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Laughs, dramas, and data from below the waterline. From author of national best-seller Cruise Confidential, Brian David Bruns.

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BrianDavidBruns
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Cruise ships are floating flaming death traps of incendiary Hell, according to the media lately. Since nobody has actually died during all these cruise ship fires, they’ve switched to reminding us that after all these cruise ship fires good people are left stranded in cabins full of feces. We cruisers know how absurd all that crap is (pardon the pun). But fire is indeed the greatest threat to safety on ships, now as it has always been. Allow me to share the extent of fire team training on ships: I was asked by the captain of Wind Surf to simulate a dead passenger in a shockingly real scenario....

Via the crew stairs the second officer escorted me deep into the forward bowels of Wind Surf. We passed all manner of hallways and storage areas I had not known existed. After a several twists and turns, Barney stepped into what was obviously once a crew bar. Now it hosted a raucous pile of tables, chairs, and rolling desks. “Lay down and play dead. Easy. Don’t freak when the lights go out. Things will get nasty, but you won’t be hurt.”

Seeing me raise my eyebrows, he explained further. “It’s a surprise fire drill made as realistic as possible. The fire team won’t know if anyone is below decks or not and will systematically search every room for unconscious victims. Don’t hide in the cupboard or anything because that’s not realistic, but staying in the back is better for the drill. What makes this drill more accurate is that you’re our first American.”

“Why does that matter?”

“The fire team only has experience hauling out other crew members, and they’re all Asian. In a real fire, a guest passed out from smoke inhalation won’t weigh ninety pounds. You weigh about two hundred pounds, so you’re helping us create a much more accurate scenario. When they come for you, don’t make it too easy for them. Be dead weight.”

I carefully picked my way through the detritus of the dead crew bar to become a dead crew member. Propping my back against a cupboard, I splayed my legs out. With a satisfied nod, he snapped off the lights.

Darkness swooped in, solid, tangible. This was not the absence of light, but the presence of a thing. Just a few minutes of such absolute black made even an egomaniac feel small. Not scared, but small, insignificant. This was not a place for living men, here, deep below the surface of the sea. I strained my hearing to pick up a sound, any sound, but there was none. Not even the slap of waves descended down here, in the pit where I lay. I fancied I was in a sensory deprivation tank, but for the sharp tang of back-bar alcohol and solvents stabbing my nose.

After an interminable time, my ears tickled with the muted call of the ship’s intercom announcing to passengers the impending fire drill. Don’t panic at the alarms, the muffled voice said. Don’t panic at the smoke. Smoke?

A minute later, another sense tickled. The air became chemically dense. The smell was not of smoke, but something equally unpleasant. I mulled over what it could be when I was scared out of my wits by the sudden alarm. Hearing the ship’s horn blasting the fire alarm was nothing new—I’d heard it every cruise for years—but hearing the alarm in my current situation was something else entirely. It was downright unnerving. Red emergency lighting snapped on, pushing back the black from below rather than above. Though dim, the illumination was sufficient to see the hallway outside. The red opening pulsated in a rapidly thickening haze.

Smoke curled into the chamber, first slow, soon robust. Tendrils of white crawled across the ragged carpet, claiming more and more of the room. Behind the vanguard was a supporting wall of swirling grey, gradually thickening until I could no longer clearly see out into the hallway. The red remained, somehow undefinable.

Very slowly did time tick, tick away. The simulated smoke became hard to breathe. Not only did the unceasing klaxon urge me to rush into the red, so did instinct. The sensation was so powerful my legs twitched, itching for action, escape. I had to consciously fight the urge, for I had been charged with death. After twenty minutes came a flicker of a different color. A beam of yellow wandered across the reddishness of escape, then left. Eventually it returned with a companion. Then both vanished. Disappointment flashed through me. They had had overlooked my room.

Yet a minute later the glow materialized two phantoms of black. Backlit by blazing red, each cut a dramatic figure in full-on fire gear, complete with oxygen tanks and full face masks. Thickened by heavy layers of fire retardant gear, they seemed to move in slow motion. Beams from handheld searchlights roamed the smoke-dense room, lighting across old, clustered junk. Revealed in streaks were fallen stacks of chairs and tables upended upon each other, cobwebs flashing. I felt exactly like I was watching a movie: the heroes had just discovered the killer’s creepy lair.

Then a beam of light fell across my legs. Another zeroed in. Two bulky forms pushed through the thickness directly towards me. Heavily gloved hands grabbed me by the shoulders to haul me bodily from the floor. I drooped and flopped as awkwardly as possible, feet dragging uselessly on the floor. Undeterred, they slung my arms over their shoulders and hauled me out from behind the bar. Between the deafening klaxons their respirators labored. Though much taller than my saviors, both men worked as a single unit to compensate. No words were exchanged. None were needed; both knew what the other was supposed to do.

Don’t think for a minute that cruise ships leave fire safety to waiters playing with fire hoses. The ordeal fire teams maintain as routine is most impressive. But then, to be honest, I always wanted to be a fireman. They’re totally badass.

Brian David Bruns

Author of national bestselling Cruise Confidential

www.cruiselit.com

BrianDavidBruns
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Most cruise ships restrict access to the bridge. In this post-9/11 world, you don't want just anyone traipsing up there and playing with the controls. One would think such restrictions equate a higher level of on-sight security and maybe, just maybe, a higher level of discipline and professionalism. I'm happy to relate that such is not always the case. My first visit to a ship's bridge in an official capacity revealed an entirely different scene than I had predicted. I was ordered to report to the bridge within minutes of signing on as art auctioneer aboard the Wind Surf. As usual, crew and staff are on their own to find such areas.

Luckily the search for Wind Surf’s bridge did not take long. With only three decks of public space, and one clearly labeled Bridge Deck, even as useless a crew member as an art auctioneer could find it proficiently. I approached from an outside deck, nerves growing more taut by the minute. Gathering sign-on paperwork seemed far too trivial a task to be bothering bridge officers. Small ship or not, these men were responsible for the very lives of hundreds of people. Squinting against the glare, I stepped through the wide, open doorway.

The bridge was a long, wide chamber extending the length of Wind Surf’s beam, excluding the outside walkway and bridge wings. To the fore was an entire wall of glass stretching above an entire wall of electronics. The panels were only sparsely populated with gauges and buttons, reminding me of the low-budget bridge set from the original Star Trek. The computers the ship was originally designed around used to fill all those banks, but now could probably fit into an iPhone. The back of the room was uneven with nooks for reading paper charts, if officers were so inclined, and racks of clipboards and duty rosters and maintenance schedules and such. Overall, the bridge was spacious and bright, clean and airy. There was only one man inside. He wore officer’s deck whites, which on the Surf meant a white dress shirt with epaulets over white shorts.

And he had a guitar.

The officer sat upon a stool with his feet propped onto the electronics. He hunched forward and gazed down at his acoustic guitar. Forehead creasing above Oakley sunglasses, he concentrated on placing his fingers properly upon the strings. I stepped up to introduce myself when he suddenly threw his head back and belted out song.

“SHOT THROUGH THE HEART!—AND YOU’RE TO BLAME—darlin’ you give lo-ove... a bad name!”

His guitar thrummed into the opening riff of the Bon Jovi classic. The sound filled the chamber beautifully. I stood there, immobile and listening, astounded the song continued beyond the opening. After several long minutes a slight, handsome man in a stained boiler suit entered from the opposite entrance. He stepped up behind the singer, gave me a smile, and listened along for a moment. Finally he tapped the officer on the shoulder.

The bridge officer, whose name tag read ‘BARNEY’, ceased playing immediately. Barney did not rise, however, but merely craned his head back to look upside-down at his visitor. “We’re done painting the rails,” the newcomer said. “I’ll be in the engine room.”

“Aye aye,” said Barney, even as the other man departed. Then, surprising me even more, Barney informed me, "That was the chief officer."

No, Wind Surf was not like most ships! Good thing she was in port at the time.

www.BrianDavidBruns.com

Bestselling author of the Cruise Confidential series.

BrianDavidBruns
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I swear I'm not turning morbid. I am, however, turning 40. Maybe that's why this and my last post are a bit on the 'end of life' side. Here's a selection from my new book, Cruise a la Carte.

***

“I saw a ghost.”

“Mm hmm,” I replied.

“Really, mate!” Rick insisted.

I looked up from my magazine, waiting casually for the flood of profanity sure to follow. I need not wait long.

“A bloody, f@*#ing goddamn ghost!” he continued. His brow furrowed deeply and he stared at the galley deck. I was about to mock him, but chose instead to bite my tongue. Rick was shaking his head slowly back and forth, eyes staring at the floor… staring at nothing. With all those curls piled so high on his head, he reminded me of a fuzzy cat watching a tennis match on television. He was truly distraught. It was very late—I was only in the galley because my evening art auction ran exceptionally late—but I sensed he was too agitated to retire.

“You’re serious?” I said.

It wasn’t really a question. Of course he was serious. Rick was serious about everything that didn’t matter. Had this been an issue of business, safety, or protocol—not that the latter matters too much—Rick would have been flighty and distant, if not downright disdainful. But things that implied secrets, cover-ups, conspiracies, and knowledge beyond the ken of man? Oh, Rick was serious about those, all right.

“I’m not biting,” I replied, returning to my magazine.

“I really did,” Rick mumbled quietly.

Quietly? Rick was never quiet. Even when he was performing a massage—he was the spa manager—he wouldn’t shut up. Made a babbler like me seem mute. Now I was paying attention. Rick continued to stare at the floor, back and forth, back and forth.

“I saw it last night, too,” Rick continued. “But I wasn’t sure. I’d been hearing stories from Natalie for weeks, but blew them off. She drinks too much…”—he ignored my snort of derision—“…but then Claudia said she saw something, too. And now I have.”

“In the spa?” I asked, now intrigued. The spa was deep in the bowels of Wind Surf, down near the waterline, back near the marina. At night it was a very quiet, very lonely place. Strange that such a small ship utilizing every cubic inch had locations that felt… well, abandoned. Everything was clean and tidy, of course, but I’d always felt that hallway to be somehow… different.

“I’ve noticed things moving behind the desk a lot,” Rick said. “Hard to tell when bloody f@*#in’ staplers move on their own when you have four employees, though. But you know the melon slices we keep in the urn of drinking water? I heard a gurgle or something and looked up in their direction. In the blink of an eye—in the blink of a bloody eye—they vanished! Then—splat! Right in front of me, right in the middle of the desk, the melons reappeared. Soaked all my paperwork and everything. Bloody f@*#in’ weird, if you ask me. But even that wasn’t enough to convince me the spa was haunted. Not ’til now.

