Cruise ship confessions: Sex, drugs, debauchery at sea

Cruise ship in the Carribean
Life working on board a cruise ship is far more debauched than people realize. (Getty)

*This story was first published in February 2017. It was one of our most popular stories for the year.*

OPINION: When I heard that a person on board a cruise ship near Dunedin had been killed on Thursday I immediately suspected that the unlucky person would be a Filipino deck-hand, working down in the lower decks.

Turns out my hunch, informed by my own experience from working on cruise ships for three years, was tragically correct.

The sombre intercom message to Emerald Princess passengers announcing there had been a death on board:

There's a clear-cut hierarchy on all cruise ships with regards to workers - staff and crew. 

The unfortunate Filipino man who died when a gas cylinder exploded would have been classed as crew. He would have been seldom seen by any passengers, and would have been confined to the lower decks at most times. His death in Dunedin is a tragedy for his family - and his colleagues.

During my time on a ship I discovered that the working relationship on a cruise ship is intense and in some cases your workmates become your family.

Life for crew in the lower decks can be mundane and downright dangerous.

On the other hand, workers classed as staff, those cruise ship workers who regularly engage with passengers as part of their job, have far more rights, and enjoy a more comfortable life on board. They can mix and mingle, and go wherever they like on the ship, for the most part.

So what really goes on aboard those mega-cruise ships that are continually floating around the world's oceans?

If you're a passenger, you spend the majority of your time eating, drinking and spending.

If you're a worker who is classed as staff, such as a purser, dancer, musician, hairdresser, casino dealer (or photographer such as I was) life on board offers far more exciting and debauched possibilities.

You may have heard tales of the sordid sex and drugs lifestyle that cruise ship workers partake in, and I can tell you from experience it is all that and more.

Two of my three years working on ships were spent in the Caribbean.

Staff and crew regularly smuggled marijuana and cocaine on board in huge quantities, especially when the ship stopped at Ocho Rios in Jamaica.

Everyone knew where to get some, and if you weren't partaking yourself, your cabin mate probably was.

My original cabin mate, a young man from England, was certainly a fan of cocaine - and would often have a line or two before each work session where we'd take studio-styled photos of mostly overweight American passengers in ill-fitting formal attire. 

He'd often head back to the cabin after a couple of hours to reinvigorate himself ahead of the next photo session.

His cocaine habit was eventually discovered by ship security, who were mostly ex-British Navy men just as debauched as the rest of the crew. You had to 'get on' with these gentlemen at your own peril. My cabin mate was kicked off the ship in Miami barely an hour later.

One of my jobs was dressing up as a pirate and running around the ship's massive twin restaurants and having my photo taken with every single passenger. That was more than 1000 photos a night! I was almost always blazing drunk.

Were cruise ship workers having lots of sex?

Think about this - you have hundreds of young people from different countries crammed into a boat taking drugs and drinking heavily, what do you think will happen?

It was rampant, and not just between staff. Passengers weren't allowed into staff quarters but plenty did find themselves below decks, especially attractive female passengers, and they were generally the guests of the Norwegian officers.

All the officers on board the ships I worked on were Norwegian. They held all the power - they were at the very top of the cruise ship totem pole.

Was it dangerous?

I had a few scares. One of my workmates tried to kill herself on an Atlantic crossing by taking a heap of sleeping pills. She was going out with my boss, the head photographer, at the time. If it wasn't for the fast actions of a nurse on board who was from Auckland - whom I had to wake up at 3am - she might well have died.

During a day-trip to a famous natural sea water pool on the island of Aruba I slipped off a rock face and fell 10 metres into the ocean below, barley missing some rocks by centimetres. I had a few cuts on my back but was otherwise unscathed.

It took me about 30 seconds to surface, and my workmates thought I was already dead.

During a drunken night out in the Russian city of St Petersburg I was held by corrupt police for a few hours and ended up having to buy them a few bottles a vodka to win my freedom. They even dropped me off at the port, where I got back on board the ship barely five minutes before it set sail.

On one occasion, the FBI searched every inch of the ship when it emerged an American passenger from a wealthy family had disappeared. Her body was never found. The investigators eventually concluded that her own brother had pushed her to her death from a top-deck cabin during an argument.

There are plenty of other sordid tales I could share, probably enough for a no-holds-barred novel, but suffice to say life on board was seldom boring.

Looking back, it was a good way to see over 50 different countries and get paid for it. That said, you worked bloody hard and could never escape the incestuous nature of on board life.

I'm hoping to never get on board a cruise ship again.