The Pros and Cons of Living and Working on a Ship

National Geographic Quest, Pacific Northwest

Where to begin??? Seriously, where to begin… Ship life is hard to put into words because it deviates so far from what most of us know and call a ‘normal’ life. A typical day does not include a 9-5 job followed by cocktail hour with coworkers and finished up with netflix, popcorn, and a glass of red wine. While sometimes I wish for the simplicity and regularity of that routine, a big reason I love working on the ships is precisely because it is so different from everyday, normal life. 

And while there are many pros working on a ship, not every day is all humpback whales and brown bears. Some days I just want to jump overboard. Below are a few highs and lows of living and working on a ship that I’ve discovered over the last decade:


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Pros:

  • Travel! Working on the ships allows me to travel all over the world both when I’m on board and when I’m between contracts. The locations I work on board include: Alaska, the Pacific Northwest Islands (San Juans and the Gulf), the Columbia River, Baja Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, Belize, and Honduras. When I’m not working on the ships, I often do some personal travel and go on super fun adventures. I’ve traveled through SE Asia from Thailand to Bali, done a 10 day bike tour through Ecuador, and swam with manatees in Florida, to list a few. Also, one of our job perks is seriously discounted trips on other Lindblad ships (amazing!). I’ve cruised around the Baltic States for two weeks on the Explorer and I’ve romped around the Galapagos on the Endeavor. I’m hoping my next adventure will be on the Orion in Antarctica! 

  • Fun and interesting people With most jobs, it’s usually the people, not the work, that keep you there. This is probably even more true for those of us who live and work on a ship because we’re around the same people for days, weeks, and even months at a time. Contracts on board can range from 2 weeks to 6 months for stewards and deckhands. But for the most part, the people on the ships (guests, crew, and staff) are all fantastic. Some trips gel better than others, but very rarely do I feel at odds with the people I work with. We also get to meet some pretty inspiring individuals. I’ve sailed with Michal Gorbachev in Poland, Sylvia Earle and Gil Grovsner in Baja, Chevy Chase in Alaska, and many, many other people who do important and inspiring work.

  • The job is never boring Even when I’ve done an itinerary 50 times, each trip is different and unique and we never know what the next day will bring. Whales, bears, dolphins, weather, rough seas, etc… can all change our plans in a second. Some people find this frustrating, but I personally love change and welcome these kinds of surprises. It keeps us on our toes!   

  • Save money Many of us who work on the ships don’t have a permanent home, so we can save a lot of money by not paying rent. Furthermore, when we’re on the ship all accommodations and food are provided for, so we virtually have no expenses when working. Off the ship we can live pretty simply (or not), so the opportunity to save is ample.

Panama, Granito de Oro

Cons:

  • Isolation from the outside world This has gotten better over the years, but ship life can be pretty isolating. We now have free whatsapp service on board that transmits texts through wifi and my AT&T paygo phone works in Canada and Mexico, but honestly sometimes it feels like I’m living in a bubble. Our only news source is a 6-page daily New York Times print out and we’re usually so busy that we don’t even get to read it. I often feel guilty that I’m so removed from the going ons in our world, especially this day in age. 

  • Low moral The moment I step on board I can feel whether crew moral is high or low. If it’s high, people are laughing and joking, making eye contact, saying hi to new comers, etc… if moral is low, people have their headphones in, gaze is straight ahead or down at the floor and they’re texting friends or family back at home rather than talking to one another. Obviously ship life is better when moral is high, but sometimes things happen and it’s not. It’s pretty miserable when moral is down in the tanks, especially when we all have to pretend that life is all humpbacks and brown bears around guests. 

  • Always “on” Our guests pay thousands of dollars for these trips and as such it’s our job to give them a trip of a lifetime. That may mean doing a massage after dinner (which I really try to avoid), grabbing an extra bath towel for a guest even if it isn’t our ‘job’, showing someone how to take an iPhone selfie for the 5th time, or catering to every dietary need no matter how strict. There’s little down time during the week and feeling like you’re always ‘on’ can be exhausting. That’s why we tend to have 2-4 weeks off after contracts to recharge and rest. 

  • Hard to build and maintain romantic relationships This is a big one. Ship life is not commodious to having a long-term boyfriend or girlfriend. Most people don’t want a partner who is off at sea for 6-8 months out of the year for obvious reasons. I do know friends who have made it work, but for the most part either the relationship fizzles out or the friend leaves ship life for love. Dating a shipmate isn’t a great option either. It can be messy, drama-infused, and not worth the hassle. Sometimes it does work out though, and we do have married couples on board. But I’m still holding out for tall, handsome, worldly traveler who’s lifestyle is a perfect match to my own ;) 

  • Juggling the logistics of a nomadic life Being a nomad - or at least someone who travels a good portion of the year - sounds glorious to a lot of people (just look at all the #vanlife-ers!), but in reality, it can be a real struggle. I’m constantly looking ahead to plan out where I’m going to be in a few months, how I need to pack, which flights I need to book, where I’m going to stay, whether I need a visa, etc… there are so many little details that need keeping track of and my brain often feels overwhelmed trying to keep up. Some days an apartment and 9-5 job sound pretty good. 

Sunset, Columbia River Oregon

So there you have it, a few pros and cons of living and working on a ship. This isn’t an exhaustive list by any means, there are many more points I could have added, but these are the big ones for me. And while some of the cons are pretty intense, the pros do usually win out.

What questions do you have about working on a ship? Would you give it a try?