A familiar face greeted me as I boarded the Wind Surf on a recent sailing from Venice to Malta. Jerry Zape remembered me from five years ago when he worked as a bartender on the Wind Song.
I remembered him too. I had talked with him about his family in the Philippines and about how he supported his wife and three children on the salary and tips he earned at sea. In his early 40s then, he had managed to pay off his home and even buy a small convenience store.
When I met Jerry five years later, life was treating him even better. He told me that two of his children had just finished college and that a third will graduate soon. How Jerry managed his family from afar is a remarkable story, but first let me tell you about Jerry.
Jerry started work with Holland America Line in 1987, five years into his marriage. He and his wife agonized over whether Jerry should go to sea, but they knew they could not make the life they wanted for their family on Filipino wages. “I could earn double on a ship what I could earn at home,” he told me.
So at age 27, he left his wife and three toddlers to begin his first assignment as a deckhand on the Rotterdam. After nearly a year of swabbing the decks, he was promoted to service staff. He kept himself busy and returned home once a year with a bundle of cash (his contract required that he work 12 months, then take off three months.)
At ports, Jerry hustled to finish his duties so he could get off the ship to call his family. It wasn’t always easy, he says, “But we’ve always talked at least three times a week.”
Like many of his coworkers, Jerry has a mobile phone, but instead of costly calls home, he uses text messaging. It’s instant, and it’s cheaper than calling, he says. He even manages the family money with the small keyboard on his phone – sending cash home with coworkers who are headed back to the Philippines and managing the exchange of dollars to pesos, the Filipino currency, with local money-changers.
“What’s the exchange rate today?” he text messages the money-changer. “Not good,” comes the reply. Later, “What about today?” “Yes, it’s good, but we cannot guarantee for long.” Jerry text messages his wife to hurry to the money changer while the rates are good.
In 1991, Jerry joined Holland America Line’s sister company Windstar Cruises. As a bartender, he earned good wages, and as before, he would send the money home for his family. He was offered a promotion in 1999, to bar manager, but while his base salary would increase, he would forego tips. There was one big perk, however: Instead of a 12-month rotation with three months off, the bar manager position gave him a six-month rotation with two months off. He settled on earning less to see his family more.
” My children tell me they are very lucky to have a father like me,” Jerry says. “They say, ‘The job you have is very far away, but you have treated us very well. The financial support has always been there.’ ”
When I saw him last fall, Jerry told me he did not know how much longer he would stay at sea. He is thinking of returning home for good in another four or five years. What will he do? “Open a bakery, perhaps.”
Before that day comes he wants to reward his wife with a cruise on one of the ships he has worked on for so many years. “It has been very hard on us and particularly for her,” Jerry says. “She is at home with all the responsibility.”
But cruises don’t come cheap (at least by Filipino standards). He’s working to save up and hopes to surprise his wife.
I probably won’t be there four or five years from now when Jerry disembarks the ship and heads home for good. I’ll wish him well, and I’ll think of him from time to time. But then who could forget such a friendly face and pleasant personality? After all, there’s just something about Jerry that those who meet him never forget. – Ralph Grizzle