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Shipboard Confidential : LOVE, SEX, DEATH and the BARON'S MISSING TROUSERS : Behind the Scenes on a Luxury Cruise Ship

September 12, 1993|ANNE KALOSH

Wanted: Editor on a cruise ship."

I was a graduating journalism major at a Midwestern university in 1981 when I happened to notice that sign in the job-placement office.

At the time, I'd never so much as seen a cruise ship. I'd never even watched "The Love Boat" on TV. Nevertheless, I applied. To my surprise, I sailed through the interview--and the day after graduation, I flew to San Francisco to sign on the ship.

I arrived at the pier to find a bustle of activity--provisions being loaded, limousines discharging glamorous-looking passengers, porters lugging huge trunks, gorgeous officers strutting around in white uniforms. A group of giggling women in sequins and spike heels staggered up the steep gangway--women with Adam's apples and big feet, I noticed. A porter later tipped me off: An actor and his bride would be honeymooning on board, and these drag "showgirls" had been invited to the bon voyage party.

I knew I wasn't in Kansas anymore.

Most cruise passengers--even the most experienced ones--have no idea what goes on behind the scenes as they sail happily off into the sunrise, or the sunset. In fact, as I quickly discovered myself, there's a whole different world "below decks"--with its own characters and conflicts, its own emotions, its own sense of humor. If you're planning to take a cruise, whether it's your first or your hundredth, you might enjoy (and appreciate) the trip a little more if you know a bit about a cruise ship's secret life. Here, then, is an insider's look at cruising, based on my own five years at sea.

When I strolled over the gangway on the ship that was to be my first oceangoing home, I marked a passage into a new life. In the years to come I would circle the globe, climb the Great Wall of China, ride horseback beneath the Sphinx, journey to the Taj Mahal by oxcart, fly over Sydney Harbor in a helicopter, buzz Alaskan glaciers in a light plane and attend the cremation of the king of Bali. I would pass through the Panama, the Kiel and the Suez canals, cross the Equator and the International Date Line, sail to the North Cape and around Cape Horn and through a typhoon. I would fall in love. And I would meet folks the likes of which just didn't exist in the Midwest of my youth--among them a rugby player dressed as Ginger Rogers, a multimillionaire with no socks and a baron with no trousers.

The company that hired me in 1981 was dubbed "the Rolls Royce of cruise lines" for its lavish vessels, its excellent cuisine, its spit-and-polish crew and its all-around attention to detail. Our passengers were often elderly, but they were the seagoing creme de la creme : the discerning, who voyaged in search of culture, art and history; the famous, who were assured that they would be treated with discretion and respect on board; the fabulously wealthy who might just as well have been sailing in their own yachts.

*

My job was to produce the ship's daily newspaper, published 365 days a year come hell or high water (the latter not just a figure of speech). I lived on the crew deck, one level below the lowest passenger deck--down in the bowels of the ship--but I had my own cabin, a rare privilege for an employee. I wasn't paid much, but I enjoyed many social perks. I was entitled to join passengers in the dining room each evening, or I could eat in the crew mess or the officers' mess. Often I hosted a table for passengers, which was certainly a privilege because the food and service were wonderful. (Along the way, I developed quite a passion for baked Alaska, the traditional finale of the captain's farewell dinner.) I had a wine allowance to treat the guests at my table, and I could sign for drinks in the bars. Instead of a uniform, I wore my own clothes--suits and dresses to work and evening gowns to cocktail parties and gala dinners. I was allowed to partake of all passenger activities and also to visit the bridge.

Officers lived on bridge deck and had their own mess and day room. Depending on their rank (the number of stripes on their epaulets) they were sometimes allowed to socialize with passengers--in fact, strongly urged by the company to do so. "Socializing" was subject to wide interpretation, and in many cases it wasn't limited simply to a drink and a dance. Some officers were notorious womanizers. In my first weeks at sea, I was so naive that I actually visited an officer's cabin and admired his photos of his beautiful blond sister--before realizing that she was really his wife.

I got wise. Others didn't. One passenger had been swept off her feet, on an earlier cruise, by a chief engineer (a very important man on shipboard, being in charge of all the engines)--and though he was no longer with the company, she always insisted on being seated, for nostalgic reasons, at the chief's table in the dining room.

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