Resources - Chapter 7 Supplement

Massage Therapy at Sea

by Sheryl Rapée-Adams

The following experience occurred in 1997. While the cruise industry in general has improved since then, this story serves as a vital cautionary resource.

When a ship-spa company offered me a four-month massage therapy contract, I decided to try it. I figured the time away would refresh me. The money sounded good. I looked forward to a change of scene from northern New England, a true test and renewal for my beloved (now my husband) and me, and a chance to really experience myself through the challenge.

My job title of "Beauty Therapist" should have clued me in, along with the four-hour ordeal before boarding. It consisted of 30 minutes of filling out forms, three hours of waiting for a 15-minute medical exam, and a mad rush onto the ship. I had barely enough time to try on the uniform I was expected to wear daily for four months. Luckily, there was no time for me to sign the contract.

Standing on the dock, I stared into the distance to take in the entire sight. Beside me breathing nervously stood Kim, another "Beauty Therapist" newly arrived from Fresno. The 916-foot luxury cruise liner had been afloat just three months. Its 975 staterooms were immaculate, practically unused. Its ten decks shone. Several more levels lurked below.

There was no time for my gaze to linger. A compact, blonde British dynamo whirled into sight and whisked us on board through a lower-level cargo entrance, not over the carpeted boarding ramp now filled with passengers. Sharon, our "Spa Manageress," as her tag identified her, left us on a utility deck. She rushed down a cavernous hall to fetch our paperwork, dodging men pushing heavy equipment on carts who were speaking in several languages I could not identify. We huddled against a wall with our belongings.

Kim and I signed boarding papers, donned our cruise staff tags, and meekly followed our "Manageress" to our cabins. Sharon told us that she had assigned Kim and me to different cabins because if she put two "new girls" together, they would cry and become immobilized. There seemed some logic to this. But in my overwhelming feelings of disorientation, my seasoned roommate was marginally helpful.

Standing in the center of my cabin I could touch all four walls. It had no portholes, but did offer two bunk beds, a desk, a closet, and a bathroom with a shower stall. When sitting on the toilet, my knees touched the door. A cabin attendant cleaned and made the beds every day. My roommate said that she and the other spa staff each tipped him about $15 per week.

Kim and I found our way to the spa, several decks and maze-like halls away. Glancing at an appointment book, I discovered that I had been booked to perform two massages immediately. This was a mistake, as new Beauty Therapists were not supposed to see clients until their second day on board. But the clients had to be treated, so Kim took one and I took the other.

The spa was gorgeous. In the treatment rooms, huge curved windows overlooked the sea. My treatment room featured marble moldings, tile floors, glass-fronted cabinets displaying elaborately packaged products, a seashell sink, and a glassed-in shower. The white treatment table had foot-pedal height adjustment and sat up for facials. Our clients were pleasant and tipped well. But the spa atmosphere felt contrived and tense, and the therapists acted rushed and competitive.

At last, Kim and I ate a hurried dinner, unpacked in our tiny cabins, and met our roommates. They were a British and a South African woman who had attended beauty school. They were each about six inches shorter than we buxom Americans and, at 20 years old, more than ten years younger than Kim and me. They eyed our belongings and commented humorlessly that my husband's photographed image reminded them of Jon Bon Jovi.

The next morning I was breakfasted, showered, zipped into my uniform, hair in a bun, makeup on, and ready to work by eight. My 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. shift that day consisted of eleven 50-minute massages and one hour off for lunch. By the eighth massage, I found a survival technique: When my client lay prone, I made horrible faces at myself in the treatment room's large mirror. This helped restrain my urge to throw myself off the uppermost deck.

On land, I try to live a healthy, conscious life, just as I encourage my clients to do: get treatments regularly, eat well, exercise, and breathe. Cruise ship massage therapists have no time or energy for such pursuits. That evening, a ship's officer asked me if the spa massage therapists worked on each other as well as the clients. Cradling my throbbing hands, I replied, "Honey, after eleven massages, I don't even want to touch myself."

Riding the crew elevator down to my cabin, an enormous waiter from Trinidad asked me kindly, "And how are you, lovie?" Though I still wore my spa smile, tears began to roll down my face. I knew then that I would disembark a week later when we reached Miami, our terra firma of origin.

