Cruise Ship Feudalism

The first time I was called madame it made me blink.

The first time I was called madame it made me blink. But it was our Indonesian cabin steward aboard our cruise ship, so I thought maybe it was a language barrier. He was very polite.

But then it happened again, this time from a Filipino server at the buffet. And again, and again, from various East Asian crew members aboard the Noordam. I began to suspect they were instructed to address me in this way, and it made me squirm. It was courteous, yes, but this isn’t the 1800’s and I’m hardly a madame. I half expected the men to start pulling their forelocks.

In any other situation, I’d be lucky to be considered a member of polite society. I shop at Goodwill more often than I’d care to admit, and my car is 17 years old. And yet, I could afford to take a cruise without having to work thereon for 16 hours a day, 7 days a week, for months on end to do so. So there’s that. And so I took my awkward place in the cruise ship hierarchy.

Never having grown up in a blatant hierarchical system, such as the class system of Elizabethan England, or in India, where Untouchables still exist in some areas, I’ve never felt comfortable with having people considered greater or lesser than I am. I know this type of discrimination is all around me, of course. I can’t relate to people who buy 700 dollar shoes at Nordstrom, and they often look at me with disdain. If I enter a really rich neighborhood (or a really poor one if I’m honest), I feel uncomfortable. But as a white person in America, much of the time I have the luxury of overlooking these nuances.

I don’t know what it is about cruise ships that cause the layers of society to be so sharply defined, but I couldn’t seem to get away from it during my journey. It was a little hard to take. While I enjoyed my time aboard, it also made me chafe and feel a bit ashamed.

From my observations and also from a lazy Google search, there seems to be 4 distinct classes on the Noordam. Where you found yourself in the pecking order determines how many hours you work, the number of roommates you have, the food you eat, the amount you are paid, and the respect that you are given.

On the top level are the officers. Since Noordam is a Dutch ship, most of them seem to come from the Netherlands, or Northern Europe at the very least. They tend to carry themselves like Gods, and keep themselves separate from everyone else, including the passengers. They eat the best food and often have their own staterooms. Being at the top of the heap, they of course do not appear at all uncomfortable with the system, and in fact can be quite condescending to those below them.

Next come the passengers. We, of course, are a necessary part of the system because we are the cash cows. In fact, a great deal of time and effort is expended on extracting as much money from us as is humanly possible. Upselling is the order of the day. Of course, we have good rooms, based on what we are willing to pay, and good food, with access to even better food, if we are willing to pay. Many of us are decent and kind and probably work hard for the money that we use to pay for the trip. Others are whiny, complaining, entitled a$$hats who seem to expect to be catered to at every waking moment.

The third level is comprised of members of the staff. Mostly they came from the US, Canada, the UK, and Australia. They are in charge of the entertainment and administrative aspects of the cruise. They work hard, but their hours are not as long as those of the crew. They often have one roommate, and get more days off in port. Their food is not as good as ours, but it is tolerable.

And then there is the crew. I really felt sorry for the crew. They are predominantly East Asian, particularly from the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia. They often work 10 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week, for months on end without a day off. Their pay is abysmal, and their food is even worse. They usually share a room with three to five other people. I honestly don’t know how they manage to remain so courteous, other than the fact that there would be dire consequences for them if they did not.

The entire boat seemed to be full of shining happy people. Everyone acted like they loved their jobs and wanted to be there. Everyone said hello as they passed in the halls, and we were made to feel very comfortable and pampered. But every once in a while, cracks would show on the surface. The exhaustion would become evident. Stress would peek through behind the smiles. Sometimes I had to work really hard not to feel sad and uncomfortable.

I overheard one crew member mention that she just found out on that very day that she lost a loved one, but she wouldn’t let the company know because she didn’t want to break her contract and lose her job. That, and she had no way to get home for the funeral anyway. All this while catering to passengers and smiling, smiling, smiling. It broke my heart.

