Published On: June 19, 2018

The Genius of a Cruise Ship

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Ship length

Imagine you manage a hotel, and one day 4,000 guests arrive at the same time. They all want rooms now, and if you could show them how to operate the safe in the room that would be nice.

Such an unlikely scenario is exactly what happens every day on cruise ships like the one I invaded recently. The size of these giant ships operated by companies like Carnival, Costa, MSC, Holland America, Royal Caribbean, and Disney range anywhere from 2000 to 6000 passengers. Adding the crew that number can exceed 8,000.

What is impossible to avoid on these floating hotels, and if you’re good with math you picked it up already, is the enormous number of staff. These vessels employ a crew/staff of at least 1,000 people. Like all companies, employees’ salaries are the largest budget item. Thus, fielding a staff of that size points to one conclusion – it’s essential to have a thousand crew members onboard, even when the passengers number two thousand.

If being pampered is among your goals, you’ve come to the right place. Can you imagine staying in a hotel that had one staff for every two guests? Every day, my wife and I walked the carpeted hallway outside our interior cabin from the front to the rear of the ship, a distance of about 350 meters (over 1,000 feet) to reach one of the two enormous dining rooms. Along the hallway, we would pass no less than a dozen staff, each one occupied with a different task but none too busy to say good morning.

Interior atrium of the ship

Interior atrium of the cruise ship

Our cruise sailed around the Mediterranean Sea for a week, and each day I tried Good Morning with the cleaning staff in a different language – English, French, Italian, German, Portuguese. Many of them spoke multiple languages and waited for the passenger to speak first to recognize the preferred language.

If a cruise line is paying that many staff, the owners expect to get their money’s worth. The staff work nonstop, and they’re well-trained and well-organized. Running a smooth operation of a thousand staff is no small feat, and that’s only the beginning of a cruise ship’s logistical challenges.

Our ship docked in a different port each day and passengers were allowed on and off all day. It’s the staff’s job to keep the passengers’ entrance and exit organized. Additionally, passengers’ rooms are cleaned each day, and in the most expensive cabins, which are always on the highest floor of the ship and have balconies, the rooms are cleaned twice a day. With meals included in the cruise price, thousands of people are fed several times a day. I can only imagine the size of the kitchen.

Marseille, France, as seen from the church of Notre Dame

Marseille, France, as seen from the church of Notre Dame

The organization required to accomplish all of this is staggering. For anyone who has ever tried to manage even a few employees, observing the coordination of duties on a cruise is worth the price of admission. Even if you have no desire to sail, take a cruise to experience the layers of working structure.

Think about the ship’s proposition of keeping every customer happy all the time. In a hotel, most guests are gone all day, and if you eliminate their sleeping hours, it means catering to guests’ needs for only a few hours. On a cruise, where there are casinos and discos operating all night, people are awake.

The only example comparable to this management nightmare is the operation of a school because all the students are present all day. While operating a restaurant or hotel, there are only a handful of customers at any given time. In a school, the students are on the premises all day with plenty of time to notice problems, to complain, to ask questions with no answers. A school is the only business where every customer is present simultaneously every day and all day. As a business model, a school is so unique that the students are never referred to as customers.

Ship docked at the island/country of Malta

Ship docked at the island/country of Malta

At least in a school, the staff – teachers, administrators, cleaning crew – get a respite, going home at night. On a cruise it’s 24/7. Some of the staff spend the majority of their time solving immediate crises, everything from incorrect billing to clogged toilets to passengers’ ridiculous complaints. The staff on a ship are so busy they are called crew as if they were using oars to power the ship themselves. To handle the needs of thousands of passengers day and night, most of the crew work seven days a week.

To compensate for their grueling schedules, the crew are well-rewarded. A young Curitibano I met on my cruise, Paulo, told me he works every day, in 12-hour shifts, although he does get breaks during his shift. Paulo was working as a waiter in one of the ship’s many bars. He told me his salary was U$1000 per week.

