They’re Just Floating Bathrooms

You think oozing sewage is gross? Try visiting the crew’s quarters on your next cruise vacation. It’s just one big, floating backed-up toilet, writes Brian David Bruns.

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 news when a fire left it without propulsion, with little running water, and 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 deals 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 20 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, I noticed 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 among the crew. Customs vary radically from nation to nation and from person to person. When first indoctrinated into crew, on day one, everyone is ordered to wash daily and to use deodorant, whether they “need” it or not. Many comply. But when working a minimum of 80 hours a week without a day off for 10 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 shipwide because a crewman flushed a shoe down the toilet this morning.”