Belowdecks, backstage, and behind the scenes on the world's biggest cruise ship
First, let's get one thing straight: this is a really, really, really big ship. Fifty feet taller than the Statue of Liberty, too damn wide for the Panama Canal, capable of carrying three 747's and a space shuttle (hypothetically speaking, of course), the 2,600-passenger Grand Princess is an absolute beast. The original Love Boat could squeeze into the top-deck dining areas; a thousand harbor seals could dwell comfortably in the five swimming pools; a blue whale could curl up in the atrium; and I personally am convinced the thing's got wheels on the bottom so it can skip the buoyancy issue altogether and just troll along the ocean floor, though no one will confirm that.
This is a ship whose employees are known to complain about their morning commute.
I might also add that it has the largest casino afloat, the first wedding chapel at sea, and a wicked huge storage room containing, among other things, 800,000 folded paper towels and 50,000 swizzle sticks. (I counted them myself.)
Built by the Fincantieri company in Italy for $450 million—the highest price tag ever for a passenger vessel—the Grand Princess made its debut last year to raves from reviewers, all of whom struggled to find synonyms for "really, really, really big." The Grand is just the first of several new megaliners in the Princess fleet; it will be joined by two sister ships in 2001. Meanwhile, the race for superlatives is on: in November, Royal Caribbean's Voyager of the Seas will up the ante to 3,100 passengers (and don't forget the climbing wall and the ice-skating rink).
But the new wave in cruising isn't just about scale—that would be too easy. The latest ships offer a level of personal service that belies their enormous size. After all, today's cruise ships are competing not only with one another but with beach and ski resorts, where service has become an obsession. Cruise lines are taking the hint. You want 24-hour dining?Sure. Golf clubs polished overnight?No problem. A butler in tails to serve tea and scones on your balcony?Fine—who cares if it's 90 degrees out?
These special touches are part of what Princess calls "Grand Class Cruising," which aims to make you—a tiny speck of a passenger inside this hulking giant—feel like You, the Only One Aboard. The Grand has a slightly higher crew-to-passenger ratio than the fleet's smaller ships, and though you won't see more than a quarter of the staff during your cruise, those you do encounter will often remember your name.
I joined the Grand Princess for a seven-day Caribbean cruise during which I saw almost none of the Caribbean, as I was usually belowdecks, hanging with the crew, opening unmarked doors, exploring rooms labeled DANGER or 21° BELOW CENTIGRADE. From what I heard, the Caribbean looked very nice that week. But I didn't care about sunsets and water polo. I wanted to learn what goes on behind the scenes, out of the passengers' view. For instance: How do they keep the bananas just this side of ripe, day after day at sea?Where do all those used swizzle sticks end up?Who carves the mermaid ice sculptures?Where does the crew go after work—is there even an "after work"?And what is it like to be employed on the world's biggest cruise ship?
In the Belly of the Whale
You see them at all hours, scurrying down corridors, going about their mysterious business. They disappear through hidden passages like so many White Rabbits, only to emerge with an armful of linens or a sack of volleyballs. Where are they going? you wonder. What's down there?
If the Grand's passenger areas seem overwhelming to you, consider what the crew must deal with: a tangle of stairwells and mazelike corridors twisting through decks you didn't know existed. I have no idea how they find everything—after a week of traipsing everywhere from the engine room to the meat lockers I still could never tell where the hell I was.
The only landmark I consistently recognized was a wide alleyway running through Deck 4 that the British officers call the M-1, after the motorway in England. You could race three forklifts down this thing (it's been done). Off-limits to passengers, Deck 4 is the functional heart of the ship, where the baggage is loaded, engines monitored, food stored and prepped, photos developed, bouquets arranged, menus printed, garbage burned, ice sculptures carved—all the important stuff.
I started my explorations at the Crew Office, smack on the M-1. (Outside was a bulletin board with a notice reading MOUNTAIN BIKE 4 SALE.) Serving 1,150 employees from 35 countries, the Crew Office has its hands full—handling payroll, booking flights home, exchanging currency, publishing the perky staff newsletter. Since the Grand's employees alone could fill a major Las Vegas hotel, a whole sub-crew of 50 is required just to clean their quarters and cook their meals. Then there's the task of keeping the staff entertained, or at least occupied, during their off-hours: for those bored with the crew TV channels (including one of all-Filipino programming), the ship arranges bingo games, movie screenings, blues and Latin nights in the employee disco, and midnight revues for the crew in the Princess Theater.
