Cruise Crew Life: Living and Working Aboard a River Cruise Ship

"The crew makes the ship," declares Avalon Panorama hotel manager Dan Ungureanu as he makes his final dinnertime speech to guests. It was the end of the ship's first voyage through Germany, but the crew pulled everything off so seamlessly it was like they'd been traversing the same route for years.

As each crew member has their shining moment - a modest announcement of their name, job, and home country - it is easy to wonder how everything comes together. Each morning as guests sit bleary eyed at the breakfast table, the same waiter who served dinner the night before will smile and pour cups of coffee. And this is after the staff stayed up late doing closing out work and spending some time writing emails back home.

It turns out that many of these crew members have work days that last from 6am to 10am with only short breaks in between. They also stay on the ship and away from their friends and family for as long as eight months at a time. And they do it by choice.

In the Kitchen

Executive Chef Michael Zambersky works in a kitchen that is no bigger than a cramped hotel room – a workspace that he says is bigger and has a better layout than other ships he's worked on in the past. He and nine other employees work nearly round-the-clock to prepare three square meals a day for up to 160 people.

Kevin Smith Southwest

Libby Zay, AOL Travel

To get everything done, the ship employs a pastry chef who works alone to make all the on board sweets and two dishwashers who clean and peel potatoes and vegetables from dawn until well after dusk. The five other workers on Michael's staff are cooks.

When it comes down to crunch time, they have seven seconds to plate each elaborate course for meals that typically include five and seven plates of food – and that's not accounting for the fact that the ship gives guests two entree options, plus extra selections catered to vegetarians and those looking for healthy alternatives.

"It really is about organization and concentration," says the modest chef as he tries to portray the hustle and bustle of the tiny kitchen.

At the Front Desk

Another crewmember who knows a thing or two about organization is the senior receptionist, Petya Yordanova.

Petya has been working on ships for seven years and spends her days fielding questions from guests, keeping track of who is on land, answering phones, and putting together documents such as a daily bulletin and news updates in several different languages for guests.

When asked what the most difficult part of her job was, she didn't state an actual task but instead noted, "sometimes I miss the lazy days with nothing to do."

But Yordanova, who says she loves working on a ship because she gets to see different cities every day, has an advantage over other workers: she gets to work alongside her husband for much of the day. He's the hotel manager and also spends much of his time at the front desk. No wonder he think the crew makes the ship!

In the Dining Room

Sdenka Juranova, a server from the Czech Republic, is quite literally in the same boat. She's dating a crewmember on board. In reality, onboard romances are not uncommon when spending months on end together in close quarters. At least on the Avalon Panorama the crew has a little more privacy; their quarters house two people per room whereas most ships – both on rivers and ocean liners – hold four or more.

"I'm happy that I have the support," says Sdenka, who wakes up each day at 5:45am and finishes her day around 10:30. When she has free time, Sdenka says she likes to go explore the city and do some shopping, "but most of the time I'm sleeping because I'm tired."

Many other crewmembers had similar answers, saying they take naps or just sit back and relax when they have time off.

Peter Vadau, the Maitre'd or dining facilitator, says the hardest part of his jobs it to "motivate the tired crew" after a few months out on the water. Peter is unmarried and without children, and says he is typically away from home for eight months at a time.

Ariadi Putra, another server on the ship, has a wife two teenage children back home in Indonesia. He keeps in contact with them through email and smiles coyly when asked if he counts down the days until he sees his family. "The four month vacation is nice," he comments.

Why They Do It

The big breaks in between cruise seasons seem to be the main incentive for the crew to take these demanding jobs. Most say they chose to work on cruise ships because of their love for traveling, and many worked on ocean liners or in luxury hotels before joining the ranks of the Avalon Panorama.

The crew also held the company they work for in high regard. Peter, who has worked for Avalon for four years, says he feels like he is a part of the company. Others take pride in the design and cleanliness of the ship and proudly pointed out details where Avalon took their ideas into account, including the kitchen setup and less cramped cabins.

The 44 crewmembers who make sure every detail on the ship is prepped, pressed and perfect come from a variety of places. The majority come from Indonesia, Hungary, and Romania, but there are also some from Serbia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Croatia, to name a few. Even at the end of the maiden voyage, the crew had already formed bonds and was working as a team. From a server helping another fold and carry a table to the hairdresser who doubles as a housekeeper when she isn't busy, it was clear that no matter what might go on behind-the-scenes to the guests everything was flawless.

More on Cruise Crews

If you're interested in learning more about the life of the crew aboard cruise ships, there are several bloggers who write about their experiences. My Life at Sea is run by a 22-year-old American crewmember who is about to ship off once again, while the crewmember behind Crew Office stopped blogging about a year ago but his archives still make for a good read. There is also a Cruise Ship Crew Members group on Facebook that has over 8,000 members.

Photos by Libby Zay.
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