was.

However, she still had an adventurous side, choosing to visit a new island in the Philippines every time she went home.

The same could be said about every crew member, with many rarely spending more than three months in the same place.

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Ben Stower

I love the kind of travelling that is one part strategic planning and two parts spontaneous adventure. Whether I'm exploring my local city or a small town in the middle of nowhere, I'm always hoping to find something no one else has discovered.