by guest contributor Jodi Lien
In the early 1980s, legwarmers were a fashion must-have, the mullet was a coveted hairstyle and The Love Boat was a hit TV show.
Weekly episodes were set aboard the dazzling Pacific Princess. Regular viewers, like me, wished we were there as the ship sailed away amid a flutter of bon voyage confetti and called at sun-drenched ports. The images created a powerful impression of the magic of cruising, which was not yet the mega-popular vacation choice it is today.
As a 21-year-old working in a dull-as-dishwater job with the county tax assessor, the vision of cruising struck a profound chord within me, unlike anything I’d ever experienced. I was so taken with the dreamy notion that I booked a cruise with a girlfriend (Mexican Riviera aboard Sitmar’s Fairsea). Those eight nights transformed me. I’d found my calling.
I established a one-track, all-consuming goal: Get a job aboard a cruise ship. When I gushed about my plan to my conservative mom, her response was, “Oh, Jodi, you’re such a dreamer. Nobody gets those jobs.”
Somebody had to get those jobs. Why not me?
The classified ads in the back of Glamour magazine provided my first strategy. A tiny ad, enticing me to “Work in the exciting cruise industry!,” offered a catalog containing addresses of cruise lines. This was a start! I sent my check and anxiously watched the mailbox. When I received the bulky book, I set to work addressing envelopes and carefully including a cover letter and a resume. After three months, countless resumes and exactly four replies (each a form letter advising there were no available positions), I was discouraged, yet still determined.
I decided that my resume was lacking. I had excellent administrative skills, but only two years of university education and no travel-related work experience. I needed something to say for myself that would catch the eye of a cruise line. I decided to apply to Seattle School of Travel (SST).
Travel schools were popular at the time and taught students the skills required for a career as a travel agent. While I wasn’t interested in becoming a travel agent, I saw this step as my entry into the travel industry and valuable experience to have under my belt. I enrolled at SST’s San Diego location and completed the four-month program. At the conclusion of the course, fate stepped in. While visiting a travel agency, a classmate overheard two agents discussing a newly created position with Royal Viking Line — onboard cruise consultant.
I had never heard of Royal Viking Line and I had no idea what a cruise consultant did, but it sounded perfect. This was my golden opportunity!
Job Seeking In San Francisco, Then A Phone Call
With the clueless boldness of youth, I flew to San Francisco and marched, unannounced, into the elegant Royal Viking Line offices at One Embarcadero Center. The gracious receptionist inquired with whom I had an appointment. I explained that I did not have an appointment, but that I was interested in the cruise consultant position. May I speak with someone, please? Thinking back, I cringe at my brashness.
Incredibly, she invited me to have a seat. As I waited, admiring the sky-high view toward Pier 39 and the dazzling bay beyond, I listened enviously as the receptionist took calls that clearly were from a ship. She was speaking to real live crew members! I was spellbound.
Eventually I was invited into an inner office where a sales executive explained the qualifications for the cruise consultant position, which required advanced skills only an experienced travel agent would possess. Strike one.
Next I was introduced to the executive in charge of booking shipboard entertainment. He had an open secretarial position. My mind raced. It was not what I wanted, but it was an opportunity to get my foot in the door of this luxurious cruise line. Then, surely it would be an easy transition to a ship! But the seasoned executive was wise to me. In no uncertain terms he told me that it was not a stepping stone to the ship. He expected a commitment. Our conversation was over. I was shown the way out. Strike two.
Crestfallen, I was nearly at the exit when an attractive Norwegian man appeared from an office doorway. He’d overheard my conversation with the entertainment executive, and he knew exactly what I wanted and was qualified for — a position as purser assistant aboard ship. Yes! This man understood! My opportunity had arrived! My heart filled with joy!
But the joy was short-lived as he explained that such positions were filled in the Oslo, Norway, office, and that there was a three-year waiting list. I was crushed. I thanked him, took a final look back at the beautiful offices of Royal Viking Line, and returned to San Diego to ponder my future. Strike three.