“I was doing paperwork. It was about midnight. A bloody f@*#in’ guest walked right past me. I saw her clearly as she passed. Middle-aged, long brown hair, and a T-shirt that made her look chunky. I told her we’re closed for the night, but she just walked through the spa and into Natalie’s massage room. I followed right behind her, calling out. I was angry, actually, because I’ve had a bad time with stupid passengers complaining all bloody f@*#in’ day. I was going to give this lady a piece of my mind. When I got to Natalie’s room I flipped the light switch on… and nobody was there!”

Rick was clearly shaken. While he and I had had some pretty knock-down, drag-out fights about whether or not UFO’s were parked in the center of the Earth—coming and going through the holes at the north and south poles, Rick insisted—I sensed he was genuinely scared. This, from a former Australian special forces operative who’d been in the middle of genocidal atrocities in East Timor.

In fact, Wind Surf had more resident ghosts than merely in the spa. The cruise director and shore excursion manager both swore they’d seen an apparition floating in the hallway outside the purser’s office, mid-ship. The specter was a shadowy, yet overt, outline of a man from the waist-up. Both knew instinctively it was male, though no features could be seen on the hazy head. Both had offices with doors open to the haunted hall. Several times while doing paperwork in their respective offices on different occasions—though always late at night—they had sensed someone approaching their office. Looking up and out into the hall, they’d be shocked to see only half a man. Once spotted, the unbidden guest always faded back into the dark.

Not so with the purser, however. The Filipina had run to her office to retrieve copy paper for a busy purser’s desk. It was in the middle of the afternoon, sunlight streaming through her office window to flood the hall. Arms laden with said reams, she rushed out of the office and ran smack-dab into the phantom.

She shrieked, at first thinking she had accidentally run into a crewman. But it wasn’t a crewman—or at least none from the present. A caucasian man of average height regarded her skeptically… then vanished in a blink. The whole scenario happened so fast that, when pressed by the others, she couldn’t answer if she had seen his legs or not.

“But he seemed quite real, quite solid,” she stated resolutely. “I looked into his eyes. I saw surprise and something else… a sense of hopelessness. Though it was sunny in the hall, it felt very gloomy, very sad.”

Brian David Bruns

For more tales like this, be sure to check out my new book Cruise a la Carte. You can't go wrong, it's only three bucks!

http://brev.is/TRG5

BrianDavidBruns
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When you, dear passenger, step off the gangway for the last time, you are filled with a despondency that is barely tempered by the memories of good times. Why, oh why, you lament, does the cruise have to end? Ah, but it doesn’t have to end! Now you can book a cruise that is the last you’ll ever need to arrange. For you, the cruise will never, ever end. Indeed, it’s for eternity. Cool, huh? Not really. You’ll be dead.

My Final Cruise specializes in arranging details for those who have ‘moved on’ into the sea from cruise ships. Their website is most interesting reading.

Now, you will not be trussed in an old sail—the final stitch poked through your nose to ensure that you are, in fact, dead—and dumped overboard, where your body will sink slowly the long, long way down to the muddy ocean floor, there to be picked apart by large white crabs and other such detritus-eaters. Nope, none of that good stuff. You’re not a pirate, after all. You’ll be cremated long before any of that. My Final Cruise offers a selection of biodegradable urns, which is required by the International Maritime Organization. Prices range from $149 to $324 apiece, depending on your preferred style. After the ashes have been dropped overboard – which must be done outside of the 12-nautical mile limit – these special urns guarantee that the ashes will be dispersed in an environmentally friendly fashion, and that none of the ashes will wash up on the shore. Don’t want to traumatize any swimmers, now.

The company sells receptacles pre-approved by the necessary bodies—pardon the pun—so you don’t violate the strict oceanic policies regarding what can and cannot go overboard. The ‘scallop shell’ urn comes in three colors and costs $324.95. For cheap people such as myself, the simple ‘locker’ comes in six shades and costs an easy-on-the-funeral-budget $149.95. Of course, you have to book an actual cruise, so that’s gonna run up the final cost. You’ll probably save a lot on flowers, though, assuming you don’t buy any on board. Most cruise lines will allow such crematory activity, but must be notified beforehand. This is not something you want to pop on the captain during a champagne meet and greet. My Final Cruise can book the entire cruise for you, via an affiliate cruise agent, so you don’t have to mess with such pesky details. They can also arrange commemorative touches onboard, like a post-ceremony repast. Thus all you have to worry about is packing extra formal wear. The time of the ceremony depends on where the ship is—gotta be outside 12 nautical miles and, thusly, in international waters—and weather conditions. Under ideal circumstances, they say, it takes about seven minutes for the urn to sink.

The exact location where your ashes will be dropped is recorded in the site's database of funereal sites at sea. Via Google Earth, anybody can, uh, appreciate the location. The choice is yours whether to post a public obituary or just a simple ‘X marks the spot’. As of 2012, the site only has two marked locations, one between South Carolina and Bermuda and another just north of Saint Martin. In fact, neither marker represents a real burial at sea site yet; they are merely samples. But the company hopes to be seeing lots of dead people in their world map soon. Don’t we all.

Because of the waveblazing manner of their business, My Final Cruise has had to feel their way around a little bit. They had to brainstorm worst-case scenarios—wouldn’t that be fun?—to build a solid reputation in a sensitive new industry.

“We don’t want deaths being staged as part of a stag party or something,” explains Abbie Sturdley of My Final Cruise. The company requires customers to provide them a death certificate, even though only the Bermuda Maritime Administration actually requires one. Strudley says attempts to partner with cruise lines, which they initially pushed for, were unsuccessful. “Because it’s a sad occasion, lines don’t really want to associate with it,” she says. Still, as global environmental agencies tighten policies, she hopes that lines will start referring potential ash spreaders to My Final Cruise. Hope springs eternal!

BrianDavidBruns
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Hello all! I'm not dead. I promise. I greatly appreciate the inquiries about where I've gone. I've been insanely busy with preparation for my new book, Rumble Yell. This will be released this summer, but before that there is a big ol' project that I'm launching with Kickstarter to get it into my fan's lovingly greedy little hands sooner. So with all necessary apologies for this blog not being about ships, I would like to share with you an adventure I had, which led to surely my funniest book.

Rumble Yell: Discovering America's Biggest Bike Ride.

1 week. 115 degrees. 500 miles. 15,000 riders.

One very important lesson.

RUMBLE YELL is the hilarious new book about RAGBRAI®. Finally enthusiasts, armchair cyclists, and adventure widows can live the full experience. No sweat. No lube. Just laughs.

The rollicking, true story of two men rekindling an old friendship after twenty years. Foolishly, they choose to reconnect over a hometown tradition that just happens to be the world’s biggest bike ride. 500 miles of biking during the hottest week of the year—humidity 100%, bugs 1000%—seemed like the ideal way to ‘get to know you’ again. Their plans are waylaid by a last-minute addition: an outrageous, mysterious sailor named Cheek. His presence is not only intrusive, but utterly disastrous.

The Kickstarter project has a video you'll want to see. It also features exclusive bonuses, so if you're interested in learning something new and intriguing (and want a good laugh), please support the project. Link's below:

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1204685839/rumble-yell-discovering-americas-biggest-bike-ride

BrianDavidBruns
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Funny how nobody wants to hear my wisdom gained from years working at sea. No, the biggest response I’ve gotten was from my most embarrassing moment! Being blackmailed into performing a strip-tease was indeed embarrassing, though assuaged by a kiss from a pretty lady. The following moment, however, was embarrassing front-to-back. It involved singing.

I had only been aboard as a manager-in-training a very short time when Legend scored a mighty 98 out of 100 on its USPH health inspection. This was nearly impossible for a ship several years old for, just like driving a new car off the lot slashes value, smashing a champagne bottle on the bow loses an entire, crucial USPH point. Carnival was justifiably proud with the rating and spared no expense on a party rewarding the hard-working crew. Because this was a repositioning cruise with no guests aboard, the party was extra special. Most of the crew attended.

I knew almost nobody of the hundreds in attendance in the dining room. I sat at a table near the front with mostly managers and a waitress-friend named Juci. The biggest man in the room sat across from me: Kevin, the Food & Beverage Manager. The ship’s maitre D’, an Englishman named Ian, took up the wireless microphone to open the party. He spoke a few words into the mic, but it wasn’t working. He tried again, rapping it lightly against the table.

“Duman!” he snapped to his assistant maitre D’. “Your incessant babbling burnt out the batteries!”

Duman grinned mischievously, and laughter filled the dining room. His babbling was legendary. Ian threw him the mic and demanded sarcastically, “You got any double D’s?”

“No, more like Cs, eh Juicy?” Duman answered playfully, giving the petite Juci a squeeze.

“No tit jokes, please,” Ian chided with a strained look.

“I have some batteries in my cabin,” I offered, then rushed off to complete the errand, happy to be of service.

When I returned to the party, people were already drunk. The habit of getting as drunk as possible in as little time as possible at crew parties took its toll. Kevin, to everyone’s astonishment, had brought out a guitar and played a virtuoso Spanish guitar song. Then Ian again tried to address the crowd. Unlike Duman, Ian was a man of few words. With great fanfare he cut his speech short in favor of music. There was an awkward moment, however, when no music followed.

“Duman! You blew out the goddamn speakers, too?” he demanded. “All right, Brian. In for a penny, in for a pound.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“You want to be management? How will you handle this situation? There’s no music and this crew deserves some entertainment!”

“What do you want me to do?” I protested. “Recite Shakespearean sonnet?”

“You do that and I guarantee you a full-stripe promotion.”

Fancying myself a well-read lad, I hastily rose to call his bluff. Ian laughed, then clarified, “Kevin played guitar. I gave a speech. Lutfi is charming as a toad, and Duman isn’t touching the mic ever again. That leaves you.”

Reluctantly I took the microphone, not really knowing what to do. I stood up and looked over the crowd of hundreds of strangers.

“Um, all right,” I said. “I want all the Filipinos to stand up.”

There was a pause while everyone tried to figure out if I was serious or not. Finally about two dozen men stood up. “This is your moment of glory! Who wants to prove he is the king of karaoke by singing a capella—that is without music—in front of half the ship?”

“After you!” the crowd howled.

“Just a Gigolo!” Juci shrieked, receiving many cheers. This was not good.

I looked to Ian pleadingly, but he just shrugged.