Paulo will work for eight months without a vacation, staying on board wherever his ship happens to be sailing. He relayed a story of working a transatlantic voyage and the challenge of carrying drinks as the ship listed from side to side in heavy seas. In rough weather, passengers get sick and grumpy, and there are no beautiful ports to entertain them. Paulo receives a bed and food in addition to his hefty salary. As he’s working every day, he has no time or place to spend his money. When he started his job, he signed a contract for a year, which entails working for eight months straight followed by four months of unpaid vacation. For his vacation, he gets a free plane ticket to Curitiba. Paulo’s family lives in the Osternack favela, and he sends his salary home. When he finishes his first yearly contract, he’ll have enough money to buy an apartment in Curitiba. Then he can decide if he wants to sign a new contract and return.

Messina, Sicily, looking to the boot of Italy

Messina, Sicily, looking over to the boot of Italy

Since the days of the Titanic, cruise ships have been entertaining passengers. Back then, it was the only way to travel abroad, as international passenger planes hadn’t yet arrived. Over the past two hundred years, beginning with steamships in the 1800s, cruise lines have been perfecting their systems of management methodology.

I don’t know how the payment system worked on the Titanic, but I’m certain it wasn’t anything like today. Cruise ships nowadays do not use cash. If you’re familiar with the socialist theories of Karl Marx, he imagined a world where money was of no use. Of course, money is essential on a cruise and you won’t be allowed onboard if you haven’t laid out a chunk of it beforehand. However, while on a cruise, money is entirely superfluous.

What cruise lines have done is to replace money with what I call the “Special Card.” It’s the finest example of a cashless society, pure communism. Everything you purchase on the ship – from cocktails to a deep-tissue massage at the spa to M&Ms in the gift shop – gets charged to the Special Card. The Card is the size of a credit card and also doubles as the key card to enter your room.

Indoor swimming pool with retractable roof

Ship’s indoor swimming pool with retractable roof

There is a barcode on the back of the Card, and the cruise staff have handheld devices that scan the code and charge all purchases to your room. It’s also used when you disembark for the day so the ship has a record that you’ve left. It’s an identity card and when it’s scanned, my photo appears on the crew’s device to verify that I’m the owner of the card. I’d never seen this type of advanced technology before, but it would work well in hotels and resorts.

I cannot convey how strange it felt to leave my cabin each evening with empty pockets. Here I was on my way to a 5-star dinner with no cash or credit cards. There was nothing in my pockets except a handkerchief and the Card. I was going out with my wife for dinner, drinks, dancing, gambling without my wallet. During the voyage, the shops and spa do not accept cash or credit cards – the Special Card only. There’s no need to carry any other ID whatsoever while onboard.

Most passengers link the Card to their personal credit card, which you can do in one minute using a small Card reader next to the front desk. At the end of your cruise, there’s no need to pay anyone. A printed bill is placed in your cabin the night before, the same way hotels operate. Even better, using the Card technology, at any time you can check your current account charges using an automated system accessible from the TV in your cabin.

Mount Etna, Sicily

Mount Etna, Sicily

If the unique experience of purposefully leaving your wallet behind isn’t enough to tantalize your futuristic dreams, here’s another unexampled adventure that cruise passengers enjoy: After entering a bar that seats at least 500 and taking a seat on a large comfortable couch, the waitress appeared. Instead of asking what I wanted to drink, she asked, “Would you like a drink?” Her words were carefully scripted. What she meant is I can enjoy the band and glide across the dance floor without ever ordering a drink. If you want to see some wonderful ballroom dancing performed by humble passengers, a cruise is the place.

Passengers are not obligated to drink. Additionally, cruises offer drinks’ packages where you can pay in advance (charged to the Card of course) for a dozen or two dozen drinks and receive a discount. There are drinks’ packages for wine/beer, juice and soda, and one just for bottled water.

Taormina, Sicily

Taormina, Sicily

As I strut around our ship, following a ship’s diagram they’d provided with my name on it that folded up to the same size as the Card, I admired the small gym and basketball court, the indoor swimming pool with retractable roof. There was a top deck observation area with binoculars, you know the huge kind made of metal and resting on podium stands at tourist look-out points. The cruise binoculars are free.

For dinners, we were given assigned seats at a table with other Brazilians along with a waiter who spoke Portuguese. The cruise line was Italian, so the meals were Italian style, i.e. six courses with plates and silverware changed after each course. There was a menu that offered two or three choices for each course. If gluttony is your forte, you could order as many dishes as you want, like a tasting menu but with full portions. With several choices from six courses, that’s twelve or fifteen different plates. For a Brazilian, it’s like a 5-star rodízio food fest that continues for days.