It's Not Just a Job, They're Indentured
Employees stay on the ship for four to 10 months, then take a month or two off without pay before renewing their contracts. They certainly earn the downtime: crew members work up to 14 hours a day, seven days a week, though they'll sometimes get a free afternoon when the ship's in port and the restaurants and passenger services aren't so busy. Many work split shifts—busboys might cover breakfast and dinner on the same day—and have a few free hours in between; they mostly use the time to sleep.
What's a 70- to 90-hour week worth?Salaries vary dramatically, even within ranks and departments—the complex pay scale factors in everything from workers' past experience to the country in which they were hired, so that two galley cooks with identical jobs might earn different wages. Employees who rely on tips are barely paid at all by the ship. One waiter told me he earns a base wage of $83 a month, but averages $600 a week in tips. While some workers opt for payment by check or wire transfer to their home bank, many are paid in cash, which has its drawbacks: last year, when a Grand employee got off the ship in Fort Lauderdale carrying $20,000 in earnings—and neglected to declare the cash—U.S. Customs seized half of it.
A Tale of Two Cities
The entire fore of the ship—everything ahead of the bridge, up to Deck 14—is set aside for crew quarters and recreation areas: passengers aren't allowed here. Top-ranking officers are given single cabins or suites; the remaining 1,100 employees, mainly scattered across Decks 2, 3, and 4, share their quarters in groups of two or three. Sounds grim, yet the veteran workers I talked to say the Grand has relatively spacious crew cabins. If you've seen an Amtrak sleeper car you have an idea of what most are like (minus the windows, usually).
On the eighth and ninth decks, right at the prow, are the "crew rec areas," including an enviable sundeck, a 20-foot outdoor pool, a library, a gym, six slot machines, a disco, and a bar selling discounted drinks until 1 a.m. All meals, however, are served in the crew mess, all the way aft on Deck 5. A cabin steward told me few of his co-workers bother trudging up to the bar after dinner—it's almost a quarter-mile walk away.
One night I was invited to the crew disco to get jiggy with a group of waiters, who have a reputation as a partying crowd. For some reason a whole bunch are from Romania; there are also Filipinos, Czechs, Mexicans, Jamaicans, Italians, Portuguese. Despite this diversity every waiter or busboy I met had a name ending in o: Lubo, Claudio, Carmelo, Generoso, Rogerio, João. When I arrived at midnight 10 of them were clustered on the dance floor. At the opposite end of the room a few engineers stared sullenly at a Steven Seagal movie. (Scenes like this reminded me that the crew is 80 percent male.)
While longtime Princess employees approve of the swank crew areas aboard the Grand, some miss the tightly knit social scene on the older, smaller ships, where departments would easily intermingle. Here, Lubo told me, the waiters rarely hang out with the carpenters or the linen-keepers, to say nothing of the dancers and the acrobats.
So I asked Lubo what he thought of the ship as a whole. Though he'd been on the Grand for months, he confessed he hadn't really seen all of it. Waiters aren't allowed in passenger areas when off duty. "Deck privileges" are granted only to high-ranking employees and certain other staff; they can use the nicer passenger gym and jogging track during slow periods, sunbathe on the upper decks, shop at the boutiques, dine at the Italian trattoria (for a $3.50 fee). But most crew members are confined to their work spaces and cabins and the crew rec areas—some barely visit the top decks at all during their time on board.
How to be Nice, in 12 Easy Steps
Despite the long hours and the months of confinement, the staff seems the picture of levity. Ask a butler or an ice cream server how he's doing and the unvarying answer is "I'm fantastic, sir! How are you?" In fact the entire Grand crew was so smiley and friendly that I wondered if maybe they'd been brainwashed. To investigate the matter I got my hands on some employee training videos.