With great ceremony I downed a beer, then reached over and downed Ian’s to the roaring approval of the audience. With as much over-the-top showmanship as I could muster, I sang my best David Lee Roth. Badly. I strutted during the opening, I pleaded during the refrain, and nearly even ripped my shirt off. The problem was that halfway through the song, I forgot the words. I stopped abruptly, panting, stupid. No music. Only a quiet, waiting crowd. I swear I heard crickets chirp from somewhere.

“Indeed!” Ian said approvingly, slapping me on the back. “If the crew didn’t know you before, they sure as Hell do now!”

Go on, tell us your most embarrassing cruise moments. I dare you!

By Brian David Bruns, author of national best-seller Cruise Confidential.

Pics of the people and places I blog about are on my website and FB pages, join me!

www.BrianDavidBruns.com

https://www.facebook.com/BrianDavidBruns

BrianDavidBruns
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People can be annoying. When on vacation—especially on a cruise ship—they can be even more annoying. Perhaps some people figure anonymity makes rude behavior OK. Perhaps some people are just so relaxed, or so centered on their hard-earned focus on self, they let little things slide. Perhaps some people are just assholes. (just being honest)

Sometimes guests misbehaving is small. The most annoying thing I recall from my four years working on cruise ships was quite small. I think that’s why it grated me so much: sometimes a surprise, light strike hurts worse than a heavy blow (ask any man who’s been hit below the belt). As an auctioneer, I had arranged my desk top with all manner of flyers, pamphlets, and books. I got it all ship-shape, as they say, arranging stacks to perfection. The task took only about five minutes but made me feel comfortable and organized, ready for action. The first lady that walked up plunked her gargantuan bag right atop the desk with so much force that books tumbled to the floor and papers scattered into every corner of the corridor. She wanted directions to the gangway. How rude!

Some guest misbehavior is just opportunistic. Again as an art auctioneer, I was targeted me for freebies. A power cord taped to the deck had come partially loose near the wall. A little old Asian lady made a bee-line for the far side of the corridor and ‘tripped’. That is, she had a misstep, because she only pretended to trip. After ensuring she was fine, apologizing, and fixing it, I thought the matter closed. That night—at 11PM I might add—I was called into the hotel director’s office. There waited the little old Asian lady and her daughter, intent on suing the cruise line for being racist. The hotel director had pointed out how absurd that was—60 nationalities worked together on that very ship—so she instead tried to sue me personally. Using her daughter to translate (though she had earlier spoken clear English to me), she claimed that had she been white, I would have treated her better. Via daughter-translator, she called me a racist to my face. I usually laugh off verbal barbs, but that time I was not amused. I went off on her, much to the chagrin of the hotel director. During my yelling rant, I pointed out that I had dated an Asian woman. All charges were dropped.

Some guest misbehavior is so egregious that it spawns nothing short of hatred. As a waiter, one particular family was so over-the-top gluttonous and selfish that my poor assistant literally had an emotional breakdown in the dining room. It was the most awful thing I’d ever seen in my life. Perhaps I’ll devote a blog to that nightmare, if I could but encapsulate the magnitude of it all in under 700 words. Impossible.

Whatever the reason for guest misbehavior, it’s usually best to not let it bring you down, whether cruising as passenger or crew. Because, when official policy is stirred, the finger of blame can point into some downright shocking directions. Take the tragedy of the Costa Concordia, for example. While this misbehavior was entirely and utterly the fault of the idiotic and indefensibly cowardly Captain Schettino, his boss doesn’t see it that way. Carnival Cruise Lines specifically blamed passengers for the internal damages to the Costa Concordia.

That’s right, when Costa Concordia capsized off the coast of Giglio in Italy, taking 32 victims, Carnival Corporation blamed ship damages on passengers, NOT the untold thousands of gallons of seawater brought on from recklessly colliding with rocks. When aggrieved passengers, relatives of the deceased, and crew-members filed a lawsuit against the company, they shot right back. Specifically, court documents filed by Carnival Cruises state: "travelers' negligent or careless behavior were between the causes, if not the only cause, of the alleged injuries and damages."

By Brian David Bruns, author of national best-seller Cruise Confidential.

Pics of the people and places I blog about are on my website and FB pages, join me!

www.BrianDavidBruns.com

https://www.facebook.com/BrianDavidBruns

BrianDavidBruns
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The Carnival Triumph safely returned to port after an ordeal at sea. I’m happy to say that, during the intense media coverage on CNN and other networks—which I was corralled into—passengers unanimously praised the tireless hard work and positive attitude of the crew. There were many horror stories about poor sanitation on the crippled ship. Alas, these are not always relegated to disaster. Allow me to share a particularly gross ship I worked on for months. We crew endure this for you, dear passenger.

Gross things are common on cruise ships. No, not the gastronomic atrocities occurring nonstop at the buffets—horrifying as that may be to quantify—but what lies below the waterline. Not the slimy, oil-tainted waters of the bilge, either. I’m talking about what life is like on the crew decks.

Carnival Triumph recently made the news when a fire left it without propulsion, little running water, less electricity, and utterly bereft of sanitation. One passenger reported “sewage running down the walls and floors” and said travelers were being asked to defecate in bags and urinate in showers because toilets weren’t functioning. Understandably shocking, considering how rarely passengers endure such privations. The crew deal with it every day. It should be noted they bring it on themselves.

Crew are generally denied food in their cabins because it invariably ends up in the toilets in a most nonbiological manner. Hiding evidence of a smuggled, late night snack is always the same: flush it. After all, there are no portholes twenty feet below the sea. But ship toilets are very, very sensitive. The crew? Not so much. When working on RCI’s Majesty of the Seas, fish bones backed up the sewage system so often that the entire aft crew deck smelled like feces. Literally. And this was where the crew kitchen and dining room were located!

Oddly enough, this disposing of contraband was the only time many flushed the toilets at all. This can be partly explained by the wide variety of nationalities that compose the crew. Hygiene standards vary radically from nation to nation, but are all but absent in some developing nations. Such is the resource pool from which the cruise industry hires its labor. When first indoctrinated into crew, on day one, everyone is educated on what is required for first-world hygienic standards. They are ordered to wash daily and to use deodorant, whether they ‘need’ it or not. Many even comply. But when working a minimum of eighty hours a week without a day off for ten months straight, focus flags.

On Majesty of the Seas, these men—for they were invariably so—lived in tiny, shared cabins along the main corridor leading to the crew mess. Tucked between were communal showers and toilets. Everything was crowded, everything stank. And it was stiflingly hot. Because the cooling system was also spotty, all doors were always open. Three times a day, on the way to every meal, I passed dozens of overworked zombies brushing their teeth beside toilets filled to the brim, lids wide open. A perfect appetizer for a enjoying a meal in a latrine.

I learned about such things in dramatic fashion upon signing onto Majesty as a junior officer. After returning to my cabin, I discovered a man wearing officers’ whites bent over my desk, examining the contents. While there was no pretext of privacy on a cruise ship, having my own cabin had given me delusions of it. Upon hearing me enter, the man shoved the drawer shut and irritably snapped, “Cabin inspection. I have reports that you routinely order room service. This is highly improper and will not continue. We have a cockroach problem in the stern deck, and I will not have it spread into this section of the ship.”

I didn’t have time to explain that I had just arrived because he brushed me aside to search my shower. Because cabin inspections were conducted by each department head and, since I was a department head, I suddenly realized the man searching my toilet was the most powerful officer beside the captain himself! He dropped the toilet lid with a slam, trying to hide his disdain behind a professional countenance. His grimace worked through.

“No fish bones,” I said cheerily. He glared at me and replied, “I am seeking a shoe.”

“Um… shoes?” I asked, confused. He corrected me sharply, “A shoe! The entire sewage system is backed up ship-wide because a crewman flushed a shoe down the toilet this morning.”

Brian David Bruns is the best-selling author of Cruise Confidential and Ship for Brains, the latter from which the above story is taken.

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You need to know two things to understand the norovirus issue that plagues us every year (pardon the pun). Surprisingly, neither covers how to avoid getting it, though the second point is absolutely the single most important overlooked fact in understanding the issue.

First: norovirus is not just a ship problem. In fact, it’s barely on ships at all, compared to how many land-based institutions are struck every year right in your own city. Norovirus is common throughout all of North America and Europe, being most prevalent in schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and children’s day care facilities. It strikes every year. It’s so regular, in fact, it no longer incites headlines. Those are now reserved for the unusual, the exotic, such as “PLAGUE SHIP!” An illness transmitted from your children isn’t nearly as alarming as “RATS SPREAD DISEASE!”. But you get a cold or flu from your kids all the time. That headline wouldn’t sell many newspapers. Yet the land numbers are far, far greater than the sea numbers.

There have been 2,630 confirmed reports of norovirus so far this season in the UK, for example (as of several weeks ago, no less!), but for every reported case there are likely to be a further 288 unreported sufferers. That’s according to the Health Protection Agency (HPA). Recent figures from the HPA show that more than 750,000 people could be affected by the 2012 outbreak of norovirus that has swept the UK. It’s so bad, in fact, that they’re closing hospital wards and denying visitors access to the buildings. Take Birmingham City Hospital, for instance, which closed three wards due to norovirus infection, or Doncaster and Bassetlaw Hospitals, which actually tweeted, “Please don’t visit hospital until at least two days after last symptoms of vomiting or diarrhea. Stay home, rest, and take fluids.”

But nobody thinks about infected hospitals down the street. They think of cruise ships. They think of sensational headlines. Take the media frenzy surrounding the P&O liner Oriana, dubbed ‘a plague ship.’ “It’s a living nightmare.” “Scores of passengers laid low by virus.” “People were falling like flies, yet the crew were trying to insist everything was fine.”

Oh, the drama! The sick have vomiting and diarrhea a few days, tops, and possibly stomach cramps. If that’s your definition of ‘a living nightmare’, you suffer from a serious lack of real life. You’ll note the hospital referred to above even told sufferers to stay home and they'd be fine. Subjective perceptions of severity aside, let’s look at real numbers. More importantly, what’s behind them. It’s not what you think at all.

An outbreak, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control, is 3% or higher of reported passengers or crew being sick. Please note the inclusion of ‘crew’. When one crew member is sick, ALL of his/her cabin mates are automatically quarantined and counted as sick. Thus, the number of infected is artificially inflated by double or more from the very beginning. This directly affects passengers, however, because things snowball rapidly as remaining crew shoulder the additional workload (with no increase in pay, of course). As a rule, all crew members are already overworked and nearly all live in a state of near-exhaustion. It is not surprising, then, that many crew members jump on the bandwagon and call in sick just to get a glorious eight hours of sleep—something which they probably haven’t had in ten months (yes, really).

