I'm not what you would call a "cruise person." I don't like being on the ocean, I don't like feeling claustrophobic, and I've seen Speed 2: Cruise Control. Any one of those would be good reasons to stay away from cruises, let alone all three. But I'm still CURIOUS about them - so when this thread popped up in r/AskReddit, I found myself learning all sorts of things about what REALLY goes on in cruise ships that passengers may never know about...
1. There's a chance ALL THE SPARE TOILET PAPER can be destroyed at once
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Cruise ships have something of a reputation for, uh, having EXTREME plumbing issues. Like, to the degree ALL OF THE TOILETS ARE OVERFLOWING CONSTANTLY AND THE ENTIRE SHIP SMELLS LIKE SEWAGE, or a viral outbreak leads to EVERYONE HAVING DIARRHEA AT THE SAME TIME. In these cases, you might want to have some extra toilet paper handy, just in case! Except, sometimes there may not BE any extra toilet paper. And you're on a remote cruise ship with no scheduled stops for weeks. In Antarctica.
Water pipe burst in a store room and soaked ALL of the spare toilet paper. This was on day 2 of a 14 day voyage to Antarctica. The cabin stewards had to swap around rolls of paper between "low use" and "high use" guest cabins and it came right down the wire. None of the guests found out or realized. Now toilet paper is hidden in every cabin instead of a centralized location.
Although, thankfully, there HAVE been instances where sewage pipes become a problem and the crew is able to hide it from the guests:
I was playing a production show (guitar) was standing on stage with a wireless unit alone to play Purple Rain, and then all of the sudden the house lights came on and the curtains closed. Everyone in the audience looked at me, and I ran off the stage. Turns out a sewage pipe burst backstage and there was shit everywhere. Show was cancelled and the passengers didn't find out why.
I used to work on the Tahoe Queen as an engineer. We would cruise around Lake Tahoe for 2.5 hours and do lunch or dinner cruises. Between cruises, it was my responsibility to pump the shit out and pump on water if we need it. A lot of times we don't need more water, or we dont have enough shit to warrant pumping.
This was one of the times where we needed water, but not to pump poop.
Problem is, the water systems on large boats/ships can be a funny thing. Long story short, I left a valve open where I shouldn't have, and started taking on water into the water tanks, which, while in transit, apparently overflow into the sewage tanks. The sewage tanks quickly began to fill up, and I spent the last 1.5 hours of the cruise catching human waste in trash cans.
I don't know that anyone would have necessarily panicked.... but I don't think people would like to know what was going on right below where they were eating.
2. There are special ways to deal with people who die on a cruise
This probably is one of those things you just don't think about too often, but makes a lot of sense once you do: people die on cruises. A lot. After all, cruises tend to attract a bit of an older clientele, and can be out to sea for days on end, sometimes even weeks. People get sick, people get injured, and people DIE. Cruises can hold thousands and thousand of people - they're basically floating mini-cities. But what are you supposed to do with the dead people? It's not like there's a working coroner on every cruise ship!
The answer: there's a weird special freezer to keep all the cadavers in decent condition. Ew.
I'm working on a cruise ship currently. One time we had to turn around to take someone to a hospital, and then there was a fire in the laundry room, and it was also pretty rocky seas.
Also people die on cruise ships, and the bodies are kept in a special freezer. I mean, you gotta do something with the body if you're at sea.
Oh yeah....except plenty of cruise ships (the real big ones) DO have functioning morgues:
There are morgues below deck and a jail cell. We get at least 3 deaths onboard a month.