I called the spa company's Miami office from San Juan, Puerto Rico. When I said I was leaving, the administrator who hired me became angry and rude. My "Manageress" told me my attitude was upsetting all the "girls." Before I disembarked, a ship's officer was very interested to learn that our manageress had not performed her required duties by demonstrating safety and emergency procedures to Kim and me, nor even shown us where our life preservers were.

The Acid Test: Are You Cut Out to Do Massage at Sea?

Here is a test vital for anyone considering cruise ship massage. Set aside two days to perform this test. For the first day, book eleven 50-minute massages, every hour on the hour, between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. Take only one hour off for lunch, either between noon and 1 p.m., or 1 and 2 p.m.

This will produce copious laundry, so you may wish to recruit friends who will bring sheets, or treat the same person more than once. You must at least simulate changing linens between each session, and you must give eleven massages - no cheating. During every single session, convince your clients that they should buy beauty products costing $25 to $150 each. No intake forms, no assessment time off the table, and no jotting notes after sessions. No cancellations.

This simulation replicates a ship's "sea day" when there is no land is in sight. On sea days, massage therapists are fully booked with waiting lists.

On the second day of your test, perform at least seven massages. This simulates a more relaxed "day in port" when the spa is not necessarily (but still might be) booked to capacity.

If this two-day test leaves you exhausted but willing and able, you might want to pursue cruise ship massage therapy. If it leaves you immobile, incapacitated, a trembling wreck, consider taking a cruise as a passenger. If you get a massage onboard, show great sympathy and tip well.

If just considering this test evokes every reason you don't have the time or resources to set it up, forget it. You absolutely must be willing to go to the eleventh hour, still look passably good, and be congenial to all. Be realistic. If you don't want to spend week after week like this for four to eight months, you don't want to do cruise ship massage therapy.

Had I known in advance what the job entailed, I would not have signed on. I feel I would have made a better decision if: my interviewers had given me an accurate job description; I had talked to other cruise ship massage therapists in advance (the company hiring me refused to provide me with names—another clue); and I had performed "The Acid Test" (see sidebar).

All Ashore Who's Going Ashore!

I was hired by a concessionaire that places spa staff aboard large cruise lines throughout the world. New Beauty Therapists start on ships taking weekend or week-long cruises in the Caribbean. After a contract or two, they may request transcontinental cruises or ones based in the Mediterranean or Asia. International spa staff members sign 8-month contracts. Due to the history of American staff jumping ship mid-contract Yankees sign 4-month contracts.

The cruise line provides room, board, and health insurance. Carrying a crew card eliminates the need for cash while aboard. Purchases made with the card are deducted from wages. Crew cards entitle spa staff to discounts at shops and activities, both on the ship and in port.

Once on board, I learned I was expected to sell high-priced European beauty products to nearly every massage client. The other Beauty Therapists had spent six weeks at the company's European training program learning the ship's extensive product line and the product-intensive services we were expected to perform.

The spa staff was disgusted that two untrained therapists had been placed on such a busy ship. If I had put in extra time beyond my scheduled twelve hours a day, I might have learned the facials, body wraps, aromatherapy, and other treatments the spa offered.

Our manageress had informed Kim and me that we shouldn't worry about selling anything the first week. But by the second day, she told us that we would make little money if we didn't start selling immediately.

Rather than developing their massage skills, cruise ship Beauty Therapists develop patter to convince clients that they need expensive products. High sellers are rewarded with bonuses and extra time off in ports. Beauty Therapists are urged to compete against each other to earn the most retail commissions. Those who fail to meet sales targets are transferred to shabbier ships with less upscale clients. On those ships, work hours may be slightly shorter, but therapists still work very hard and they earn far less money.

On my ship, Beauty Therapists earned $50 per week base salary, plus 7.5% commission on each $70 massage and the price of any retail products sold. Therapists keep all tips. Most passengers tip 15% to 20%. To remain on an upscale ship such as the one I was on, massage therapists needed to sell $5,000 to $10,000 of product weekly, yielding a paycheck of $600 to $1,000 per week.

The ship's spa takes appointments from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Therapists are on duty twelve hours a day with 1½ days off per week. Spa staff may go ashore at ports if their time off coincides with port time. This is usually the case because most passengers disembark to explore popular ports. Days at sea are the busiest.

