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Life At Sea

Fra Markham, Beverage Operations Supervisor with Royal Caribbean Cruises, spends weeks at sea, thousands of miles away from his friends and family, with unfamiliar colleagues from different backgrounds and cultures. He talks here about the link between loneliness and adventure…  

Not long ago there was a storm just off Florida and my cruise ship was caught in the middle of it. Being such a large ship, we managed to prevail with fairly little damage. But what really inspired me was the crew’s commitment and ability to pull together under difficult circumstances.

There are about 1400 crew on this ship, of about 70 different nationalities. Along with the 4500 guests on board, encased in 348 meters of steel, it can sometimes feel as though you’re living in a small city, with shops, restaurants, bars, a casino, theatre and pools. With so many people from so many different cultures and countries, some of which have bad history with one another or are even currently at war, you might expect a lot of unease or even unrest on board. However, this just isn’t the case. It’s as though the opportunity to work with people from such a variety of places and backgrounds is enough to build bridges over troubled waters. It still amazes me to see someone from Indonesia hanging out with friends from Serbia, Trinidad and Mexico, all laughing and joking, with unerringly similar tastes and sense of humour.

There is also a communal sense of ‘missing home’. Each person, on one level or another, misses being back in their own country, whether it’s because of family, friends, or missing the culture. Personally, I’ve always been very independent, being sent away to school when I was 8, and, before that, hardly seeing my parents as they were workaholics. But some crew really struggle, especially those with kids. This sense of missing home is most evident when the crew go to the mess hall or have a drink after work, generally gravitating towards people from their own country, speaking in their native tongue. It provides a sense of cultural familiarity and security, a sense that they’re not alone.

Even though there are 1400 crew on this ship you still have the knowledge that you arrived on your own, and when you finish your contract, you’ll be walking down the gangway on your own. In between, you’ll meet lots of people but many of them will sign off before you, often after months of you signing on, or they’ll sign on half way through your contract when you don’t have long left until you leave, so you never have a concrete foothold on long-lasting friendships. Ultimately this can make you feel very lonely, amid hundreds of other lonely crew.

I’ve always had quite a lonely personality myself. I was quite an awkward boy and, even now, I’m an awkward man to an extent, often never really feeling comfortable when among a group of people. This dissipates when I’m in my work environment, an environment in which I feel very comfortable because I know I’m good at what I do. But as soon as I go to the mess, or for a drink in the crew bar, or even outside in the ports, I generally go on my own and will only sit with people if I’m invited, never having the confidence to walk up to a group of people I don’t know too well and start to chat with them. It’s also how I was brought up, it being considered rude to just go and sit with people I didn’t really know.

As such I seem to be one of the few crew members at the other end of the spectrum from the ‘home-missers’. You have the people who really miss home due to the closeness they share with friends or, usually, family. This is especially prevalent with New Hires (crew who are on their first contract), who are often upset by being away from home for 7-10 months. Then there’s a few like me at the opposite end; we don’t miss home, we’re independent and have been for a long time, but still somehow find ourselves isolated (mentally) and feeling lonely often.

This is probably the worst part of my job, that strange sense of being isolated whilst among so many familiar faces. I may have always been independent, but this sense of loneliness has followed me most of my life. I’m not missing home, but I am missing close connections. It’s that great feeling you get when you’re talking to someone and you realise that, oddly, you have the same way of thinking, the same interests, the same humour, and you realise that if you got to know this person, you’d probably be good friends. I’ve never really accomplished that here.

The syrup that sweetens that bitter after-taste, ironically, IS the fact that people come and go so often. There’s a consistent flow of new people, so the odds of you finding someone with whom there’s potential for connection on a WOW level, achieving the all important ‘click’, are in your favour.

I guess it’s easy to feel ‘all at sea’ living a lonely life on a ship full of temporary friends. However, there are two sides to every coin, and the great thing about being at sea is that you’re at sea! You leave one place and venture towards somewhere new, all the time, getting to see tonnes of different distinctive destinations. As an adventurer, that’s all I need. But these brief stops are only part of the story. Working on a cruise liner is a one of many ports of call in life itself and it teaches me to enjoy the voyage from one day to the next, as who knows where we’ll be tomorrow.

photo credit: Queen Mary 2 via photopin (license)

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