3. Oh, also - things can get COMPLICATED when guests die on a cruise
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Guests dying on cruises is always way more complicated than guests dying OFF of cruises for a lot of reasons - namely jurisdiction can get a little dicey when you're dealing with something with no fixed location (especially one that stops off at various ports), and the people who die USUALLY aren't traveling alone (because who goes on a cruise by themselves?). So what do you do if you've already paid top dollar for a lengthy cruise but your partner croaks right at the beginning? Here's one story that might be illuminating:
Ship just arrived in Whittier, Alaska (the port for Anchorage) and an elderly passenger dropped dead while walking down the gangway. A conflict ensues between the port security and the ship's medical team. The port security didn't want the ship's medical team to get involved because it technically happened off the ship and the local authorities had jurisdiction. There really was no saving the guy but the ship's medical team at least wanted to try but the local authorites wouldn't even allow the chief medical officer to start CPR.
The coroner had a ~6 hour ETA so the port authorities bagged up the body and stuffed it in an x-ray machine storage container in port (guarded by local police) until the coroner could arrive to take the body to Anchorage. The wife of the deceased continued on to finish the vacation for the 7-day rail trip to Denali (it was a 14-day gimmick... 7 days at sea, 7 day scenic rail trip). My understanding was the cruise line comped her entire vacation, arranged for the remains to be returned home at no cost to her, and provided a personal escort/assistant for the remainder of her vacation.
Maybe even more concerningly, many older people go on cruises ASSUMING THEY MIGHT DIE THERE. Although I guess if you're really old, at the end of your life, you figure "hey, I might as well go out feeling the ocean breeze on my skin and a beautiful view in front of me."
I was touring a ship for a future event. The ship was about to leave for a 100+ day cruise. I saw alot of old people getting on with oxygen tanks. I asked him what happens if they die on board. He said it was very common for old people blow their life savings to come spend their last days on this cruise. He also said they have a fully functional morgue.
4. Cruise lines can go bankrupt - and the employees will just get stuck wherever the last stop is
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Cruises require A LOT of people to make everything run smoothly - again, it's like a small floating town, so you need all manner of busboys, chefs, entertainers, clerks, doctors, maids, janitors, and anything else you can imagine. But what happens when a cruise line goes bust? Do you honestly think the company pays the costs to get the crew back to home port - or just abandon them wherever they last landed? If you guessed "abandon them," congratulations - you've been paying attention to our late stage capitalism world (and all of the grim things that come with it).
I worked on a cruise ship, and unbeknowst to the passengers and most of the crew, the ship was on its last cruise. The company was going bankrupt and when the ship landed, that was it. Everybody was out of a job, and a lot of the immigrant workers were stranded in a foreign port.
5. Drunk people jumping off the ship is a real problem
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Drunk people are big enough problems on land, let alone when you're at sea. Know why? BECAUSE THEY TEND TO JUMP OFF OF THE GODDAMN SHIP.
I worked on a cruise ship for three years! I've got a lot of these kinds of stories, but here's my favorite one:
Our ship officers got a call from a ship of a completely different cruise line, off the coast of Cozumel, Mexico. They found one of our passengers floating in the ocean. He wasn't even near the shore at all, just floating in open water. He was alive & perfectly fine.
They reviewed the security footage, & in the middle of the night this guy was drunk on Deck 5, & could be seen holding his phone, dancing to music by himself. He then climbed onto one of the lifeboats, & did a RUNNING JUMP into the ocean. He left his phone on top of the lifeboat. His body was so fluid from being drunk that he wasn't injured when he hit the water. The cruise ship spotted him & rescued him. His family didn't know he was missing because he had booked a separate room.
This guy told the news that a rogue wave pushed him off the side of the ship. He was on Deck 5, so the wave would have been over 40 feet tall...
Don't know what happened after that. The entire crew was talking about it for weeks before it hit the news, though.
On a QM2 transatlantic crossing one of the kitchen staff got drunk one night and hurled himself overboard in the North Atlantic. The ship basically found out the next morning when the first mate kept calling on the ship wide intercom for him to go to his post. That afternoon, the captain announced what happened and that the ship was turning around to, with the help of 3 nearby merchant ships, try to search for the him. Of course it was foggy as hell and you couldn't see 100yds but just about everyone was on the railings with binoculars trying to search for the poor guy. A wedding even stopped onboard, the whole party out looking once the announcement came that we were in the search area. After (shockingly) nothing was found, the concierge desk set up a multinational-currency donation box to send to his family back in Chile. There were 4 days left in the trip at that point and every day that box was stuffed to capacity.. I hope it helped them.