So what does this mean? It means that an official outbreak on a cruise ship could potentially involve a mere 1% of people or even less! I don’t know about you, but I don’t think 1% of the population being sick during cold and flu season to be the definition of ‘a living nightmare.’

By Brian David Bruns, author of national best-seller Cruise Confidential.

Pics of the people and places I blog about are on my website and FB pages, join me!

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1912, North Atlantic Ocean

1952, Trianon Palace Hotel, Versailles

2012, Lake Las Vegas

What do these three locations have in common? A sunken unsinkable ship. Duh. We’ll all heard of the ill-fated R.M.S. Titanic. We all know she was built for the super-rich, having the most elegant designs, the newest technologies, the oldest wines, and Europe’s finest chefs. We’ve all seen the movie—unless you’re a heartless communist. (Just kidding). Many of us know the immortal names associated with Titanic, such as Captain E.J. Smith or passengers John Jacob Astor and—everybody’s favorite—Unsinkable Molly Brown. But few of us know that we can still enjoy a taste of Titanic. Yes, even us mere mortals.

The Titanic was an Olympic-Class ocean liner featuring only the finest luxuries and opulence. The rich wood-paneled B-Deck Café Parisian and D-Deck Dining Saloon were focal points, offering the finest cuisine for the first-class passengers prepared by famed European chefs of the day. Of the 3,547 passengers on the maiden voyage, 416 ‘First Class’ passengers paid the equivalent of US$124,000 to experience the finest, most elegant, most luxurious, most whatever—choose your own superlative—dining experience the world had to offer. Though the diners unfortunately went down with the ship, the recipes did not.

In 1952 the father and son chefs of the Trianon Palace Hotel in Versailles recreated items from the doomed liner’s famed menu. Their grandson listened on as they discussed the planning, preparation, and service to the guests at the Trianon. "I have never forgotten," recalls the now third-generation Chef E. Bernard. "I have always remembered tales of the Titanic Dinner prepared by my father and grandfather in Versailles ... and I have dreamed of following in their footsteps by offering such a unique dining experience here, too."

Chef E. Bernard's vision has now become reality. "Diner du Titanic" (to dine on the Titanic) is a weekly offering at his lakeside Bernard's Bistro Restaurant Lake Las Vegas. The desert wastes mere miles from where 119 nuclear bombs were set off may seem an odd—if not impossible—location to rekindle oceanic glory. But this is Vegas, baby.

Starting at seven bells shipboard time (7 p.m. for others), those booking passage at Lake Las Vegas will be given a White Star Line "Boarding Pass" and offered an unhurried evening of sumptuous epicurean dining. Music of the day will be played on piano, violin and guitar – recreating the same make-up of musicians that played aboard the Titanic. Various special decorative touches will help complete this bygone shipboard ambience and elegant dining experience.

The first menu of the Titanic dining series offered dishes drawn from the actual First Class menu on the ship's maiden voyage. While the menu varies from week to week, each meal is based on actual dishes either served aboard the Titanic or those prepared by world-class chefs for the White Star Line sister-ships, the R.M.S. Olympic and R.M.S. Britannic.

For the full experience, I recommend first taking the Titanic tour at the Luxor, where you can see actual artifacts plucked from the ocean’s depths. You’ll be immersed in the moment far more than you thought possible. Why, they even give you a boarding pass from an actual passenger of the ill-fated cruise. Only at the end, after being awed and astonished by the luxury, then crushed by the tragedy, will you discover whether or not ‘you’ survived.

For those intimidated by a lavish five-course meal, Chef Bernard offers an elegant three-course alternative. Each seating begins with a glass of Champagne, followed by the European-style gourmet dinner courses, and finally ends hours later with fabulous pastries prepared from the actual pastry recipes of the Titanic's First Class dining room. The full meal costs only $65 per person, or $45 for the lighter fare. Better yet, there is no chance whatsoever in Hell of encountering an iceberg—not even in Las Vegas. Nor is anybody firing off nuclear weapons anymore, either. You simply can’t go wrong. (Unless you are sidetracked by the roulette wheel, of course).

By the way, a first-class menu from the Titanic’s last lunch was recently auctioned for $117,320. Kept by a prominent San Francisco banker named Washington Dodge—after being found in the purse of his wife, who survived the tragedy—it was dated April 14th, 1912 and featured several courses, such as eggs Argenteuil, consomme fermier and chicken a la Maryland.

By Brian David Bruns, author of national best-seller Cruise Confidential.

Pics of the people and places I blog about are on my website and FB pages, join me!

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My last cruise as a waiter on Carnival Conquest was one to remember. My section was filled with twenty coeds just graduated from college: all 22, brainy, and beautiful. These women wanted to party and indulge in every aspect of the Fun Ships they could. This meant lethal flirting with their hapless waiter, even in ports (accompanying pic is with them in Cozumel). I was in heaven.

At the end of the first dinner, my ladies remained long after. They asked a flurry of questions, like “Are you single?” “Can you party with guests?” “Show us your cabin!”. The question that got me in trouble, however, was unexpected. “Why don’t you dance during dinner like the other waiters?”

“I’m management next cruise,” I explained. “They don’t want me looking like a fool in front of staff I’ll be in charge of.”

“No fair!” they cried. “We want you to dance for us!”

“Only if you dance for me,” I retorted. The gauntlet thrown, all twenty rose and I was surrounded by spinning, whirling, and gyrating bodies. I looked on helplessly, realizing I was surely to be out-done by these women. “Come on! Join us!” Realizing they wouldn’t take no for an answer, I jokingly counter-offered, “I won’t do dinner dances, but I’ll do one better. My last day as a waiter, I’ll do a striptease.”

Their applause indicated my jest was not taken as such.

The final night came. As always, serving the graduates was not work, but pleasure. They were patient for all things barring wine service. We laughed and flirted shamelessly. All week they had tried to kiss me in the dining room. The kiss became a game for us all, a silly little prize that both sides refused to relinquish. The challenge was spearheaded by a pretty lass named Jessica. The night drew to a close, but they remained to finish their wine. Neighboring stations emptied, leaving us a solitary island of gaiety. “Last night!,” Jessica called. “Where’s our strip tease?”

All twenty cheered and began chanting, “Strip! Strip! Strip!”

“I can’t,” I replied lamely, fishing for an excuse, “I would need a stage. And there’s no music.”

“Regina!” they cried to my neighboring waitress. Though busy readying for the morning, one table had been forgotten and was completely empty. Only then did I realize it had not been forgotten at all: Regina yanked the table cloth free to reveal an ideal stage. “But there’s still no music,” I observed gratefully. Smirking, Regina signaled a hostess and suddenly ‘I’m Too Sexy’ blared through the restaurant at tremendous volume. I had been set up. But sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.

I leapt onto the table and began a bad dance, whipping off my bow tie and flinging it around my head. With surely the most awkward moves ever witnessed, I flung off my vest and began unbuttoning my shirt. Cheers roared from the graduates. Applause echoed from waiters. Hostesses leered. Chanting to the beat rose from everywhere. Then the maitre D’ entered the room.

I stopped mid-swing, stunned. But the coeds were just getting started. They rushed from their seats to yank me off the table. Hands tore at my chest. Buttons popped out, flying in all directions. My shirt was half ripped off before I could stop it. I had heard that women got far wilder then men at strip clubs, but this was ridiculous. I even felt my belt slipped free! Quickly I gripped my pants before they were yanked down. I began bellowing, not unlike an elephant seal under attack. Alas, there was no denying the authority of dozens of red-tipped fingernails. Here I was living my fantasy since puberty, yet was fighting like mad!

One would think the action would stop with the approach of the maitre D’. One would be wrong. He just grinned and let it flow, reserving the moment for future blackmail.

By Brian David Bruns, author of national best-seller Cruise Confidential.

Pics of the people and places I blog about are on my website and FB pages, join me!

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Do you ever wonder if you are merely cheap or actually a horrible person? Tipping is highly variable from culture to culture, and even gratuity-savvy passengers are lost at sea on cruise ships. What tips are expected, what’s appropriate, what’s… ‘normal’?

Confusion surrounding this issue was intentionally created by the cruise lines themselves. The open secret is that the majority of staff is paid hardly anything at all. Cruise lines hide this behind gratuities. Especially with the rise to prominence of Carnival Cruise Lines—catering to overwhelmingly American and, thusly, gratuity-expectant guests—cruise lines realized they can get a whole lot more staff for a whole lot less money. This wage model was adopted by nearly every major cruise line, in many ways fueling the explosive growth of the industry throughout the 80’s and 90’s. Prior to that, cruising was exceptional and reserved for the well-to-do. Now it’s a common vacation open to anyone budget-minded.

When I was a waiter on Carnival, my monthly salary was around fifty bucks (US $50). That’s for working 12-15 hours a day, seven days a week. Tips kept me alive. (True, tips added up to less than the U.S.’s average minimum wage, but that’s a completely different subject.) Ah, but how much to tip? Even tip-savvy passengers had no basis from which to quantify their appreciation. In America, 15% gratuity is standard for acceptable service, 20% for good service. But on ships, individual meals were not broken down so numerically. So what’s 20%? In my case, Carnival created automatic gratuities for passengers to opt in on for the whole cruise. Waiters knew any passenger who opted out of this service, whatever their reason, invariably skimped on tips. We hated those people. They almost never tipped enough. Especially in my case, because I was a terrible waiter. (if you want to see how bad, read my book Cruise Confidential!)

Over time, some services became auto-tipped and others not. Yet every crew member was clamoring for tips, even those without any reason whatsoever for getting any (read: maitre D’s). And what about room stewards, who had no inferred costs for their services? Well-intentioned passengers were confused all over again. Cruise lines used this confusion to their advantage. A great example of this comes from P&O Cruise Lines. Prior to 2012, their managing director Carol Marlow was promoting P&O's value-for-money by pointing out that unlike some of its competitors, their company did not automatically add tips. Then, in April 2012, P&O began requiring auto-tips of £3.10 per person, per day. To explain the complete reversal, Marlow said,“Tipping has always been an integral part of the cruise experience but sometimes our passengers tell us they've been confused over whether or when to leave a cash tip for their waiters and cabin stewards. Our new tipping policy aims to remove this confusion in much the same way as most restaurants these days add a suggested gratuity to the bill.”