I imagined the waiters were paid nearly as much as the ship’s captain because they work nonstop, three meals a day, covering 25 people at each meal. They are also required to perform extra duties like wearing special outfits for Italian Night. At one dinner, the waiters asked each of the women at the table to dance while the dinner was halted with an Italian sing-along. Our waiter, Marlon, looked like he’d been taking dance lessons, and a smile never left his face.

Savona, Italy

Savona, Italy

The first morning I thought I’d found a flaw in the organizational structure. We were leaving to enjoy a port stop in Sicily, and as I was removing my large camera from the room safe, I realized our passports were still in our safe. This was a mistake because all passports should be collected at the start of a cruise.

My wife hit on the snafu – the majority of the passengers were Europeans and since the ship was visiting only European cities, most passengers were traveling without passports. We were one of the few couples who was traveling with passports.

However, I was wrong about finding a flaw in the organization. After we’d spent the day in Sicily sight-seeing in Messina, the port city that nearly touches the boot of Italy, and taking a side trip to ancient Taormina, we returned to the ship. But when our Card was scanned to board, we were stopped. We waited at the dock and in a few minutes were greeted by a friendly woman in charge of immigration. She apologized for the inconvenience, saying our passports should have been collected. She admitted the fault was the ship’s, no one had yet asked us for our passports, and she immediately ushered us onto the ship, requesting we retrieve our passports from the room safe and bring them to her office whenever it was convenient for us. (She thought we might have our passports with us, but as seasoned travelers, we sight-see with passport xeroxes.) Back in our cabin, I retrieved our passports. As I walked to the front office to surrender them, I kept wondering how the immigration officer knew our passports hadn’t been collected. The wonders of digital technology had impressed me once again.

Lovely, ancient Taormina

Lovely, ancient Taormina

I realize this isn’t your typical travel article with lots of picturesque location details, but haven’t you read enough of them? Okay, if you want some travel tidbits, here goes: Each day you can leave the ship to enjoy the ancient beauty and organization of Europe. For Brazilians, it’s a rare opportunity to observe cars that brake to a stop for pedestrians in a crosswalk. And it’s not every day you walk into a structure built in the 1400s with hand-painted ceilings 70 meters high.

On our Mediterranean cruise, the highlights included the remarkable history of Malta and the famous cuisines of Italy and France. When we weren’t feasting on the ship, my wife and I were sampling the tasty treats of Barcelona, or the whole sea bass in Marseille served with the tail and head, or black sauce pasta, the sauce made from squid ink. We ate prosciutto every day, the caviar of the cured meats, sometimes even for breakfast.

Fortified city of Mdina on island of Malta

Fortified city of Mdina on island of Malta

If you need more cruise enticement, rest assured that travel by ship is more relaxing than by plane. We boarded our ship in Naples, Italy, at 3 pm, and our cabin was ready with our two Special Cards waiting. However, the ship didn’t leave Naples until 8 pm. There’s no need to rush anywhere on a cruise. You’d have to be extremely disorganized to miss a five-hour window of departure. Also, unlike a plane, it’s not possible to hear the ship’s engines, even at full cruising speed. There’s no noise whatsoever, and the only way you even know the ship is moving is if you go up on deck to view the passing scenery.

Cruises aren’t for everyone. I suspect it’s often the wives who push their husbands onto their first cruise, at least it was in my case. Cruises are perfect for women who like to talk and eat and for men who admire triumphs of engineering. How much training is required to captain a ship that is five times bigger than the Titanic and has no brakes? How do you practice parallel parking at dockside along another cruise ship? In Savona, Italy, a ship pulled up directly behind us as we both entered the port at the same time. To prevent the two ships from touching, the second one was tethered to a tugboat. How did a tugboat grab the line while the ship was moving?

For those who marvel at feats of navigation and organization, people like myself who are delighted by systemization, the miraculous structures that turn chaos into harmony, cruises are impressive. It’s an ideology of order, and like the most humble genius, it works best when its brilliance is invisible.

Parallel parking a cruise ship

Parallel parking a cruise ship

B. Michael Rubin is an American living in Curitiba.

{All photos by the author}

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