The dozen tapes follow two fictional passengers, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, through every aspect of their cruise. Each episode contains six service mistakes for employees to identify: waiters serving from the right, bartenders neglecting to refill peanut bowls, and other unforgivable blunders. Each time someone screws up, a little bell goes off and a caption pops up to reveal the mistake. The maître d' greets the couple at dinner by shaking Mr. Smith's hand. DING! Maître d' should have acknowledged female passenger first!
A buffet cook whistles "Dixie" while dishing out scrambled eggs. DING! Food purveyors should not whistle around food areas!
Mrs. Smith asks her manicurist how long she's been on the ship. "Five long months now," the poor manicurist sighs. DING! Employees should not complain about the length of their contracts!
Princess is obviously serious about service, leaving very little to chance in an elaborate choreography. It begins with the C.R.U.I.S.E. Program, into which all employees are indoctrinated from day one. C.R.U.I.S.E. stands for "Courtesy, Respect, Unfailing in Service Excellence"—utter nonsense, of course, but don't tell them that. A 14-page handbook is filled with pointers on giving great service. As the intro tells it, the C.R.U.I.S.E. Program "recognizes and rewards the power of positive passenger personal contact." A lot of alliteration empowers empathic employees.
Crew members are encouraged to carry the C.R.U.I.S.E. credo card with them at all times, like Mao's Little Red Book. They really do follow every word, from "Stand up straight" to "Never say no." I spent a lot of time trying to trick the staff into saying no, but nobody fell for it. "So," I'd say, "does this baby sail to Alaska?"
"Alas, I'm sorry to say that the ship is too wide for the Panama Canal, so she is unable to sail the Pacific."
"That's a no, then?"
"Yes, she does, or no, she doesn't?"
"She does not."
I mean it, these guys are good.
The Pretty Tough Life of a Sailor at Sea
With all that pressure to coddle and indulge passengers, I had to wonder who would even want to work on a cruise ship. Is the thrill of being at sea worth all the fuss?In the crew bar I cornered a few younger staff members, bought them beers, and eventually found a few chinks in the armor.
"If I were doing this job on land I'd quit," a pool attendant finally admitted. Then what had made her renew her contract?"I love traveling, I love the water, I've met some great friends. But it's pretty tough, working on a ship."
Okay, so it's odd to hear the word tough applied to a job that entails, say, organizing contests wherein passengers stuff massive amounts of fruit down their bathing suits. Yet ship life is harder than it seems. For one thing, you forfeit the usual distinctions between job space and leisure space, time on and time off. "We're never a hundred percent working," said the pool attendant, "but we're never a hundred percent not working, either." Since crew members are almost always in the presence of either passengers or their own superiors and colleagues, they're bound to maintain a certain decorum and alertness. In crew rec areas and shared crew cabins, privacy is nonexistent: "The gossip is worse than high school," said one crew member. Relaxing—as we know it—is not really possible. It probably helps if you grew up with 150 siblings.
Life is easier for those with deck privileges; at least they have more places to hide. But this too goes only so far. Staff members are required to wear name tags in public areas, even when off duty. The C.R.U.I.S.E. handbook dictates their behavior. "Smile!" it says. "You are on stage!" And that's the point—they're acting, playing a role, 24/7. The crew areas are filled with cue cards:
>YOU MUST NOT PASS A PASSENGER WITHOUT SAYING GOOD MORNING, GOOD AFTERNOON, OR GOOD EVENING!
>YOU MAY SPEAK ONLY ENGLISH WHEN IN PASSENGER AREAS!
Makes the Rules Look Easy
Things get more complicated for the officers and entertainers whose very jobs involve socializing with passengers, or socializing in the weird way that cruise lines conceive it. That's all tied up in regulations, too. You'll meet one of them in the disco, and you'll think, How nice that the crew can join in the fun. Perhaps he'll sit down and have a drink, or cut a rug with me to "Y.M.C.A." But no. Ship's Standing Order No. 3 outlines protocol for such interactions.
• YOU MUST NEVER SIT ON BARSTOOLS.
• AVOID TOUCHING PASSENGERS. NEVER BE TOO FAMILIAR.
• YOU MAY NOT DANCE WITH PASSENGERS, OR WITH EACH OTHER. HOWEVER, DANCERS MAY DANCE WITH PASSENGERS—THOUGH NOT WITH EACH OTHER.
