Life as a Deckhand for American Cruise Lines

By Ethan Maurice | September 6, 2015

For three months I worked as a deckhand on the American Glory, one of seven small cruise ships ran by American Cruise Lines. In February, I met up with the ship in Jacksonville, FL and by the time I finished in May, we had sailed the entirety of the east coast, from Florida to Maine. Though the work hours were many each day, the times were good. Work ranged from doing laundry to steering the ship to checking engine gauges. Every day was different. New experiences in new places. My fellow crew members rocked and I left with a hefty sum of money in my pocket. Oh, and good news, even if you have no experience, they'll most likely hire you too.

Never Heard of American Cruise Lines?

You've probably never heard of American Cruise Lines (ACL). They operate small cruise ships (50 to 175 passengers) and their cruises are quiet expensive ($3,500 to $5,000 per passenger for a week long cruise). Their seven ships cruise on waterways throughout the United States—covering the entire East Coast, the Mississippi, the Pacific Northwest and even up into Alaska. Passengers are usually older retired folks, generally ranging from sixty to eighty years old.

The Job

I worked twelve hours a day, for eighty four days straight as a deckhand for American Cruise Lines. Going into it, such a commitment seemed crazy, but I enjoyed work for the most part. I had no prior experience at sea, I'd never worked on a boat, nothing. By the end of my contract I could pilot a 1000 ton cruise ship by myself, read radar, tie a mean bowline knot, change the oil and coolant on all five of the ships engines, troubleshoot the central AC system, repair ice makers, fix toilets, grease the cruise ship's steering... the list of things I learned in three months is endless.

Deckhand work had a vast range of job duties, some were exciting and fun, some were not. The best aspects of the job were steering the ship and line handling while docking and un-docking the ship. The worst, standing gangway for three hours straight.

Of all employees aboard, no one breaks their circadian rhythm more than the deckhands. On our ship our schedules rotated six hours back each week. The four schedules one could possibly have we 12am-12pm, 6am-6pm, 12pm-12am, or 6pm-6am. Waking up at 11:30pm to start a twelve hour shift felt weird at first, but I grew to like it. With everyone asleep I could raid the kitchen, pop some headphones in while doing laundry, or take a pee off the top deck of the cruise ship.

If there was such thing as a typical day, it might be something like this:

6:00-9:00am: Stand gangway.
9:00-11:00am: Wash windows, carry any food deliveries onto boat, other random tasks.
11:00-11:30am: Undock ship.
11:30am-Noon: Laundry and safety check rounds.
Noon-2:00pm: Steer ship.
2:00-4:00pm: Laundry and safety check rounds.
4:00-5:00pm: Steer ship.
5:00-5:30pm: Dock ship.
5:30-6:00pm: Rearrange lounge area.
6:00pm: Done. Freedom! Explore somewhere you've never been for the next four hours.
*Breakfast, lunch, and dinner would also be included in this schedule. Take out either half an hour or 15 minutes for each meal (depending on how good you are at rock, paper, scissors).

Living on a Ship

Our living quarters were small, but sufficient. Guys lived down in the hull of the ship, with two people to a room. Girls lived in one large room on the third deck of the ship. Us dudes had a bit more personal space, but rarely received cell reception down in the hull, a trade off I was more than happy to make. Living in the hull was also great during the 6pm-6am or 12am-12pm shift, with no windows, it didn't matter if it was night or day, I had no trouble getting to sleep.

My roommate and I lived in a small room with three beds, but with only two people had plenty of space. I had two lockers and one large dresser for my belongings, he had one locker and two dressers for his. We had a couple small TV's in our room with 30 channels or so, but we had much better things to do than watch television. The bathroom, used by all four deckhands, had two showers, a toilet, and a sink. With all of us running on different schedules, we rarely even bumped into each other down there.

Living space wasn't all that important. Generally, if I was awake, I was working or off ship. If I wanted to spend some time on my laptop, I'd find a cafe with a wifi connection. My room was mostly used as a place to sleep and not much else.

We were fed well. For breakfast, we'd write out a ticket for whatever we wanted. My usual breakfast consisted of french toast, a huge helping of scrambled eggs (I'd do the cook's laundry from time to time), diced/fried potatoes, and a bowl of raisin bran. Lunch and dinner were served buffet style and could be anything. Pizza, baked chicken, steak, chili, chicken strips, pasta, a variety of sandwiches, generally it was pretty good. Lunch and dinner also always came with a salad and some kind of dessert. The passengers, paying well over $500 a day for their cruise, ate exquisite meals and often I'd be able to arrive in the kitchen at the right time for a leftover, untouched plate of gourmet food.

Pay

ACL is unique when it comes to paying it's employees. Instead of paying deckhands, stewards, and dishwashers by the hour, they hire people for these positions as temporary workers and pay a base rate of $30 to $35 per day. At the end of each week long cruise, passengers are asked to tip for the whole week with a gratuity. They suggest $150 per passenger for the gratuity, but often passengers will give more. All those gratuities are added together and then divided among the deckhands, stewards, and dishwashers. On my ship we averaged around $750 a week with tips and base pay together. Larger ship crews were pulling in around $1000 a week consistently. Additionally, if you completed your contracted, 84 days straight, they'd give you a $750 bonus, which was sweet icing on the cake.

*My ship was the smallest of the fleet and we consistently made less than the other ship's crew. We had less work though, and a more relaxed environment, so it balanced out.