6. Crews often don't have much information about the outside world - because Wi-Fi is expensive as hell
You might just assume crews have plenty of access to information and news - after all, they're part of the ship! They should have the best connections and the fastest at getting info, as they've got the inside line on things. Except, uh, that's not the case - because cruises don't really offer their crew much in the way of accommodations and DEFINITELY want to keep them in the dark about most things.
It is cheaper than what the guests pay, but it's also super slow and they charge by the minute. This is why if you ever go on a cruise you'll see whatever coffee shop is closest to the dock full of crew members on their laptops
I was on the Costa Serena in January 2012. Just cruising around the Mediterranean. Woke up one morning and ALL of the crew and wait staff at breakfast we're stone cold and depressed looking. They made us do an extra life boat drill that morning, to all of our confusion. Found out later that day that our sister ship, the Concordia, sank overnight but didn't have many other details.
My now wife wasn't on the trip and didn't know the exact name of the ship I was on..and found out before us. She was terrified till the next morning when I could get on to the ship's internet connected computer.
We also found out the crew was especially depressed because a lot of them had family on the other ship and very little information.
Took a few days, but things got back to fairly normal. I just remembered doing life boat drills and thinking they were a waste of time...learned that lesson.
7. The crew is having a lot more fun than you think
You know what kind of worker cruises tend to attract? Younger people, mostly, with few connections, questionable career paths, and the ability to abandon home for months on end to sail around. You get enough young, directionless people in a confined space, and you're gonna basically have a nonstop orgy going on for the duration of the cruise.
I am a cruise ship worker. First one is, we don't want you to know that we actually have more fun than the guests. Sure we'll work the big white hot party that your all going to, but once we finish our shift all hell is breaking loose in the crew bar.
Just below and to the sides of where you are sleeping there are crew members having sex, smoking and drinking. Our beers are $1. No drugs or spirits though.
We also don't want you to know that all those funny jokes we tell you at bingo? Yeah... Same ones are said every. Single. Cruise. That really funny answer you gave us about your wife during the happy couples game? Heard it. It was said last cruise and the one before that, and the one before that...
We are not allowed to fuck to passengers... But we do know the all the knooks and crannies the cameras don't reach.
8. Thankfully, most of the scariest-sounding stuff isn't that scary
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To less sea-savvy individuals, problems like "fires on a ship" and "explosions in the engine" sound pretty scary. After all, my main experience with cruise ships is watching Titanic in theaters in the 90s, so I assume the worst when it comes to ship problems. But it turns out these enormous, hyper-expensive ships are sturdier than you might assume.
All of the computer systems run on Windows 7, including all of the automation in the machinery space, security system, fire detection system etc.. When Windows updates it will restart the computers, as it does with a normal desktop, unfortunately it can also take out every computer at the same time and we're flying blind until it finishes.
People may be more worried to hear that there is a hole in the hull yet they're actually fairly common occurances in older ships and easily plugged.
Fires happen occasionally. The most terrifying was a crankcase explosion. The fire suppression systems are good at extinguishing them quickly enough though so they're not even a concern to the crew, unless Windows is updating at the time.
A crankcase explosion doesn't mean the engine is in pieces. Oil mist inside the crankcase explodes and the resulting blast it pushed out through the blast doors. Also the fire suppression system is independent, that was a joke, the monitoring system is Windows based and just means we can't see what sensors or which sprinklers have been activated. The speed and fueling controls on an engine are mechanical and the local control is pneumatic so keeping it running isn't a concern. All of the auxiliary systems are controlled by the computer system and are passed in to local control, and controlled by the watchkeeper, if and when it occurs.