The ship spends only a few hours in each port. Destinations are repeated weekly until the ship's itinerary changes. Every week, on the night before the ship returns to home port, the spa staff performs "port clean." From 9 to 11 p.m., after working a twelve-hour sea day, they scrub the spa clean from the ceiling down.

A ship therapist told me that she once loved to do massage, but after months of 12-hour days, she was burnt out. Another told me, "I worked an 8-month contract a few years ago. After two years off, I was ready to do massage again." A third spoke of her dream to return to England and offer massage therapy at a well-known spa, but after a few contracts at sea, her desire to perform massage faded and her shoulders and elbows ached constantly. These seasoned therapists were booked to do mostly facials and other less physically-demanding beauty treatments, while Kim and I were given massages to do exclusively.

The Rules

Female Beauty Therapists wear a white uniform dress, nylons, and white dress shoes. Face make-up is mandatory. Long hair must be done up on the head or French-braided. Ponytails are not permitted. Jewelry is limited to one small earring per ear. Male therapists must wear white collared shirts, pants and shoes, short hair, a clean shave, and no jewelry. No one may wear sneakers.

When off duty and in passenger areas, spa staff must dress presentably during the day and formally at night. There is no dress code in areas designated for crew or staff only.

According to ship's hierarchy, staff ranks between crew and officers. Here are the four levels of humans onboard in ascending order of rank: crew, staff, officers, and passengers. Ships' dining rooms follow this rank. The food improves noticeably as the rank increases.

In the cafeteria-style staff dining room, the greasy food was edible. Just. Breakfast included hot and cold cereal, eggs, bacon, and fruit. Lunch and dinner usually meant a fish dish, some other meat, salad bar, vegetable, and starch. Along with lean protein bars, I carried bottled water wherever I went. In all that ocean, drinkable water is scarce.

Staff and crew are barred from the casino on all ships. Beyond that, privileges vary greatly from ship to ship. On my ship, crew was confined to crew-designated areas. Spa staff was permitted in certain passenger lounges, the theater, the cinema, the shops, the decks, and midnight buffet. In fact, spa staff was encouraged to mingle with passengers and entice them to book appointments. Spa staff was entitled use the beautifully appointed gym during hours unpopular with passengers, but none had the energy.

Kim and I explored the ship each night. We often lost our way. Hallways seemed to circle in endless loops and we depended on crew to lead us back to our cabins. The ship holds up to 2446 people. Kim and I gaped at the ten restaurants, lounges, disco, palladium-style theater, movie theater, art galleries, shopping mezzanine, and the vast, forbidden casino.

Crew and staff share very limited space. Good boundaries, an open heart, and an open mind may be essential to survival. I met many wonderful people who displayed those qualities. I also met people who shut down just to protect themselves from the constant barrage of human energy. Others had boundaries so permeable that they carried on like Roger Rabbit.

Cruise ship work is much more than a full-time job. It is a lifestyle. Ships are full of hard-working, sleep-deprived humans who don't always have the energy left to smile when off duty. My spa coworkers were quite surly. To their credit, the ship's crew was friendly and helpful.

In some work settings, intimate relationships among coworkers are discouraged. On board a ship at sea month after month, such relationships are inevitable and expected. Everyone knows everyone else's business and privacy is not an option.

Shipboard life is relentlessly intense. Some thrive and some merely survive. Others go home. Even among a ship full of people in high-pressure, long-workday situations, massage therapy is considered a difficult job. For some, the rewards make it well worth the constant challenge.

Kim and I disembarked the ship in Miami where my parents happen to live. We let them spoil us for a few days while we slept, ate and relaxed. Although we had not been seasick on board, Kim and I felt queasy for the first three days on the motionless land. Then we flew home, Kim to California and I to Vermont, having connected in a way that only two people who have shared an intense ordeal can.

The Universal Intelligence had something in mind when It sent me on this journey. Perhaps it was to meet Kim and find a friend. Maybe I went so I could bring this information to others. Or maybe, like Dorothy, I went over the rainbow and back, only to realize "there's no place like home."

Consider Cruise Ship Massage If You. . .

Forget About Cruise Ship Massage If You. . .

Sheryl Rapée-Adams, M.A., N.C.T.M.B., is a Massage Therapist and Upledger-Certified CranioSacral Therapist, yoga teacher, and newspaper columnist living in Rutland, Vermont.