Nowadays, the majority of cruise lines ‘take care’ of their staff with mandatory tipping. Good! If and when a cruise line offers pre-paid gratuities—and you have a soul—do it. Concerns about the line failing to properly distribute the money are rising, but that’s step two. Step one is getting the cash out of the hands of us passengers (ships are great at that!). The best thing, of course, would be for cruise lines to remove tipping entirely. Basic wages should be enhanced to reflect that and the cost built into the basic price of a cruise. Crew could rely on a regular, guaranteed income. We’ve all had to slave away for absolutely no money at one time or another due to bad service outside our own arena. Plus it’s easier on guests because tips are a hidden cost. Here’s a rough breakdown of current rates (US dollars, per day):

Carnival Cruise Lines $10.50

Celebrity Cruises $12-16

Costa Cruises $8-10.50

Cunard $11.50- 15

Disney Cruise Line $12.50-14

Fred Olsen Lines $6.50

Holland America Line $11.50

MSC Cruises $8-10

Norwegian $12.50

Oceania Cruises $14.25-19.50

Princess Cruises $12-12.75

Royal Caribbean Int. $12-14

By Brian David Bruns, author of national best-seller Cruise Confidential.

Pics of the people and places I blog about are on my website and FB pages, join me!

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Yes, cruise ship security is corrupt. Not paid off to smuggle drugs or anything—oh no. Something far more criminal…

2AM. I nervously entered the crew cabin way down on B Deck. Victorio, a serious-looking Filipino, motioned me to sit. Both bunks already held two or three men, the bathroom door opened to reveal several more. The floor of both tiny chambers was fully filled by coolers. I wiggled in beside the others. Victorio asked, “You bring it?”

A flash of nerves jolted me. Shaking my head, I defended, “I just found out an hour ago. I’ll bring it tomorrow.”

Victorio regarded me solemnly for a moment. The cabin was silent, but for the surge of waves outside the bulkhead. “We do things different than you Americans…” he said slowly.

Suddenly he grinned. “In the Philippines, birthday means we buy the drinks, not get gifts. So have a drink. We have an American, boys!”

Cheers came for diversity. Drinks came to my hand. Nearby bristled two bottles of Johnny Walker Blue Label scotch, two Black Labels, three bottles of Chivas Regal, and two coolers icing Coronas. He predicted by 5AM all would be empty. We feasted on traditional Filipino foods—or close as could be made aboard. My favorite were strips of cold beef marinated in lime juice and exotic seasonings. I sensed they were pleased I liked a taste from their home.

By 3:30AM the party was really rocking (as much as was possible with no women present, anyway), when someone brought out a small, black torture device. Terror seized my soul. It was a karaoke machine, complete with microphone and two large speakers—so large, in fact, Victorio had to sleep with one in his bunk. Cheers resounded in eardrum-crumpling waves.

“You can’t turn that on,” I protested. “It’s 3:30AM!”

“We got it covered,” Victorio assured me.

For some sinister reason, karaoke was a great joy for Filipinos, with a particular passion for rock ballads. Invoking Bon Jovi prompted hands over their hearts. One waiter, Jeffry, was so talented that he entertained guests in the dining room. His crystalline voice cut through the chatter every time. His cover of Michael Bolton was barely distinguishable from the real thing. And Jon Secada? They must have been twins. But that night Jeffry did not want to sing. He wanted me to sing. “Who wants to hear Brian sing Elvis?” The cabin reverberated with a roar of approval.

Spontaneity—or more likely, alcohol—encouraged me. “Filipino party: Filipino music. Bring it.”

“I thought you liked singing Elvis,” he said.

“Oh, I’ll sing it like Elvis all right.”

The television featured a surging tropical beach while Filipino lyrics passed by staggeringly fast. Well, too fast for one who couldn’t read Tagalog. I had hoped their native language didn’t use Roman characters so I could wiggle out of it. No such luck. Soon my best Elvis voice sang a sappy love ballad to twenty drunken Filipino men—and the entire B Deck of Carnival Conquest.

“Tinapon ng lalaki ang bola sa pader… something… something fried banana sandwich… thank ya, thank ya vury much…. Say, what did I just say?”

“You just tried to say ‘the boy threw the ball at the wall’.”

“How romantic. A hunk’a-hunk’a burnin’ love I’m not.”

A pounding at the door revealed an insanely muscled security officer. Silence fell. Two more men flanked this largest Asian man ever. He frowned angrily, flexed his muscles.

“You’re in BIG trouble,” he boomed. “I agreed to let you pay me to leave the party alone… on the condition I get to be the first to sing... after I get off 4!”

By Brian David Bruns, author of national best-seller Cruise Confidential.

Pics of the people and places I blog about are on my website and FB pages, join me!

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Some people go to great lengths to ‘protect’ themselves from cruise-borne germs. I’m not talking about the obsessive-compulsive disorder folks who have a legitimate obsession. I’m talking about the sheltered, paranoid freaks who no longer enjoy the benefit of healthy immune systems because they have utterly destroyed every bacterium on their persons with anti-bacterial gels, creams, and probably suppositories. Many a cruise guest enters his/her cabin and promptly wipes down every conceivable well-used surface with disinfectant wipes: light switches, door knobs, faucets, and telephone. Some go so far as to place the TV remote control in a quart-sized Ziploc bag.

I don’t blame you, gentle reader. Take a few precautions to feel better. But rest assured, the ship crew has already done this. Every homeport, room stewards disinfect every high touch item in the cabin, especially in the bathroom. That bathroom has about 400 times LESS bacteria than your office desk. But go ahead and wipe down that toilet seat again. Better yet, bring those disposable paper seats. Right?

Remember cruise ships clean everything above and beyond what’s required by land businesses. They’re required to. Indeed, I bleached restaurant and kitchen stuff daily until my fingers literally split. Yes, we waiters bleach those menus, salt and pepper shakers, even backs of the chairs. Stewards bleach those elevator buttons and rails. If there does happen to be a virus outbreak on board, we double wash all plates, double wash all glasses, double wash all silver. Feel safer?

YOU SHOULDN’T. Bwah-ha-ha!

Why do I taunt you thus? Because you, gentle germophobe, brought loads of bacteria with you. Take your toothbrush, for example. You put it in your mouth twice a day (well, you should). Yet your mouth contains billions of bacteria. Scientists have identified more than 700 different types of microbes in the average human mouth [WebMD]. Yet if you don’t cap that wet toothbrush, you are potentially contaminating it by merely flushing the toilet (paper-seat and all). Researchers discovered flushing the toilet sends a spray of bacteria- and virus-contaminated water droplets into the air. These float in the air for at least two hours after each flush before landing on surfaces—like your toothbrush [university of Arizona Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science].

What about the toiletries you brought with you? Ladies, how often do you disinfect every tube, handle, and applicator in your make-up bag? Guys, you bleachin’ handles on those razors?

Remember, you need bacteria to stay healthy. Why do you think babies put everything in their mouths? They’re building up their immune systems! The paranoia of all-things-filthy is predominantly an American trait. We are relentlessly barraged by advertising for cleaning products. It’s gone overboard. Why, even Healthline’s website spread the alarm that washed laundry left unattended in a machine, even a few minutes, is like “the fertile crescent for germs.”

If you have a compromised immunity system, by all means take precautions. But sensible precautions suffice for most of us. I worked on ships four years and never got sick once. I survived countless Norovirus outbreaks without incident. The real culprits are our own bad habits. For cryin’ out loud, just wash your hands after using the toilet and before you eat. You’d be shocked how few people actually do that. On Conquest, the captain even had to publicly humiliate himself by singing “Happy Birthday” to himself on the PA system to drive home how long you should soap those hands (CDC says hum it twice).

The best thing, of course, is sterilization from the inside out: down some shots of booze. Helps with a great many issues.

Brian David Bruns is author of Unsinkable Mister Brown, bronze medal winner at the 2012 London Book Festival.

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blog-0114497001356618646.jpegCongratulations to my latest cruise book, Unsinkable Mister Brown, which won the bronze at the London Book Festival. This marks the second international award for the book, (also took the silver medal in Paris). For those not familiar with my Cruise Confidential series, Unsinkable Mister Brown is the third book, but actually a prequel and a good starting place. I say an excerpt is in order! Here’s how to get a job on a cruise ship: persistence, bribes, and a lot of lies!

An hour later we were sitting in the office of Ovidiu, the Romanian recruiting agent for Carnival Cruise Lines. He was a slender man with a handsome face, a very handsome wardrobe, and an extremely handsome office. His suite comprised the entire second floor of a brick building, featuring numerous windows looking into a lush interior court. Light filtered in through an angled glass skylight and past his mezzanine entrance, making it look like a bridge over a jungle. “Americans can’t handle ships,” he said.

“So I hear,” I replied, giving Bianca an amused look. She sat in the chair beside mine, looking relaxed but serious.

“What is it you think I can do for you?” Ovidiu asked. “I am a recruiter for Romanians, not Americans. There are no American recruiters, of course.”

“So I hear,” I repeated. “Why is that?”

“Because none apply,” he replied thoughtfully, leaning back. “Why would you want to? The work is very hard, and the money is very small.”

Bianca raised an eyebrow, and Ovidiu hastily added, “For an American.”

“I’m not thinking big,” I said. “It’s just a waiter job. I’ve been in restaurants for a decade.”

“Not on ships, you haven’t,” he pointed out. “Do you know computers?”

“He knows computers,” Bianca interrupted, before I could protest.

“Other than doctors, who are supernumeraries anyway, and entertainers, who have their own agencies, the only position I can even think of for an American would involve computers.”

“I just want to be a waiter, man,” I repeated.

Ovidiu leaned forward skeptically. “Why?”

“My reasons are irrelevant.”

“No, they’re not,” Ovidiu insisted. “Why would they bother with someone who will just quit? They’ll want to know your story before they even think of meeting you. And believe me, they’ll need to meet you.”

“I want to be with Bianca,” I explained. “If we have the same job, we can be together. That simple.”

“I see,” he said, nodding. “Well, in my ten years at Carnival, I’ve never seen even one American. I would not even talk to you, but Bianca is a good employee and a friend. Again, what is it you think I can do for you?”

“You can think Romanian-style,” Bianca answered for me. “Not American-style.”

Ovidiu thought for a moment, frowning. “No, that won’t work. The bribes are to convince me, and you don’t need to worry about that. Really, Bianca, I would sign him on if I could. I can’t.” He opened a drawer from his desk and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. We declined his offer, so he casually lit one for himself. He leaned towards me, elbows on the desk. “You want to know why Bianca doesn’t need to bribe me?”

“Suddenly I’m not so sure.”

“Bianca is the only one who almost beat me. Almost, of course.”

I looked at Bianca, but she said nothing. Her delicate wiggle of satisfaction was corroboration enough.