In reality the orders are never so strictly followed, but it's a fine line the staff walks when dealing with passengers. Although the Grand has nothing like the hormonal levels of certain other cruise liners, the occasional boor will push "familiarity" too far. "Something about international waters does this to people," says a female youth activities counselor who's constantly hit on by single dads (married ones, too). "They have no reason to be embarrassed, since they'll never see you again after the week's up. So they figure, 'Why not make an ass of myself?' " I asked her how she gamely deflects an advance without offending the passenger. "You smile, tell them you're flattered, and say you're dating the chief security officer."
So, do ship employees have flings with passengers?I'm supposed to say "never," but you do the math. Occasionally the fling lasts: recently another cruise line captain tied the knot with a former passenger. Intra-crew romances, however, are very much the norm. After all, cruise ship workers tend to be single, or at least consider themselves so while at sea. From what I hear it's a love bonanza, despite (or perhaps due to) the lack of privacy. I got the dirt from an assistant purser named, uh, "Joe," who told me he was dating a Cruisercise coach. He wasn't sure they would make it on land, but for now he was enjoying himself. "Back home I had two girlfriends my entire life. Here I'm freakin' Casanova. It's like"—he made a slot-machine pumping motion—"ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching!"
'Shag Alert, Lido Deck!'
You might notice a few stocky Nepalis strolling around the ship, not saying much. They may look benign, but make no mistake: these guys are tough as nails. They're Gurkhas, six of them, and they're the Grand's security guards. (When you've got Gurkhas, all you need is six.) The guards, trained by the British Army, don't carry weapons—there are no weapons on board, explains security officer Peter Rixon, a veteran of the British military. "Instead of pistols or billy clubs or Mace, we use a certain tone of voice to deter aggression," Rixon tells me, in exactly that tone of voice.
The most common security problem?"People shagging in strange places," says Rixon. "Passengers and crew alike. Just last night this bloke and his bird were nearly going at it on the Promenade Deck. We politely reminded them that a bed would be a lot more comfortable."
Then there was the case of the piano tuner who worked on the Grand for a day last summer in the Mediterranean. He got off the ship for a lunch break, accidentally leaving his black tool case on the gangway. Rixon noticed the suspicious package and immediately evacuated the area; a bomb technician arrived on the scene. After nervous deliberation they decided to blow up the case. The piano tuner was peeved at the mistake, though not half as peeved as Rixon was at the piano tuner.
Not Your Father's Engine Room
I spent a sweaty afternoon on the bottom decks with the 60-man engineering department. The engineers come off as a serious lot, but I'm sure they could drink any one of us under the table. John Bates, the first engineer, led me on a cool tour and explained exactly how the engines worked—however, as he did so we were standing directly under one of the engines, which created such a monstrous roar that I heard almost nothing and understood even less. As far as I could tell, the Grand has six diesel engines, at least two of which operate at any given time; in all, they consume 174 tons of fuel per day; each engine costs $4 million; and what it all boils down to is that they are insanely, ridiculously loud.
This huge and powerful propulsion system is ultimately controlled from the bridge by means of, I'm not kidding, a tiny joystick—see your kid's Nintendo 64 for a good analogue. In fact the controller is used only for piloting the ship into and out of port; the rest of the time the Grand is basically on autopilot, steered by a computer (linked to the now-standard GPS, or Global Positioning System) that follows the route mapped out by the navigator. The captain and his bridge officers hardly man the wheel at all—there is no "wheel" to man, rather an imposing bank of computer monitors and that remarkably puny joystick.
Taking Out the Trash
To date, the bars on the Grand Princess have used a total of 1,940,000 wooden stirrer sticks. Where do they all end up, along with the other 15 tons of garbage produced each day?
Nearly every piece of trash—plastic forks, dead palm trees, chicken bones, old theater props—is thrown into a 1,562-degree (Fahrenheit) incinerator, then sent up through the smokestacks. Five men are assigned the task of sorting through the garbage, which arrives on Deck 4 in Dumpster carts; the incinerator does the remaining work. Nothing is off-loaded except large steel pieces, used machinery, and recyclable glass and aluminum, which are crushed and stored in giant Dumpsters to be removed at the end of the cruise.
