In 1999, I talked with three Windstar Cruises’ staff members about their dreams and ambitions. Five years later, I caught up with two of those ship staff, Jerry Zape, who put his three kids through university, and Bagus Gunawan. Following is the original story from 1999.
A Few Good Men
Rest assured that work on a ship is hard. Many shipboard personnel work up to 14 hours a day, seven days a week. Some scarcely have time to get off in port so that they can phone home. And with many ships sailing under so-called “flags of convenience” (most being registered in Liberia, Panama and the Bahamas), cruise companies aren’t obligated to pay minimum U.S. wages. Don’t be surprised to learn that your bartender takes home only about $140 per month to cater to your every whim.
Nonetheless, most shipboard workers are doing OK by their country’s standards. For example, annual per capita GDP in the Philippines, the island nation from which many ship-board personnel hail, is about $2,310, compared to $27,607 in the U.S. Plus, workers get room and board. But then there’s the big kick that really makes the job worthwhile: tips, which can easily reach $1,000 a month.
A case in point is Rey, a 33-year-old bartender on Windstar Cruises’ Wind Song. Rey works 11 hours a day on average, seven days a week. Although Windstar has a “No Tipping Required” policy, guests generally do tip bartenders, dining room and cabin stewards a minimum of $25 each at the end of a cruise.
Over the years, Rey has managed to save enough to pay for a three-bedroom house near Manila. Not bad when you consider the cost of his 1,000-square-foot home was $55,000. Rey’s also started a side business, a water bottling plant.
Jerry, another bartender on the Wind Song, also owns a home and a business in the Philippines. When his wife got bored of being a housewife, he says, he bought her a convenience store. Bagus, the dining room assistant manager, plans to return to Bali one day to start his own restaurant and bed & breakfast.
While these and other sailors may be making a huge sacrifice, often staying away from home for up to a year at a time, most seem to think it’s worthwhile. As one told me, “I couldn’t do this well back home.”