“As agent to cruise ships, my job is to screen people. If I like them, and there is a job opening, I find the right place for them. Bianca applied for the restaurants. That’s the highest paid job, so everybody applies for it first. It is also the toughest, so I don’t let them by easily.” He paused, grinned, and offered Bianca a cigarette again. This time she accepted, leaning forward to accept the light with a creak of leather skirt.

“She said she worked at a certain restaurant. I called the owner and he said, ‘oh, of course, she has worked here for years!’ That, of course, only meant she could lie and bribe. Romanian-style. Turns out, she only volunteered there for a summer.”

Bianca shrugged, explaining, “I needed to learn restaurants.”

“I knew she was lying, but couldn’t catch her. She was too smart. She had asked all of her waitress friends penetrating questions and listened close. I asked her this and that, and of her experiences here and there. She had an answer for all of it. The performance was amazing.”

Bianca laughed, and added, “Until Ovidiu pulled his bloody secret weapon from the filing cabinet!”

Reflecting upon what I knew of Romanians thus far, I presumed this meant a large knife.

“A linen napkin,” Ovidiu clarified. “I told her ‘You said you know half a dozen napkin folds. Show me.’ She wilted before my very eyes, like a Gypsy had spit in her ice cream. I told her to relax, go have a cigarette, then come back. I had her paperwork done by then.”

“All that to be a waiter?” I asked. “It’s not rocket science.”

Ovidiu leaned back again. He casually blew his smoke into the air, then looked me in the eye. “You have no idea what you’re getting into, do you?”

The London Book Festival awards ceremony will be held Jan. 24th in London. Until then, the most popular formats of Unsinkable Mister Brown will be 50% off. See my website for details at http://brev.is/mS94

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blog-0273167001355929229.jpgIf your ship sinks and you’re stranded, without food or water, with only an open boat and your own resources, can you stay alive?

Sure!

This was proven in rather dramatic fashion by Frenchman Alain Bombard, who believed people could survive such trials. On October, 19, 1953 he voluntarily set off from the Canary Islands to cross the Atlantic in a 15 foot rubber boat. He intended to make it to the West Indies. Not a scrap of food. Not a drop of water. Just his clothes and an inflatable cushion.

Bombard believed that shipwreck survivors died drinking seawater simply because they waited too long to do so. From the time he set off, he drank 1.5 pints (.71 liters) of seawater every day. He supplemented this with water squeezed from fish caught with a makeshift harpoon. Gross? Yes. But not as bad as the raw plankton he swallowed. He would trail a cloth through the sea to capture the microscopic organisms, figuring if they could keep a whale alive, then he’d have no problem. Unlike a whale, which can gobble zillions of the stuff with one big mouthful, he struggled to get one or two teaspoons of it a day. After twenty days of this self-induced torture, he broke out in a painful rash.

But he wasn’t dead.

Not that the sea didn’t try. A storm within days of setting out nearly wrecked his little rubber boat. His sail ripped and the spare was blown away entirely. More distressing still was what else it blew away: his inflatable cushion. Knowing he could live without food and water, but not without a comfortable posterior, Bombard secured his craft with a sea anchor and jumped overboard after it. While he was diving, he discovered to his horror that the sea anchor was not working. This parachute-like device was tied to the boat and left to drag in the ocean, thus keeping the craft nearby. Without it, the current was sweeping the boat hopelessly out of reach. Luckily the sea anchor fixed itself—it had been caught in its own mooring line—and he was able to haul himself back aboard. Strangely, whether he retrieved the cushion or not was never revealed.

Weeks passed, but Alain Bombard did not die. He survived off of seawater, plankton, and whatever raw fish he could catch at the surface. On day 53 he hailed a passing ship to ask his position. Sadly, he had another 600 miles to go before reaching his intended destination. He seriously considered giving up, for had he not already vindicated his supposition that man could survive on sea water? After a meal on the ship, his spirits were revived, however, and he voluntarily returned to his little rubber boat.

On Christmas Eve he reached Barbados, having sailed more than 2,750 miles (4425 kilometers) in 65 days. He lost 56 pounds (25 kilograms), but was otherwise fine. And that was in an open boat with nothing. If your cruise ship goes down and you’re in a life raft, it has a roof. That makes a huge difference. Also, life rafts are equipped with emergency rations of food and water, and even fishing kits. Most importantly of all, however, is that modern life rafts have radio transponders. You won’t have to wait months. Probably not even days.

The moral of the story? If your ship goes down, don’t panic. Be awesome. You absolutely have it in you. It's just gonna taste really bad.

By Brian David Bruns, author of national best-seller Cruise Confidential.

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blog-0408980001354822006.jpgWorking midnight buffet, I sensed something was wrong. Ketchup bottles slid to port. All of them, in unison. Any sharp turn was amplified up here on deck 14, but Conquest continued to list further… further…. Silverware bundles tumbled off tables. Then plates. The ship keeled more. Waiters were ordered to the dish room to manually hold up stacks of plates and saucers. Glasses were deemed safe in their washing racks. But it was too late. Sharp crashes cried entire stacks of plates were gone… one… three… a cascade.

And Conquest kept listing.

Simultaneously two dozen ketchup bottles exploded on the tiles. Plates in hundreds shattered everywhere. I tripped over a plastic pitcher crushed open on the floor. In a flash the cream inside streaked fifty feet across the deck. Now I had to hold onto something to avoid falling myself. Then she righted. The chaos audibly lessened, but only for a moment. Conquest righted abruptly: too abruptly. Experienced crew members knew what that meant and abandoned property in favor of protecting themselves. I gripped the buffet as the floor tried to dump me starboard. The cream was still very much alive, a shocking white lightning bolt zigzagging into the dark. Watching the fluid move so violently made me realize there was something much greater to worry about. A waiter was stationed by the pool.

I scrambled over the slanting deck to the stern with great difficulty; to the pizza station, the grill, the pool. A gaping, empty hole was the pool, for all water had already pushed out to sweep across the restaurant before draining en masse to the deck below. The unsecured tables were piled high in a corner, entangled and dripping, legs worked together like the roots of a mangrove. Perched atop and soaked to the skin was a smiling Indonesian waiter.

A close call, but everyone was all right. What had happened?

Conquest had nearly collided with an errant barge while entering the busy mouth of the Mississippi River. A late-night sinking in the vast, black wastes of the ocean, a la Titanic, it was not. But was being ten miles from the unlit, swampy, forested bayou really any better? Because the water was not one degree above freezing didn’t mean a better chance at survival, it meant you’d linger… terrified… struggling… until exhaustion took you down, down to the dark depths.

So should you be scared of ships hitting each other?

No. How many big ship collisions have their been in the last century? In the modern cruising era, only the Andrea Doria—and that was in 1956. In a foggy night near Nantucket she was struck broadside by the MS Stockholm. The Andrea Doria listed so badly that half her lifeboats were unusable. Despite this, her modern ship design was so efficient she remained afloat for eleven hours, allowing all survivors to be safely evacuated. That’s less miracle and more engineering. Miraculous was Linda Morgan. The teenager was sleeping in her cabin with her half-sister when the ships struck. The blow somehow lifted her into the bow of the Stockholm and deposited her safely behind a bulkhead as the ships scraped along each other through the fog. Later, she was found wandering around asking for her mother in her native Spanish, much to the astonishment of the Swedish-speaking crew. Her sister was not so lucky, nor were 45 others directly struck by the collision. But nowadays ships have even more safety features, including zillions of inflatable life rafts that deploy automatically. They don’t need electronics, just physics. They can’t go wrong. Neither can you, if you stay calm. So enjoy your cruise!

By Brian David Bruns, author of national best-seller Cruise Confidential.

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blog-0491480001354194752.jpgOne would think that having my own, personal cabin would protect me from unwelcome surprises due to strangers. One would be wrong. First sight of my cabin on Sensation was a doozy. It was an interior guest cabin with beds against two different walls. The room reeked of fish.

“What’s with the separate bunks?” I asked my departing counterpart, Robin. “Aren’t you here with your girlfriend?” He was about to answer when a very tall, attractive woman entered. She was six feet tall and, while pleasantly slender, still built solid. Her long hair was naturally blonde, but the last six inches were dyed black. She wore a cowboy hat and boots over snug blue jeans. Vanessa was her name. She answered, “He stinks. He belches all night, so I want as much distance as possible.”

“You like cod liver oil?” she suddenly asked, prompting me to reply, “You asking me on a date?”

She gestured broadly to the room. “We’ve got plenty for ya. I’m sick of ‘em. If I smell one more damned pill, I’m gonna puke. Loverboy here don’t eat no food, jus’ lives off cod liver oil.”

A quick glance proved Vanessa wasn’t kidding. I counted no less than four bottles of cod liver pills of varying sizes. A fifth bottle lay on its side on a bunk behind where Robin sat, looking suspiciously as if it had dumped its contents between the cushions. A family-sized jar with a wide mouth was currently open, the smell of heavy fish oil almost visually emanated from it.

“Aren’t you supposed to refrigerate those once opened?” I asked in wonder. Robin scoffed, “Bah! You Yanks always worry about stuff like that.”

“So’d you tell him yet?” Vanessa asked Robin. He ignored her, but she pressed the question. Robin reacted strongly, and suddenly both were glaring at each other, postures frozen in defiance: she tall and leaning willowy-strong over him, he looking up to meet her with bulldog neck tensed and fists clenched. He finally spat, “Shut up, woman!”

Offended, Vanessa snatched up the nearest bottle of fish oil pills—the family-sized jar sans lid—and hurled it at him. Delicate globules of smelly fish oil sprayed wide, bouncing off Robin to clatter off the walls, the desk, the bed and everything else until they found every last corner.

Robin snarled, reaching for her. She gamely bounced back, but this was no game. They exchanged all manner of insults, voices rising until she screeched and he bellowed. Finally he muscled his way in to give her a solid slap across the face. The sound was shockingly loud. Violence in person is completely unlike anything in the movies. It was immediate, intimate, horrible.

“Oh!” she cried in surprise, hair flinging wild. I leapt in between the two of them, now shouting myself. I had no idea what was going on, even as I sensed this was not an unusual occurrence between them. Indeed, before I could interfere they both whirled upon me as one.

“This is none of your business, Yank!” Robin bellowed.

“I can handle this myself!” Vanessa echoed. She was already returning her attention to her adversary, adding, “I’m from Texas!”

Vanessa delivered a tremendous blow of her own, a wallop that sent Robin reeling. Before he had a chance to recover, she shoved him onto the bed. Next came a sharp crack of head hitting the bulkhead, and Robin collapsed. He gave a low moan, and Vanessa was atop him. Then they began madly kissing, passionately rolling across the tiny bunk… and grinding cod liver pills into my future mattress.