Where I Went

Georgia

  • Brunswick, GA
  • Sapelo Island, GA
  • Savannah, GA


North Carolina

  • Wrightsville Beach, NC
  • Moorehead City, NC
  • Coinjock, NC


Maryland

  • Baltimore, MD
  • St. Michaels, MD
  • Annapolis, MD
  • Cambridge, MD
  • Tangier Island, MD


New York

  • New York City, NY


Massachusetts

  • Martha's Vineyard, MA
  • Boston, MA

Florida

  • Jacksonville, FL
  • Green Cove Springs, FL
  • Polatka, FL
  • Fernandina Beach, FL
  • St. Augustine, FL


South Carolina

  • Charleston, SC
  • Beaufort, SC
  • Hilton Head, SC
  • Myrtle Beach, SC


Virginia

  • Yorktown, VA
  • Norfolk, VA
  • Alexandria, VA (Washington D.C.)


Pennsylvania

  • Philadelphia, PA


Rhode Island

  • Bristol, RI


Maine

  • Portland, ME
  • Bar Harbor, ME

     

What I Did With My Free Time

My time off while living aboard the American Glory was always an adventure. Almost every day, the boat was docked in a different place, so I did a plethora of different things. Some of the highlights included:

  • Renting a Vespa in St. Augustine, FL, blasting all over town and down to the beach.

  • Walking throughout New York City, experiencing Time Square, Central Park, and sharing dinner with a homeless man.

  • Witnessing history in Baltimore, MD. You could feel the tension and unease in the air as the national guard and police in riot gear patrolled the city during the Baltimore Riots.

  • Catching a Red Sox Game at Fenway Park. Bleacher seats with three of my favorite crew members with beers, brats, and belting “Sweet Caroline” with 37,000 die-hard fans was a dream come true.

Depending on your schedule for the week, your free time could fall in the morning, during the afternoon, or at night, with all the other crew members. During the mornings, I'd often find myself going for a run through personally uncharted territory or skateboarding around to find a local breakfast spot. Afternoons, I'd try and find my way to a beach or explore town. Nighttime was always the best though. All the stewards, cooks, and the dishwasher were off. Often, we'd all go out and find a bar or club (even though there was a zero tolerance policy for alcohol, it was loosely enforced). The night was always fun with a large group of coworkers looking to blow off steam after twelve hours of work.

Some relationships developed, but were short lived with the quick turnover of twelve week long contracts and managers bouncing from ship to ship every couple weeks. One night got particularly crazy and a large group of us played a wild game of spin the bottle. Other romantic stuff happened too, but I won't go into anymore detail here.

Though we were often working at different times, almost all of the deckhands had penny boards (tiny skateboards with longboard wheels) which were perfect for stashing in our not so spacious living quarters and cruising around town.

If you're interested in working for American Cruise Lines:

1. Don't do it for the money. Two of the four deckhands on my ship quit before they were halfway through their contract. They weren't there for the experience of traveling and living on a ship, they were aboard for the money. If you're attracted to the thought of working on a cruise ship, being on the water, and seeing different places while banking money, you'll have a great time and walk away with a lot of dough in your pocket. The people who joined for the wrong reasons didn't last.

2. Use your two flights wisely. Usually ACL will pay for you to fly to training and fly you home from training. Then you have to pay for the flight to the ship. Sometimes they'll fly you straight from training to your ship, but it's less likely. I flew to training in Connecticut and instead of flying back home for two weeks before I went to my ship, I stayed in Connecticut with relatives I hadn't seen for a while. My second flight was then used to get me from Connecticut to Florida to meet the ship, saving me a hundreds of dollars on a last minute ticket.

3. Don't be a dishwasher. We went through four dishwashers in the 12 weeks I was on the ship. Dishwashers basically work from 7am to 10pm everyday with a couple short breaks when they catch up between meals. Two of our dishwashers were trained as deckhands and asked at the end of training if they'd like to start immediately as a dishwasher. They jumped at the opportunity to start right away and ended up with more work and longer hours for only $5 more per day.

4. Work hard and be curious. Some deckhands tried to get by doing as little as possible—they grew tired of ship life quickly and quit before their contract was up. I looked at work as a learning experience and tried to have fun with whatever I was doing. Such an attitude made me the go to guy. When our engine room assistant went on vacation, they trained me and I took over for him. My curiosity when steering the ship lead to the captain teaching me how to read radar, the GPS system, and eventually him letting me pilot the ship on my own, which was beyond exciting. At the end of my contract, I was offered a full time position as an engine room assistant which could have opened many doors and set me up for a handsomely paying career at sea.

5. Enjoy your time off!!! ACL policy for most crew members is no drinking and an 11pm back on the boat curfew with a zero tolerance policy. If a girl is caught in guy's quarters or a vice versa, they're supposed to be fired. While I was on the ship, all these things happened somewhat regularly and nobody was ever caught. At night, nobody's around to enforce it. It felt like I was back in my freshman year of college again, but when you're in a city you may never set foot in again with fellow crew members who you may never see again after your contract expires, you all should enjoy that time! As long as it's not affecting your job performance, go out and have a little fun! Do something crazy with that hot new crew member or periodically get some drinks with your buddies. Just keep it on the low and use some common sense in your comings and goings from the ship. A few mates and captains can be unpredictable, so feel it out with each new boss, but for the most part, bending the rules a bit won't hurt.

 

 

 

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