One of the places where the class division was most evident was in the Vista Lounge, the largest entertainment venue aboard. I always enjoyed my experiences there. Comedians, musicians, demonstrators, educators. It was all good. But I’ve always felt as though cruise ship entertainment was a bit too nervous, a bit too slick and over the top. It didn’t occur to me until my Google search that they were being watched and could lose their jobs if they didn’t give it their all, despite any illness or injury they were experiencing. That’s got to make you feel like a puppet on a string.

One night, volunteers from the Filipino members of the crew put on a variety show for us. It was late at night. Their set pieces were made out of plywood and cardboard, as opposed to all the glitzy, high-end productions on other days. And at the end, a few of the cast members had to rush off to get back to work rather than take a final bow and experience our praise and applause for their efforts.

Come on, Holland America. These people were providing your passengers with free entertainment. Couldn’t you pay them and allow them to miss one hour of work? Couldn’t you provide them with a production budget? That, in a nutshell, is how the hierarchy works on these ships. And there’s no justification for it.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved my time aboard the Noordam. I’m glad I did it. I’d recommend it to others. I’ll take away many happy memories from the cruise. I’m sure there were passengers who looked at the entire trip through a different lens. As a matter of fact, I often felt like I was seeing things through two different lenses at the same time. The luxury, the fun, the beauty were there as well. But I still felt the things going on below the surface. That’s just how my brain is wired.

One comedian said it best. “How many officers does it take to change a lightbulb? None. They need a Filipino for that.”


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Cruising on the Mallory Todd

On each of the nine drawbridges I’ve operated in my career, there has always been one vessel that was my favorite to open for. Sometimes it was because the ship in question came through like clockwork and signaled the end of my shift. Other times it was because I’d always have some very pleasant banter with the captain on the radio. But most often it was because the boat was pure eye candy to my very soul. (I must confess I have a thing for teak and mahogany.)

On my current bridge, my favorite has always been, without question, the Mallory Todd. A double-masted schooner, she is, in my opinion, the most beautiful vessel that plies the Ship Canal here in Seattle. She takes my breath away. If it were possible to have a love affair with a sailboat, this would be the one.


But I’ve always found her to be a bit out of my league. You can charter the Mallory Todd, but for that you actually have to have money. And even though I started off my career as a bridgetender suffering under the delusion that I’d be offered lots of free boat rides, it has never happened. Ever. That is, until about a year ago, when the Mallory Todd actually offered such a ride to all the area bridgetenders! I was so excited! This was a dream come true!

But my employer shut that down. You see, we work for the City of Seattle, and there are certain ethical issues related to accepting gifts when you’re a city employee. You don’t want there to be even the rumor of a quid pro quo. That makes a lot of sense. But I have no idea what someone could have accused us of giving the crew of the Mallory Todd in return. Opening the bridges a few seconds sooner? But there you have it. There was to be no cruise for us.

What a crushing disappointment. But it did make me feel appreciated that they even offered. That says a lot about what a decent group they are. Bridgetenders are so often overlooked.

After that, I resigned myself to gazing at the Mallory Todd from afar. There’s nothing as bittersweet as unrequited love. When she passed through my bridge, I’d always whisper, “Hello, you…” And then she’d sail off into the sunset. But eventually she’d come back. And then sail off in the other direction. As one does.

I’d pretty much accepted the fact that I’d never be formally introduced to the Mallory Todd. Then, to my shock, this past Friday I got an invitation from one of the online meetup groups I’ve signed up for. A cruise the next day on the Mallory Todd! An opportunity to go through the ship canal and up Lake Washington to listen to the Christmas Choir sing on the Argosy cruise ship.

There are very few things that make me roll my office chair back and shout, “Holy crap!!!!” But this was one of those things. And then my rational mind kicked in. This was awfully short notice. And it was 40 dollars, which I don’t really have. And it would be after a day at work, and it would mean not getting home until very late at night, and I’d have to get up the next morning at 5:45 to be back to work. And I wouldn’t know anyone. And it would be cold, and most likely raining. All good reasons to give it a pass.

But ARE YOU KIDDING ME? I mean, seriously, opportunities like this just never, ever crop up. And if I didn’t go, I’d regret it. So hell yeah, sign me up!