A week later my phone rang. More than 30 years later I still can picture the kitchen table at which I sat at that moment. On the other end was Mr. Arne Baekkelund, the Norwegian executive from Royal Viking Line. He said that a purser assistant aboard Royal Viking Star had to return home unexpectedly. If I could join the ship on Friday (it was Tuesday) in Fort Lauderdale, the job was mine. I listened in a hazy daze as he briskly explained what I needed to do. Get a passport, pass a physical by a Norwegian seamen-approved physician, sign a contract, get an airline ticket, purchase regulation uniform shoes and pack a minimal amount of personal belongings. These were just a few of the tasks on the list he gave me. I hung up the phone in joyous disbelief.
Dazzled By A Star
The next three days were a blur of frantic activity. Elation blended with panic, but, remarkably, I found myself in a Fort Lauderdale hotel late on Friday night, trying to squeek in a few winks of sleep before joining the ship on Saturday morning — as a crew member!
At the time, there was a selection of cruise lines from which American passengers could choose, but there was only one option for luxury cruising. That option was Royal Viking Line.
Launched in the early 1970s, Royal Viking Line set the original gold bar, the standard by which today’s luxury lines still adhere. The fleet consisted of three ships — Royal Viking Sea, Royal Viking Sky and Royal Viking Star. The ships were small by typical current standards (the ships originally carried about 550 passengers, and later were lengthened to accommodate about 750 passengers), yet they were mighty in the distance they covered through voyages spanning the globe. Royal Viking Line ships sailed the world with unprecedented and unmatched refinement and elegance.
The deck, engine and bridge were manned by lifelong seamen: Norwegian officers and sailors with confident, efficient expertise and generations of knowledge. Hotel service was provided mostly by European crew who had been trained in world-class venues. Dining room waiters, who hailed from England, Italy, France, Spain and more, and had been groomed in Europe’s finest six-star hotels, graciously took meal orders and served succulent dishes, which were prepared by award-winning Swiss and Austrian chefs.
Staterooms were kept with immaculate precision by Scandinavian stewardesses. The ships’ business was handled by a primarily Norwegian purser’s staff that administered front desk assistance with crisp perfection. At all times, an impeccable standard of service was expected by management and by passengers. Anything less was unthinkable.
At any given time, a Royal Viking Line ship was in or en route to an exotic port of call. Africa, Alaska, Asia, Australia, Caribbean, Europe, Mexico, the Middle East, New Zealand and the South Pacific — the itineraries dazzled with colorful, cultural ports of call. Passengers sailed in style and elegance for as little as two weeks or as many as six months. (One regular passenger brought her own lamps and other furnishings to outfit her cabin for the several months she spent aboard each year.)
Passengers were affluent, and often retired, world travelers, those who had ample time and generous financial means. Many celebrity passengers chose Royal Viking Line for their vacation. Glenn Ford, Donna Reed, Jim Nabors, Vincent Price, Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor were among the famous names on passenger lists. (I recall Vincent Price sending postcards to Lucille Ball and Red Skelton.)
For the crew, the hours were strict (seven days a week for up to a year at a time) and the passengers were demanding. But the opportunity to experience the world was priceless. With as many as 30 nationalities living together in minimal quarters, the crew became a solid family. We worked, played and celebrated together. We supported one another, and observed each other’s customs and holidays. The fact that all of us were far from home created an unbreakable bond.
Wherever we were in the world, the ports might be ancient, modern, urban, remote, breathtaking, dirty, bustling or serene, but all were fascinating. Still, however much fun we’d had ashore during our free time, the most beautiful sight of all was rounding a bend or cresting a hilltop (always in a dusty, dented taxi) to see our magnificent ship awaiting us in the harbor. Home.
I was privileged to enjoy four years as a purser assistant aboard Royal Viking Star. (Romance alert: Ultimately, an English dining room waiter and I became engaged and decided to return to my home city of Seattle to begin married life. After we married, I worked in the headquarters of Holland America Line, but therein lies another story for another time.)
Just as I vividly remember that phone call from Arne Baekkelund on a Tuesday morning, I remember with equal clarity standing at the railing of Hong Kong’s Ocean Terminal, waving goodbye to Royal Viking Star as she sailed away. I looked forward to the next chapter of my life, but, at the same time, my heart was heavy as I bid a final, tearful bon voyage to my most beautiful ship. My dream come true.
At home in Seattle that summer, as I prepared for our August wedding, I enjoyed a unique opportunity. I was invited to lead travel agent tours aboard Royal Viking Star each Saturday as she docked in Vancouver during the Alaska season. Escorting groups of agents, educating them on the layout and amenities, and entertaining them with tidbits of crew life, I had such fun bragging about and showing off my ship to industry professionals.
