Life at Sea – A Dispatch from the National Geographic Explorer

by Jacob on April 15, 2012

One of the interesting parts of this journey has been learning about the traditions and customs of life at sea. Most of the crew on the National Geographic Explorer spend much of the year on board, and often come from parts of the world where the seafaring lifestyle is a part of their heritage.

The hardest working people on board are the crew, who are mostly from the Philippines. As it turns out, the Philippines is renowned in the passenger ship industry as a source for labor and there are numerous agencies that specialize in contracting Filipinos for work on cruise ships. These are the people that handle much of the service on board, from waiting tables, cleaning rooms and washing clothes, as well as just keeping the ship in top shape from bow to stern.

I’ve enjoyed spending time with the crew, both in the public sphere where they are on their best behavior in front of the passengers and in the crew mess, their private space where they can let their hair down and relax. The crew mess is in the underbelly of the ship, whose floors are stratified in a metaphoric representation of class: the passengers reside on the upper floors, the staff (people like me) on the middle floors and the crew at the very bottom.

A few nights into my voyage I was invited to come to the crew mess for a birthday party for one of the crew members. The mess, a combination of dining hall and lounge, was darkened, lit only be a few florescent lights and a laser light machine that splattered multicolored disco lights on the walls. A large TV screen in the corner was projecting strip-tease karaoke, in which scantily clad women dance in lingerie behind song lyrics in both Tagalog (the Filipino language) and English.

Filipinos, it turns out, love karaoke. It’s quite an experience to see some of the soft-spoken sea dogs who have barely spoken a word on board singing old ABBA songs. I figured the best way to fit in was to join along, so after a few shots of rum I found myself grabbing a mike and joining one of the female crew members in a duet, singing the Tagalog song “Beer” (clearly it didn’t mean “beer” in English) which apparently was originally by a Filipino band called The Itchyworms. The Filipinos didn’t seem too impressed with my Tagalog, although they don’t really rant and cheer when anyone sings so maybe I shouldn’t be concerned.

On the dining tables were all kinds of bizarre Filipino sauces and pastes, none of which ever make it up to the main dining hall, although I really wish they would. Besides some of the bottled hot sauces, soy sauces and fish sauces that I have seen on occasion in Asian import stores were a selection of home made salty fish pastes, ground shrimp sauces and a greyish-black sludge made from mussels, garlic, salt and water. All of these pastes smelled horrible, like concentrated rotten fish…even my fingers smelled for a while just from touching the bottle. But of course, the crew was intrigued by my interest, and soon they were feeding me spoonfuls of the brackish mussel mix, which tasted slimy, salty and fishy. A few days later, I tried some of the shrimp paste on rice, which was their recommendation, and I must say I loved it. I’ll have to get the recipe.

Soon, the music got louder and tables were moved to make a dance floor. It turns out Shakira, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and The Black Eyed Peas are staples in the Philippines as well, and soon I was joining other staff and crew as we danced, drank and basically enjoyed ourselves. The song “Waka Waka (This Time for Africa)” was a big hit, and I wondered if any of them realized that Freshlyground, who participated on the song, performed for the ship just a few days earlier in Cape Town. I can imagine that the crew doesn’t get many opportunities to act wild, and on the upper floors they are amazingly quiet and polite. Down here, they could let their hair down, enjoy their own activities and food and be themselves. I was happy to be invited into their world for a while.

Another cultural group on board are Swedes. The ship’s first mate, engineer and chef are all Swedish, and apparently Sweden is also a common source for the seafaring community (although they tend to hold higher positions). The chef, Stina Hansson, has done an amazing job, with the support of the Galley crew, in feeding the ship amazing meals of consistent quality. While I’ll admit to being disappointed not to have more African food, I can’t complain about her meals which have been lovingly prepared with excellent ingredients and presentation.

Today, she prepared a Swedish lunch with a variety of pickled herrings, smoked salmon with mustard sauce, smoked reindeer, Swedish meatballs and ample shots of Aquavit. A week or so ago, she let the Galley crew prepare a Filipino meal – I begged one of the wait crew to bring me some of the homemade fish sauces from the crew mess, which I think he got a kick out of.

The other day the Explorer crossed the Equator, and I was introduced to a seafaring tradition that apparently is standard procedure for people who are crossing the Equator by ship for the first time (at least, that’s what they told me…what do I know?). The staff and crew dressed up as mermaids, pirates and sea gods and everyone on board was called to the rear sun deck. After a grand speech by Neptune, first-time Equator crossers (myself included) were forced to drink a salty concoction seemed to be a mix of alcohol and seawater. Then one by one we were laid on a table where the ship’s doctor, dressed as a pirate, draped a sheet over us and pretended to cut open our bellies with his sword, pulling out sausages and other intestinal looking organs. Then we were forced to kiss a dead fish, had spaghetti dropped on our faces and mayonnaise squirted in our hair and finally, a bucket of slimy, dirty seawater doused all over us.

Neptune and his Mermaid

Various seagods, mermaids, pirates, clowns and scallywags

Pirate Surgery

The "doctor" pulls out my intestines (spaghetti) and procedes to drop them on my face.

Apparently, this tradition goes back a long way, and Charles Darwin even wrote about it in his journals. I figured if Charles Darwin had seawater dumped on him the first time he crossed the equator by ship then I should consider in an honor. I humbly accepted the embarrassment and once the ceremony was over made my way down to my cabin, squishy shoes, slimy hair, wet underwear and all for a shower. I still smelled like fish for a while, though….!

The ship’s Captain, Oliver Kruess (pronounced like “Cruise” funnily enough), is a wonderful character as well. A consummate professional, dressed snappily in his captain’s attire and with a stiff-backed demeanor that exudes confidence, Captain Creuss also has a wicked and ribald sense of humor. During his occasional speeches to the passengers he never fails to say something that has us all laughing hysterically, while managing to get his important message across as well.

Captain Oliver Kruess

Captain Oliver Kruess

For example, the other day he was calming the passenger’s fears about piracy while explaining that having armed security on board as we passed through the Gulf of Guinea was a necessary precaution. He told of a common trick by the pirates in which a boat pulls up with a man and a woman in it who proceed to have sex in plain view. This, understandably, draws a great deal of attention from crew and passengers, and while they are distracted, another boat pulls up on the other side of the ship, boards it and takes control by force. He told us not to be too concerned about random fishing boats passing by, “if you see a fisherman passing by and he’s just poking his nose, don’t worry about it, but if he’s poking something else please come and let me know.”

Another great quote from Captain Creuss came when he was addressing complaints from some of the passengers about the Zodiac trips that were necessary when disembarking from the ship in ports where we couldn’t pull up to a dock. In those circumstances, the ship would drop anchor near shore and we would load in small groups onto Zodiacs, rubber speedboats, that would take us to shore. Personally, I found the Zodiac trips exciting, especially in Cameroon where we returned to the ship in the pitch dark with only a small flashlight to let other boats know where we were as to not crash into us. We traveled the choppy waves in the dark, the Explorer’s spotlight showing us which way to go. I thought it was great fun, but some of the older passengers had trouble getting in and out of the boats, which were often bouncing up and down pretty heavily in the waves.

“For those of you who were complaining about the Zodiacs,” commented the Captain seriously in his thick German accent, “I have just one word for you. You are pussies.” The lounge erupted into laughter, and it turned out to be the perfect way to stop the complaining and get people to just enjoy the adventure of it.

I’ll write more about the wonderful characters I’ve gotten to know on board later. The seafaring life definitely attracts some unique personalities.


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