Excerpted from Ship for Brains [Cruise Confidential, Book 2] by Brian David Bruns (World Waters, 2011)

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blog-0072842001353334771.jpgI stumbled onto this blog by “Crewbar Queen,” begun on two separate sites several years ago. She obviously held a staff position, based on the ease of her entry into ships. She didn’t see it that way. Her words, filled with anxiety and confusion, moved me. All crew can relate to her every word. Below is her only post.

“It’s Sunday and I joined the ship today. I am already exhausted. I look around as I type this, staring at the four walls of this closet size cabin with four beds in it. Soon my roommates will be off work so I am glad I was able to shower before they get back. One bathroom, four beds, one tv, one other Canadian, a Filipino Girl and a Romanian. I can't remember their names yet. The Romanian girl seemed stuck up as hell. In fact, so did most of the Romanian girls I met today.

“I wonder what I am doing here. From the second I stepped onboard today, I have been pulled in every direction, fitted for an ugly red uniform, thrown into a boring three hour safety class which pretty much has me fearing a Titanic-like experience now, and I have been lost three times.

“I am starting work tomorrow. I will just stand alongside some girl who seems to struggle with the English language, and learn as I go. 2000 guests got off the ship today and another 2000 got on. I am feeling a little overwhelmed at the amount of knowledge I need to have. Everyone here seems so intense. The Safety Manager flipped out on me and this other Canadian girl when we were late for class today. He actually threatened to send us back home before we left port. I never realized I would need to know how many lifeboats a ship carries, or how to evacuate the passengers. Isn't there a captain and some sort of safety squad for that??

“I kind of miss home. I packed my life into cardboard boxes in less than a week and left every comfort zone I was sheltered by. The small voice inside of me that I normally ignore finally spoke loud enough to get me here, and now it's still trying to talk me through it. This is supposed to be a chance to see the world and an opportunity to grow.

“Later - My roommates are back and I am sitting in bed. The Romanian girl’s name is Alina. She hardly said two words to me when she got here, but she sure is full of conversation for this guy in her bed now. All I can hear is her giggling and his deep Caribbean accent. I guess he's her boyfriend. I didn't realize we could fit another body into this cabin. Wait...is she really....what the f@#$, they are screwing!

“Does she not realize two other people are in this room? Does she seriously think this curtain that closes around each bunk is sound proof?? I open my curtain and look across at the bunk next to me where the Filipino girl, Carmella, is sitting. I look at her as if to say, "is this really happening?". She smiles obliviously and keeps staring at the TV, slurping her instant noodles. Clearly, this is something she is used to. I'm logging off for the night. I'm not to used to falling asleep to live porn, I think I'll pop in some of these ear plugs they gave us to drown out the sound of the engine and try to get some sleep.”

By Brian David Bruns, author of national best-seller Cruise Confidential.

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blog-0553181001352739425.jpgThe anatomy of a conch is a curious and unnerving thing.

“Yeah, mon,” said the Bahamian in the conch shack by the sea. “Take da skin and eyes right off, den trow dem in da water. Dey live by demselves for two more days.”

My friend Laureen leaned over the counter to get a better look. In Donny’s hands was a large conch shell and a knife. “No, uh, gills or organs or anything?” I asked. “Just the skin? Living?

Donny demonstrated. Experienced fingers pulled from the shell a floppy, purplish alien-slug-thing. Using his knife, he expertly cut something slimy off of something else slimy—conch skin and eyes from conch body, presumably—then tossed it over his shoulder. Through the open rear of the shack it flew, to plop back into the Caribbean Sea.

Donny was a thick man of middle years. The majority of his hair was going grey, and the majority of his teeth were going away. He and his wife, Monique, were proprietors of The Burning Spot, one of a long row of conch shacks lining a pier nestled beneath the huge bridge leading to Paradise Island. The Burning Spot was the size of a garden shed, though the entire back was open to the sea. From the ceiling dangled all sorts of oddities mixed in with daily use items. Funky ornaments made of seashells swung in the breeze, bumping into grill brushes and spatter guards. The front wall of the shack folded into a counter, over which Laureen and I draped ourselves, beside a pile of conch shells strung together and heaped several feet high. As we watched Donny continue to intimately manipulate the conch, I pressed into the stack of conch shells.

“Gaaaaah!” I suddenly bellowed, stumbling backwards. Laureen teased me with a voice usually reserved for small children, “Was it all slimy and icky, Bri Bri?”

“I-I just got tentacled!” I protested. “These things are still alive!” Donny and Monique laughed hysterically. Monique buried her face into his broad shoulder, overcome with mirth.

“If their skin can stay alive for two days,” Laureen observed, poking me “Whatcha think a whole one can do?” I muttered, “I thought they were just shells. For decoration.”

“Decoration’s over dere, mon,” Donny said, gesturing above him with his dripping knife. In the sheltered corner hung an old and tired pom pom, heavy and limp, some strands stuck to a cast iron pan. There was obviously a story there, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear it. Watching Donny laugh maniacally holding a sharp knife in one hand, and a slain alien in the other, brought to mind all sorts of B-rated horror movie imagery.

“Donny catch dem every mornin’,” Monique said, to which I quipped, “Cheerleaders?”

Monique laughed heartily, revealing huge, brilliant teeth. “He wish! He jump right off de back here sunup. Dey come to de pier every day, like de ships.”

Donny’s continuing work freaked me out. From the bodies of the conchs he pulled weird, half toothpick-sized slivers of what looked like gelatin. Each such find brought delight, and he promptly popped them in his mouth. He loved ‘em. I didn’t have the stomach to ask if they were conch anatomy or parasites. Yet despite the grisly performance, the results were worthy. We took our bowls of chilled conch salad to a crooked wooden table in front of the shack, and readily devoured the contents. The minutes-fresh meat was firm and bright. Mixed in were chopped tomatoes, onions, and peppers, the whole doused in copious amounts of freshly squeezed lime juice, then a pinch of salt and pepper. The conch salad was delicious.

*excerpted from Unsinkable Mister Brown, by Brian David Bruns. PARIS BOOK FESTIVAL WINNER: SILVER

Available everywhere books are sold.

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blog-0755701001352126562.jpgFew things bring out fear, prejudice, and ethnocentrism more completely than medical care on cruise ships. We’re all subject to a bit of this. After all, when ill, who doesn’t prefer mom’s chicken soup over an injection, regardless of how credentialed the medical professional may be? Alas, mom’s not on the cruise, so we have to rely on the ship’s medical staff. But is he/she credentialed? Yes. Is he/she what you are used to at home? No. Does it matter? Probably not.

First, the scare-tactics: an oft-cited paper by Consumer Affairs in 2002 found medical facilities on ships lacking. They were quite harsh without actually providing much data. For example, they claimed a survey conducted by the American Medical Association found 27% of ship doctors and nurses did not have ‘advanced training’ in treating heart attacks. They did not define ‘advanced training,’ so even a gastroenterologist serving a stint at sea could easily be considered unqualified. Yet these ‘severely lacking’ individuals, as the article called them, have a success rate that puts U.S. hospitals to shame. Indeed, losing merely .000004% of such patients are odds I’ll take any day! Those are numbers cited in that very same article, by the way. The language was damning. The numbers were not.

Ship doctors rarely see passengers for anything beyond dehydration or stomach ache. The overwhelming majority of medical issues you’ll have on a cruise will be what you brought with you: heart attacks being most common. Time is the most important issue in treating heart attack, not size of the facility. Still not convinced? Consider: “living on a cruise ship provides a better quality of life and is cost effective for elderly people who need help to live independently”, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society (2004). Many elderly, high-risk folks hop from ship to ship, more than satisfied with ship facilities and personnel. A brilliant article from CNN Health explains much of ship doctor training: http://brev.is/pzt3

I’ve met many a cruise ship nurse and doctor. More than a few are American surgeons and nurse practitioners that have taken tours as ship medical personnel for a change of pace. But most ship doctors are not licensed in the U.S. That doesn’t mean they haven’t been licensed professionals for a great many years back home. That home may be from Europe, for example, or Africa. This is where ethnocentrism rears its ugly head. Whispers of witch doctors. I’ve read online complaints (generally from my fellow Americans) of “some African doctor identifying my wife’s ailment as caused by her sins and prescribing a bath in the blood of Jesus Christ.” I find this as plausible as reports of Elvis sightings.

Ultimately, cruise lines are not required to provide medical care at all. You are placing yourself under the perceived protection of a corporation; corporations that intentionally pay taxes in one country, register ships in another, hire employees from many, take passengers from yet more, then sail where there are no laws at all. If you have an underlying medical condition or concern, it behooves you to take responsibility for your own care by research and preparation. As ships often mention, their medical facilities are the equivalent of a small town. If a medical emergency emerges beyond the abilities of the ship, you will be helicoptered off to the nearest hospital. If that’s not in the U.S., so be it. If you are that terrified of the rest of the world’s standards, then don’t leave home.

By Brian David Bruns, author of national best-seller Cruise Confidential.

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blog-0449006001351524002.jpgHalloween is the one glorious night where you are not only free, but encouraged, to embrace that which brings fear and loathing into the hearts and minds of common man. A cross-dressing man fits into that category as snugly as, say, Freddie Kruger or H.R. Giger’s Alien. But sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.

Gathering a Halloween costume of any kind while sailing the Mediterranean is no small task, but even more so on the Wind Surf. Though the world’s largest sailing ship, she was still small enough to fit into as many old world ports as you can imagine. Thus we were in port seven days a week, frequently in seven different nations. Cobbling together a unified costume from bits and pieces obtained in Morocco, Spain, France, Monaco, Malta, Tunisia, Italy, Croatia, and Greece is not easy—especially when none of those countries celebrate the American holiday. Regardless, a Halloween crew party was announced, and nothing brings a shiver down my spine more than the thought of missing a crew party.

But what to be, and how? There were no superstores loaded with costumes, nor seasonal businesses in strip malls. Solutions always present themselves, however, and in my case it was in the form of… well, getting into women’s pants. While I admit to constantly thinking about getting into women’s pants, that rarely means actually donning them. But this is just what was suggested one evening when brainstorming with a friend from the spa.

“I have nothing to wear,” I lamented to Natalie, echoing women everywhere and from all times. Natalie noted this. “You sound just like my cabin mate,” she said. “Claudia whined about not having a dress for formal night, so I offered her one of mine.” I laughed, while she chortled in her wine. Natalie was six foot two inches tall, a full foot taller than Claudia. “You would fit better into one of my dresses,” Natalie continued. An idea was born.