Throughout my travel career, I’ve been fortunate to hold many wonderful jobs with outstanding companies. But none compare to the years I spent living my dream aboard a bright white cruise ship. I’m forever so very proud to have been part of Royal Viking Line.
Royal Viking Line ceased operations many years ago and, over the years, the ships of the fleet have passed through different corporate hands. Royal Viking Star is currently Black Watch, operated by Fred.Olsen Cruises, headquartered in England.
In honor of the Star’s 40th anniversary, I, along with a group of fellow former crew members, booked a three-night cruise sailing from Southampton. While I knew the ship would have aged (who of us hasn’t?) and might look weathered (don’t we all?), I counted the days until this experience. Would the smell (fuel/fresh flowers/furniture polish) be the same? Would the same little nooks and crannies be there? What would the purser’s office look like? Would we be able to visit the crew quarters on A Deck? (Citing security reasons, Fred.Olsen couldn’t approve this request, but we were determined to appeal to shipboard management for visitation privileges of this off-limits area). Our Royal Viking Line Veterans voyage was scheduled to depart on Saturday, May 4, 2013.
I was set to depart Seattle for London, then continue by motor coach to the postcard-pretty Cotswolds, where dear friends, and former crew members, are the proprieters of a bustling tea shop in the village of Minchinhampton. I was very much looking forward to spending the day and evening with them, then traveling together to join the ship.
Those plans went down the toilet, literally, when my departure from Seattle was delayed for five hours because of a leaking toilet valve aboard the plane. Frustration set in as the hours ticked by and we sat on the tarmac. As a result, I missed my connection, resulting in an overnight in Newark, then missed my motor coach, resulting in an overnight at Heathrow. Oh, and my luggage failed to arrive either night.
Sigh . . .
During my overnight at Heathrow and through the magic of Facebook, I connected with two Austrian friends who were arriving at Heathrow and hiring a minivan to transfer to Southampton. I hitched a ride with them (thankfully, my luggage arrived within moments of our departure) and, at last, we set off through a drizzly Saturday morning toward our beloved ship.
Upon arrival at the Southampton pier, we eagerly pressed our faces against the van windows to get our first glimpse. Soon a ship came into view, but it was Royal Caribbean’s Independence of the Seas so we advised our driver to keep going. We continued for quite a distance, past huge containers and other dockside machinery and buildings. Suddenly, there she was.
For me, the initial sight of an unfamiliar logo on the smokestack was unsettling. The distinctive Royal Viking Line “sea eagle” logo was magestic and iconic, and the Fred.Olsen logo startled me. Also, seeing Black Watch prominently displayed high up on Bridge Deck, on the bow and at the stern made me catch my breath. But the sleek lines, traditional shape and lovely silhouette were instantly recognizable. We had arrived at Royal Viking Star! Thirty years after most of us bid her goodbye, we had returned to our grand, gorgeous girl. It warmed our hearts, like reuniting with a wonderful loved one.
After an efficient embarkation and security formalities, we waited in the pier lobby as friends arrived and the greetings took place. It was a thrill to see familiar faces—some gray hair here, a little softer in the middle there—but the greetings were warm and genunine. I was the only American in this group (there was only a handful of American crew members when I sailed) that consisted of Australian, Austrian, Dutch, English, German, Norwegian and Swedish. Departments represented included the purser’s office, the dining room, the lounges, provisions, the casino and housekeeping. As we hugged and laughed and met again as middleagers, it was like no time had passed.
Soon we made our way up the gangway and aboard ship. A first glance showed an all-Filipino crew who, in their incomparable way, welcomed us graciously and directed us to our cabins with engaging smiles. Just beyond the gangway entrance, there was the midship staircase that hadn’t changed. The feeling of the foyers and the corridors was the same. The carpets and paint were different, of course, but the overall ambiance was instantly familiar.
I located my cabin amid constant friendly hellos and offers of assistance from the crew. Respecting their reserved professionalism, I did not ask their personal feelings of their ship. But I had to wonder: To them, was it simply a job or did they possess the same deep emotions of pride, possessiveness and love of this ship? I’ll never know, but I can attest to their exemplary service throughout our voyage.