Then there's the problem of safely disposing of "oily waste" from the engines—a controversial issue of late. In 1998 Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines pleaded guilty to dumping oily waste from the Sovereign of the Seas into the Atlantic, bypassing a critical cleansing system; the company was fined $9 million. The safest means of disposal—carried out on most ships, including the Grand—is to run the oily waste through a centrifugal purifier and an oil-water separator, then either burn off the oil in the incinerator (as the Grand does) or off-load it in port. The remaining bilge water, which Princess claims has a negligible oil content of barely 15 parts per million, is finally pumped into the ocean.
Crème Brûlée for 2,600
Two hundred and twenty-four people work in the Grand's kitchen, including a dozen guys who do nothing but clean glassware all day (it takes awhile to wash 96,396 glasses). The 28,000-square-foot galley is spread across two levels, and it's abuzz at every hour. In addition to cooking for the three formal dining rooms—each seating about 500 passengers—the kitchen staff has to contend with two "alternative" restaurants (Italian and Southwestern); a vast, 24-hour bistro/buffet; round-the-clock room service; and two poolside cafés that serve an average of 3,000 hamburgers and 2,000 slices of pizza per day.
Chef Antonio Cereda, who speaks four languages, is in charge of the kitchen brigade. Antonio worked in hotels and ski resorts in his native Italy before joining Princess Cruises in 1984, and had to make certain adjustments to cooking on ships—electric burners, for example. For fire-safety reasons, there are no gas stoves: the only flame you'll find on board comes from the galley's single crème brûlée torch, which is kept, Antonio tells me, in a locked case.
The chef doesn't actually create recipes or menus—that's all done at Princess headquarters in L.A.—but he does estimate daily needs and help set food orders. He sends his wish list via E-mail to L.A. 10 days before each cruise; the Grand's order is consolidated with those of other Princess ships in the Caribbean, then put out for bidding by food suppliers. (When you're buying 3,900 pounds of butter a week, you have a right to bargain.) To keep quality consistent, all the food on board (except certain fruits from Latin America) comes from the United States, even when the ship is in Europe.
I asked food and beverage director Andy Hiscox what the deal was with the bananas. How do they keep them all perfectly ripe throughout the cruise?
"First, we buy them at varying degrees of ripeness," Andy says. "But you can also speed up the ripening process. We place them in the fruit room near citrus that's been gassed with ethylene, and in just a few hours they're yellow."
A Nasti Job
In a locked room behind the meat freezers is a strange and terrifying device. It appears to be just a four-by-four-foot metal box, but this is The Most Powerful Microwave Oven You Will Ever Come Across. It cost three-quarters of a million dollars. It supplies 40,000 watts of pure power, defrosting 80 pounds of pork in 60 seconds. It is perhaps the only microwave oven that asks you to PLEASE ENTER PASSWORD before operating.
The man with the code is a 52-year-old Italian named Nasti the Butcher. (I'm sure he has a first name, but everyone just calls him Nasti the Butcher.) Nasti stands about 4 foot 10 and has a laugh like a tommy gun. He first went to sea in 1966 and has been everywhere from Dakar to Rio to Fiji, all of which were blessed with "lotta nice girls." He told me he'd worked on the Achille Lauro just before the terrorist takeover—lucky for the terrorists. I pictured him decimating the hijackers with his gleaming cleaver and machine-gun laugh.
In a single day Nasti and his seven assistants will slice up an entire ton of beef, 1,000 pounds of chicken, 300 pounds of veal, and 500 pounds of fish. Apparently his schedule goes something like this:
5 a.m. Wake up
6 a.m.-2 p.m. Cut meat
2-4 p.m. Eat; nap
4-11 p.m. Cut more meat
11 p.m. Eat; stop into crew bar for one (1) drink
12-5 a.m. Sleep
Repeat seven times a week for six months.