So I borrowed a slim black dress from the Australian giantess and next port, Toulon, France, I found a wig shop. I opted for dirty blonde. Shoes were hopeless for my size twelve and a half feet (we weren’t in Vegas, after all), but accessories were hurled upon me by the entire spa staff. After great deliberation by the spa girls doing my makeover, I was ordered to shave my goatee. I complied. Then came the order to shave my chest. I did not. Soon enough, however, I was all dolled up and ready for the Halloween party on Wind Surf.

When I arrived to the party arm in arm with Natalie, everything came to a screeching halt. Literally: the Italian DJ actually fumbled with his music, horrified. Italian men would rather be hurled into the bowels of Hell than be seen without their machismo. The Asian crew stared, agog, while the usually uptight Brits gave me surprisingly ‘understanding’ nods.

Because the Surf was so small, the party only involved a few dozen crew members. Most costumes were improvised. Natalie wrapped herself toga-like in a white sheet and played goddess. Several spa girls borrowed boiler suits and with the help of lacy bras became… well… slutty, grease-smeared engineers. They were very popular, as one could imagine. The Canadian dive instructor grabbed a gondolier outfit in Venice, while the Indonesian (and flamboyantly gay) photographer just pranced around in his underwear. Oh, he also wore skull makeup. By the end of the night, most people were following suit. It was quite a party, as crew parties always are.

By Brian David Bruns, author of national best-seller Cruise Confidential.

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Cabin Swapping

blog-0849371001351087220.jpgThe ringing phone woke me up and a woman unceremoniously asked, “Are you ready?” Her voice was husky, accent sexy. Surely this was a dream…? I blinked and rubbed my sleep-stung eyes. “Cabin swap,” she explained brusquely, squashing any fantasies. I asked her what she meant. That was a mistake.

“You not ready yet?!” she exploded angrily. “We only have hour before check-in! What the Hell you been doing you #@%$& lazy %#&$*!”

“I’ve been sleeping!” I retorted, waking fast. “I work midnight buffet and went to sleep three hours ago. Who are you and what are you talking about?”

“Go to purser and get your new key,” she snapped. “We have one hour to swap cabinas. Go!”

Body aching with fatigue, I stumbled through the noisy, crew-packed metal corridors to the purser’s office. According to a list posted about two hours earlier, my girlfriend and I were scheduled for a cabin change before noon today. She worked breakfast shift and we both worked lunch. Both of us had crew boat drill before lunch, too. I don’t know which was more absurd: that we had only a few hours between notification and compliance—despite her being in the dining room working breakfast and me sleeping after a late shift—or that she was going on vacation in just one week and we would leave the cabin anyway! Bianca had been in this cabin for 39 of her 40 week contract. Why change her now? I suspected it was because I was a boy-person. Our cabin shared a toilet and shower with another cabin, which was occupied by two girl-people. Two couples sharing a toilet was OK, but one boy-person and three girl-people was bad. Considering that I was one of the few crew aboard who understood the function of toilet seats, they should count themselves lucky. Or so I grumbled to myself as I readied to move both Bianca’s and my stuff.

I returned to the cabin to see two attractive and very angry Czech women waiting outside our door. They immediately commenced verbal abuse, barging into the cabin with me and throwing their suitcases on the bunks. Standing in the cabin with their arms crossed beneath their breasts, they stared at me with daggers for eyes. “This goddamn cabina is smaller!”

I was a new arrival and my stuff was not yet dispersed, but because Bianca had been blessed with no previous cabin swaps this contract, she was dug in. Her two huge green suitcases, which she lovingly called her ‘frogs’, were amazingly not large enough to hold all of her clothes and shoes and make-up and mysterious girl-person things. I shoved what I could in them and just hauled armloads of her clothing to the new cabin, which was only two doors down. Through it all the European ######-fest flared ever hotter. “This place is mess! You basura! Why not your woman pack for you? You not man enough to control her? Why not you check purser’s board? Idiot, we have only half hour left! Don’t you give me no cabina so dirty!”

I reached beneath the bed for Bianca’s shoes, disturbing a family of dust bunnies in the process. Having no broom, I used wadded toilet paper to sweep them up. The witches just hovered over me and kept the verbal abuse sharp. Finally I told them to either shut up or help out. They quieted instantly.

Finally done and on my way out the door, one of the women threw a quarter at me. “Hey, blood clot,” she snarled. “Your tip.”

By Brian David Bruns, author of national best-seller Cruise Confidential.

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blog-0608382001350575131.jpgSurvival training is an amusing label for watching a few videos on watertight doors and garbage separation, followed by quizzes on how many kilojoules of energy each survivor on a life raft was allocated per day. Still, the films are far from boring. These are shockers reminiscent of what I saw on graduation day at my high school driving class. ‘Blood Flows Red on the Highway’ becomes ‘Blood Flows Red on the High Seas.’ There were simulations of sinking ships and drowning people more intense than even James Cameron’s Titanic. Even better, fires burned the unwary, crowds trampled the weak, and pirates attacked everybody. My personal favorite was the watertight door slicing a cow’s leg in two.

After the gore fest we were led up to the open deck on the bow of Majesty of the Seas, which was brutally exposed to the tropical heat of May in Key West. A bright orange life raft waited upon the humming deck. Steps led up to a platform before its opening. Atop it waited a Dutch officer.

“Working at sea and serving our guests is a wonderful privilege, and it is earned by keeping their safety first and foremost on our minds. Here, you are not a cabin steward or a waiter or a singer or a cook: you are crew who safeguard the lives of our guests. That means lowering lifeboats and directing panicked people, it means man overboard training. It may even mean fighting pirates.”

Aha! Mild-mannered art dealer by day, pirate-smashing crime fighter by night. I always wanted to be a superhero. I’m cool with tights.

“Each of you will be certified as ‘personnel nominated to assist passengers in emergency situations’ according to the training objectives of the International Maritime Organization, Resolution A770. This includes basic first aid, survival craft basics, fire fighting skills, and human relationships training. Now, everyone into the raft!”

Excepting only me and one Jamaican lady, the crew was entirely Asian. More and more bodies disappeared into the raft, like the old clowns-fitting-in-the-funny car gag. The officer kept me outside, however. This allowed me to review the life raft. It was a shockingly large thing, considering how it compressed so snugly into keg-sized canisters. The base was two thick black rubber tubes bent into octagonal shape, the top a highly visible orange tent.

Grunts and complaints and waves of heat rose from inside. The officer glanced down emotionlessly at the squirming mass of flesh below him. “Tomorrow this raft could save your life!” he shouted. “Imagine this raft rocking at sea for unending hours under the hot sun.” Someone yelled back, “It is under the hot sun!”

The officer continued, “This raft holds twenty-four crew and guests. There are currently only twenty-three crew inside. How does it feel?” Angry mutterings and cynical jokes answered him. “That is correct, it is difficult to fit you all in.”

I was motioned to approach. I leaned forward and reviewed the inside nervously. Bodies were like sardines in a can. Those people crammed at the sides were neatly arranged, but the middle was a mosh pit. “I said this is for crew and guests,” he emphasized. “Now, what is the difference between each of you and the average American?”

Alarm bells went off in my mind when the officer placed his foot on my behind. “About one hundred pounds!”

I was launched into the air. Through the whistling wind I heard someone cry, “Ahh! Big Mac attack!” I landed onto the bodies with a crunch. Talk about a dramatic entrance!

By Brian David Bruns

Don't miss my latest cruise book, Unsinkable Mister Brown!

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blog-0663090001349794765.jpgThe shortage of necessary materials in a cruise ship dining room is a serious issue, but not for the reason one might think. Each waiter is assigned a specific amount of silverware and a single rack to hold it. Fanatically guarding your silver is a matter of course on Carnival ships, and every rack is profoundly labeled. Because names are extremely confusing on ships (what, with 60 nationalities aboard), many draw pictures instead. As the only American waiter in the fleet, I drew the Stars & Stripes, which may or may not have been more intimidating than my colleague who covered his rack with superbly drawn, realistically creepy bats.

Anyone caught ‘borrowing’ from a waiter’s soiled rack during mealtime faced a severe reprimand. Anyone caught pinching clean silver risked decapitation. At the end of the first seating, waiters would rush their silver to the dishwasher and refuse to leave until the precious cargo was fully cleaned and accounted for. Those who simply hadn’t the time for such protection were forced to rely on the goodwill of the dishwashers to keep prying hands away. Needless to say, dishwashers enjoyed a healthy gratuity for ensuring this “goodwill”. We waiters did not begrudge them, as our less-than minimum wage was generous compared to a dishwasher’s salary.

At first, I was disgusted with Carnival’s apparent inability to supply their employees with necessary equipment. Every station was required to have X number of saucers, water glasses, wine glasses, silverware, side plates, coffee cups, etc. Yet there was simply never enough of any of these items. Absurdly, a nightly inventory was required and all items were displayed openly upon the tables for counting. Specialty items in particularly high demand, like butter dishes (because guests stole them, too), were exposed for all to pinch (steal). So after all that hard work serving guests, waiters endured unpaid guard duty over their stations and waited for the appropriate manager to OK their station. After being cleared and departing, thieving packs of waiters descended upon these stations to gather what they needed for their own inspection. For, to pass the inventory, a waiter was required to steal from another that had already been designated as fully stocked. A nasty consequence of this was that waiters arrived at their stations an hour early—off the clock—to steal it back. Or as much as they could, anyway. The whole thing was bizarre, and completely inimical to the cruise line’s insatiable and unrealistic demands for superior service.

Only after observing the restaurant staff did I begin to understand Carnival’s policy. The attitude of most waiters was one of extreme indifference towards property. Breakage was exceptionally high because no one cared about the cost. Carnival was a billion-dollar sweat-shop, so why should an over-worked, under-paid waiter care if he dropped a cup? But twenty broken cups a night on each of twenty ships added up in a hurry! By demanding that each station be equipped completely and enforcing it nightly, Carnival threw the responsibility right back onto the waiters. Breakage was thusly low. Frustration thusly high.

Any waiter wanting to get tipped by all his guests—his only salary for the whole cruise—had to focus on preventing breakage. How else can you make happy twenty-six guests simultaneously demanding coffee when you only have ten cups and eight saucers? Pinching on the go was mandatory. Yet even legitimate accidents did not guarantee replacement of necessary equipment. The system was brutal but effective; a metaphor for all things at sea.

For more back of the house surprises, my book Cruise Confidential is full of them. I ran the gamut of the restaurants, from busboy up to management (and back down to waiter!).

Brian David Bruns