I entered my cabin and was delighted with the cheery spotlessness, the two portholes offering a prime view, the queen-size bed, the ample closet space with security drawer and the roomy bathroom. I had everything I needed for a comfortable stay. I stashed my bag and made my way up to join the others.
We met on the aft deck, outside the Lido Lounge and just above the pool. As we awaited departure, we ordered drinks, clinked glasses, caught up and chattered at once. Our group grew until all 30 of us had shifted tables and chairs to sit together. We made a loud, laughing, boisterous bunch, causing stares from other passengers. I hoped we wouldn’t disturb them too much during the next three days.
Soon, the familiar rumble of the ship’s engines vibrated under our feet. How well we remembered that sound and feeling as we prepared to set sail. As we laughed and talked, one of our group suggested we sing our traditional sail-away song. In our day, each time the ship sailed, The Royal Viking Star Waltz was played over speakers on all decks and throughout the ship. Now we sang together with gusto, “. . . We have left the world on the shore, that’s what paradise boats are for. She’s a lovely sight, o’er the waves so bright, like a royal swan she’s gliding.We’ll be all aboard going far, on the Royal Viking Star.” Our performance caught the ear of the gracious Black Watch captain, Åge Danielsen, who found a recording on the Internet and played it each time we sailed during our short cruise. Our hearts melted every time we heard the nostalgic tune.
That evening we gathered in a lounge for our welcome aboard party. Captain Danielsen and Hotel Manager Peter Reeves were in attendance, cocktails and hors d’oeuvres were served, and a magnifcient ice sculpture, bearing the Royal Viking Line logo, dominated the room. Later at dinner (Black Watch still has a single dining room with two seatings; our group ate at second seating) we enjoyed delicious cuisine and superb service. The festivities continued as we watched the show in the Braemar Lounge, and then carried on with drinks and dancing until the wee hours.
As crew, we were only allowed in passenger areas while on duty. Off duty, we were only allowed to attend passenger activities with special permission from our supervisor. And if such permission was granted, we had to be in uniform at all times. Thirty years later, it was a joy to eat, drink, dance and be merry to our heart’s content!
The next two days were a blur of scenic ports (St. Peter Port, Guernsey, and Boulogne Ser-Mer, France); joyous spring sunshine and fresh ocean breezes; time spent on deck at our permanently pushed-together tables; and getting reacquainted with the layout of the ship (the shop and shore excursions office had moved, but not far, and most other features were just the same, including my beloved Reception).
A highlight occurred when Captain Danielsen invited us to tour A Deck and the Bridge. The Bridge of any ship is always an impressive place to visit, and Black Watch is outfitted with state-of-the-art equipment.
The thrill of thrills came when we visited A Deck. We met at Reception and followed Hotel Manager Reeves to Deck 3 and then through the nondescript door that lead to A Deck. When we realized that the same entrace still was used, we shouted “THE DOOR!” That brown, practically unnoticeable door separated our world and our home from the working world of the passengers. It was especially symbolic to us, and to pass through it again was almost magical. We continued down to A Deck where we were surprised by very few changes. The low ceilings and fire doors connecting gleaming corridors were still functional and utilitarian. We were shown some upgrades in select cabins, such as a toilet and a shower that had been added to the tiny space. What a luxury! In our day, crew cabins contained only a small sink and narrow bunk beds (bathrooms were communal). We continued to the crew mess, the cafeteria-style dining room where the crew took their meals. Here we noted some nice perks, including a flat screen TV, video games and a Pepsi machine! We toured the laundry, the uniform room and the galley. We oohed, aahed and reminised our way through each of these behind-the-scenes places.
All too quickly Black Watch arrived at Harwich, England, our disembarkation port. A private motor coach waited to take those of us with flights to Heathrow and the others back to Southampton. Amid hugs, tears and vows to do it again, we parted ways to return to our everyday lives.
Just like that March day in 1984 at Ocean Terminal, and again with misty eyes, I waved goodbye to my beautiful ship. But this time I knew that it wasn’t forever; only until next time.
My time aboard Black Watch with dear friends was a fun-filled, heartfelt trip down memory lane that exceeded my expectations. Such good people. Such a lovely ship. So lucky was I to have lived it once and then be given the opportunity to visit again.
Thinking back on Saturday nights enchanted by The Love Boat, I’m forever grateful to a lighthearted TV series that set me on the path toward my lifelong career and proved, positively, that dreams do come true.