The Iceman Carveth
If I could take any job on a cruise ship I would definitely choose ice carver. Uldarico Afurong, a 39-year-old Filipino who goes by Eric, is the Grand's master sculptor. Eric grew up in Paete, an artisan village in the Philippines famous for its carvers, who used to work in ebony but now often get jobs on cruise ships carving ice. Nearly all the ice carvers in the Princess fleet are from Paete. They're the ones who make those shimmering frozen mermaids that recline suggestively in the atrium. Ice is not their only medium—today they mainly use blocks of Styrofoam, but I suppose "Styrofoam carver" isn't as mythic a job title. Eric works 11 hours a day on this stuff. He can carve something out of anything: a floral relief from a watermelon, a Botticelli angel from a wheel of Parmesan.
Julie McCoy Never Sang the Blues
Keith Cox is the Grand's cruise director, and one of the few Americans on a largely British-run ship. (You can't trust the business of fun to a Brit, for God's sake.) Keith claims he's from Knoxville, but his accent is more Epcot Center—he has the kind of voice that might tell you to secure all belongings and take small children by the hand. His pants are whiter than the ship's hull. He can sing the blues and recite disembarkation instructions and make them seem equally exciting.
Keith has been with Princess since 1986. Just before his daughter, Mozelle, was born in 1994, the company broadened its policy regarding families accompanying crew, so Keith and his wife, Sarah, share a spacious corner suite on the Grand with Mozelle, who sleeps on a futon in the living room. Starting this fall, Mozelle will be homeschooled on the ship by her mother. The Coxes return to Tennessee every four months for a two-month leave, when Keith looks forward to "going to the grocery store, doing yard work, and grilling hamburgers." (Employees are forbidden to keep even a hot plate in their cabins.)
The C.D. and his assistants pack the day with so many activities that merely perusing the schedule is an endorphin boost. The cruise department staffers lead karaoke hour with the intensity of Springsteen in concert; they form conga lines with utter earnestness; they are, in short, human exclamation points. On the Grand it takes 120 shiny happy people to offer such a range of distractions. Among them (deep breath): six Chinese acrobats, five stagehands, four Trinidadian musicians, three aerobics trainers, two comedians, one hypnotist, 18 dancers, six Hungarian balladeers, two lighting designers, two teen coordinators, two rumba instructors, two scuba instructors, one port lecturer, one disc jockey, one art auctioneer, and a Filipino troubadour named Arthur who can perform any song in any language at the clink of your spoon: "Guantanamera," "O Sole Mio," "La Vie en Rose." Arthur barely speaks English but sings it perfectly; his theme song is "The Great Pretender." One night he dared me to trump him with a request, so I asked for "Aqualung" by Jethro Tull. "Sitting on a park bench!" he cried in his gorgeous tenor. Arthur was amazing.
Billions and Billions…
Fifty-nine thousand wooden coat hangers, 51,000 pieces of flatware, 23,000 bedsheets—after a week exploring the Grand I felt as if I were at some Carl Sagan astronomy lecture ("Billions and billions of menu tassels…"). I learned that the ship's bars and restaurants print 53,000 receipts a week; that the "able-bodied seamen" (A.B.'s) who constantly repaint the hull with rollers attached to flimsy 10-foot poles go through about 20 gallons of white paint a day; that galley workers use 27,500 pairs of latex gloves in a single week; that the ship's hydro-evaporators can produce 90 tons of water per hour, and that passengers and crew will consume 50 in the same amount of time. Like I said: It's a really, really, really big ship.
In spite of this, everything is orchestrated to feel comfortably small-scale, from the tables for two at Sabatini's Trattoria to the butlers who call you by name. And though the service is as obsessively directed as a Woody Allen film ("When talking on the telephone, ensure the mouthpiece is positioned near your mouth and not in midair!"), it rarely comes off as stiff or scripted.
Bigger, yet more intimate; super-efficient, yet personalized; initially overwhelming, yet surprisingly manageable, the Grand is a floating contradiction. Still, you might follow the lead of the passenger I met in the gym, who'd brought two walkie-talkies so that he and his wife could stay in touch:
"Honey, rendezvous for daiquiris on Lido Deck, fourteen-hundred hours."
"Roger that, sweetie. Love you. Out."
Grand Princess, 800/774-6237; www.princess.com. Seven-day Caribbean cruise departs from Fort Lauderdale weekly October 31 through May 14; doubles from $899 per person, not including airfare. The 12-day Mediterranean cruise departs from Istanbul or Barcelona in July and August; doubles from $4,414 per person, not including airfare…