I scraped up the money. (So I’d pass up on eating out about 4 times, maybe I’d put off getting my oil changed for a month longer than I should, and there’s ramen noodles in my future. Big deal.)

And before I knew it, I was boarding the Mallory Todd! I played it really cool, I think. No one realized how monumental this was for me.

First impressions? It’s a lot bigger below decks than I ever imagined. There’s even a fireplace, a sunken tub, and one of the berths has a queen sized bed. And I was in absolute teak and mahogany heaven! (So much so that I forgot to take pictures of the interior. Sorry about that. I’m sure there are some on their website.)

And I got to meet the captain, Ian Reilly. I would love the opportunity to sit down and talk to him for hours on end. I have no doubt that he has some fascinating stories to tell. (He did imply as much.) I’d really enjoy getting inside his head. He’s the only person I’ve ever met who has an even cooler job than I do. And I’m sure he can relate to working weekends and holidays. (He also has phenomenal taste in music. He introduced me to Jack Johnson, and now I’m addicted to his mellow sound.)

I also got to ask him a question that I’ve been dying to hear the answer to. The Mallory Todd has a concrete hull. Why doesn’t it sink like a stone? Ian pointed out that steel ships float, too. Now, why hadn’t I thought of that?

I was also gratified to hear that Mallory Todd does quite a few fundraising cruises. A beauty with a generous spirit. Better and better.

It was amazing to be able to cruise through the ship canal and have my drawbridges open for me for a change. (My coworkers waved.) I took some pictures, but it was after dark, so they didn’t come out very well, as you can see. I tried.

Seeing all the vessels lit up for the holidays and gathered around the Argosy choir was amazing. It was the first whiff of the Christmas spirit I’ve had so far this year. I’ll be working on Christmas and New Years and my birthday, so this boat full of good people whom I had never met before didn’t know this, but this was my holiday. And it was glorious.

On the way back in, the steady rocking got me a little sleepy, and I longed to curl up on that queen bed and take a luxurious nap. But I didn’t want to take advantage of the chemistry that I knew was going to be there all along. I wanted to treat the experience with respect. And not look like a total nut.

If you ever have an opportunity to charter this amazing vessel, I highly recommend it. I’ll probably even open my bridge for you. And I’ll try not to get too jealous.

Thank you, Mallory Todd (and Ian) for a night I’ll always remember. Let’s do it again some time!


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Darkness Revealed

When I drive to work at night it’s a completely different experience than when I work a day shift. Even the nuclear power plant, normally a blight upon the landscape, looks beautiful. It is all lit up and floating in a sea of blackness like a nighttime cruise heading for the Bahamas.

The traffic flow is different as well. There’s less of it, and although it seems like a more lawless group of drivers, and definitely a more alcohol-soaked one, it feels safer. This is a dangerous illusion that requires one to be on the alert.

Criminals rule the night, or at least that is what Hollywood would have us believe. So there’s also this underlying sense of excitement and danger. Most people who are out at night are there either because they have no choice or they like the thrill and the atmosphere or they don’t have the sense to be vigilant. Or they are predators who are up to no good. And since these people can’t be told apart, you have to assume the worst.

What I like about the dark hours is the sense of isolation. Even though there are still the same number of humans on the planet, somehow at night you can often feel as if you have it all to yourself. What a luxury. I look up at the sky and revel in the quiet and imagine that all those stars are a part of me. We are star stuff, after all. I seem to breathe easier at night. I feel embraced by it. I’m where I’m supposed to be.

It takes a certain amount of faith to feel safe at night. You are, after all, being deprived of one of your senses. Anything could be in the darkness. Anything at all. You can’t really be sure. There’s so much out there that you can’t see. Everything is hidden from you, and there’s quite a lot of it.

Indeed, that feeling of abundance can overtake our senses. At night we become more. More romantic, more fearful, more uninhibited, more exuberant, or more lonely and depressed. People hate to be alone on a Friday night. You never hear them complain about being alone on a Friday afternoon.

The nighttime feels like an grand entity that the daytime can never even hope to become. It takes a special effort to overcome that prehistoric desire to hide, to hibernate, to wait out the darkness. But if you make the effort, you often reap rare and sensual rewards.