I Work For...: The sum of a life at sea

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The Independent Culture
Sally Parkinson is the purser on the `marco polo' cruise ship and works for captain erik bjurstedt and hotel manager ian vellar

I used to be the branch manager of a building society, but the job began to get too stressful. I thought, "I don't need this", so for a complete change, I sent applications off to cruise lines. Over nine months later, I was invited to an interview with Orient Lines and before I knew it I was on the Marco Polo as Assistant Purser. Having never been on a cruise before, I hadn't a clue as to what it was going to be like. I didn't even know if I would suffer from seasickness. I certainly didn't expect to become this addicted to life at sea.

I'm glad that I am on a smaller ship, rather than on one of the huge cruise liners. We have about 520 passengers and 360 crew, and there's a strong family atmosphere on board. It's not at all like working on land, where people tend to be quite closed. I live in such a small, confined space, working and living with my colleagues on a daily basis, that I couldn't afford to have a personality clash with anyone, least of all with the Captain or the Hotel Manager.

Nevertheless, compared to most ships, the Marco Polo is very relaxed and informal. For example, when the Captain rings me up, he says "Hi, it's me", and the Hotel Manager is also ever so friendly. Although I respect the Captain, I don't feel like I have to bow down to him. He prefers to know his staff and really dislikes being left in the dark. If you are interested in the ship itself, he gets very enthusiastic and gives you an open invitation to the bridge. The passengers call him Captain Erik, which he prefers because no one can manage to pronounce his Norwegian surname.

I work from 8.30am through until lunch time and then I tend to take the afternoon off, coming back at 4.00pm to work through the evening. My duties include checking the passenger manifest, in other words who is coming on board, organising their visas and yellow fever certificates, and going through the passenger comment sheets at the end of the cruise with the Captain. I also do the Captain's filing. My work with the Hotel Manager usually involves working out which passenger to put in which cabin, and dealing with late embarkations.

We spend most of the day, as well as the evening, in one of our three uniforms. Even when we are in one of the ship's bars, we need to be appropriately dressed because we are still on duty. The pursers take it in turns to work on the front desk so that each of us can interact with the passengers. Luckily, I've always enjoyed working with the public and I like the wide range of people on board. We have one gentleman who we call our professional passenger because he is cruising with us for six months.

I sleep in a bunk bed and share my cabin with another purser. We are allowed to bring a few of our own luxuries like a duvet and a stereo on board with us. Some people feel cramped in a small space and begin craving their own homes, whereas it doesn't bother me. Weekends don't exist because we work every day. Sometimes I don't even know that it's Sunday, but funnily enough, one gets used to the seven-day week quite quickly. We have a crew bar downstairs and have the occasional party, but having a private life really isn't possible and none of the pursers have long-distance relationships because being at sea changes you. You also find out who your true friends are on land because they are the ones who keep in touch.

The contracts usually run for five months, with a month off before starting again. I have one stripe now, but I'm shortly going to be promoted to two. In my line of work, with my money management background, I can see myself eventually becoming first purser.

One day, I know that I will have to leave the ship, but I don't want to think about it right now. Settling on land might be alright, but once you have developed a passion for the sea, there's always a part of you that wants to be on a ship. Of course, it's a dangerously unreal environment in which to work in, and sometimes I have to pinch myself to remind myself of that.

I know that it would be traumatic if I had go back home and start having to pay the bills, cook my own meals and look after myself. I couldn't tell you what was going on in England at the moment, I really couldn't.

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