A Security Officer tells all about his first-hand experience onboard a cruise ship

Jul 25, 2018

This is a letter sent by a well-respected Merseyside Police Officer who decided to join Norwegian Cruise Line as a Security Officer after his retirement from the Police Force. His personal experience onboard reveals what is going on behind the scenes, senior officer’s behavior and their personal ambitions, crew treatment by the senior officers and many other aspects of the ship life.

After his resignation from NCL the Security Officer compiled a letter of complaint to Miami Head Office and was told he will get a reply once the ship Management team on shoreside read the letter. Some eight weeks later he asked for an update of the complaint and the NCL reply was “As you are no longer an NCL employee you are not entitled to anything!” Here is his story.

A personal message to future cruise passengers and crew sailing with Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings,

My Interview with Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings

I started to plan my retirement from Merseyside Police after 25 years service and sent my CV off to Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings.

I was interviewed by a recruiting agent in Miami via a Skype interview and duly went to Southampton the following week to meet the Global Director. I was told on the day I had a job with the company as a Vessel Security Officer following in the footsteps of many Merseyside Police Officers who had done exactly the same over the past 20 years.

I was asked by the Global Director would I consider giving the company at least five years service to which I agreed. Over the next twelve months I would complete some rigorous training including life-saving and firefighting scenarios on week-long courses. There would be hours of studying online and numerous exams to pass often with 100% pass rate.

My Experience as a Police Officer

I was as enthusiastic as ever over my new role. I had served Queen and country as a Community Police Officer in Croxteth, Norris Green and Fazakerley within the City of Liverpool. I was responsible for 10,000 young people and 20 schools and all of the issues that came with the role. I loved my job it was my vocation from a young child.

The final year of my career as a Cop went really quick, there were so many people both children and adults to say goodbye to. I had also been a tunnel officer at Anfield for a number of years where I was responsible for looking after the match referee and officials on a match day. My final duty after 25 years was New Year's Eve December 31st, the game was Liverpool versus Manchester City. It was an emotional end as I had traveled the World in my role as a spotter both for the English national team for six years taking me to the World Cup in Germany and the European Championships in Ukraine. I had seen Liverpool win FA cups both in Cardiff and Wembley as well as Europa and Champions League finals in a host of different countries. I was giving up a job I absolutely loved thinking it was now time to set myself another big challenge and sail the oceans around the World.

Joining the Cruise Ship in South America

Norwegian Sun cruise ship in South America

I left the United Kingdom to travel down to South America on 5th February 2017. It took me 28 hours to finally join up with the ship in Montevideo Uruguay. I remember first seeing the Norwegian Sun and being in awe at the sheer size of this 98,000-ton vessel. It was a big task for me, there would be 2100 passengers and 950 crew members. I had never been on a cruise liner before so I wasn't really sure what it would be like. I knew I would be comfortable in my role as my skills working the streets of Liverpool would be very similar to the jobs that occurred onboard. I was not prepared for the amount of hours that I would work though. It started off at 96 hours for my first week and it stayed around 88 hours most of the time. I think in my time on the ship which lasted 78 days my least amount of hours in a week was 79 hours.

My Duties and Responsibilities as a Security Officer

I would deal with numerous incidents such as drugs, missing persons, sudden deaths, a vast amount of accidents, thefts, deception, and rape. The crew would constantly be on their toes due to a host of random cabin searches on a weekly basis. The crew would also have monthly random drug and alcohol testing.

No matter what your workload was on any given day, as soon as you received the email regarding the random testing for drugs/alcohol from Southampton early morning that took precedence over anything else. On one occasion the ship had an outbreak of Norovirus which affected a large number of the crew. The Medical Center was full. Staff X still made this the focal point to take samples from the crew. Staff X would not listen to the senior Doctor or myself regarding this matter. The random sample tests take a lot of organizing and would often last approximately 3 to 4 hours once the report was completed for head office.

The monthly disciplines were often arduous. I would have to write up on average 5 to 8 a week for a variety of incidents that the Staff Captain would deem worthy of punishing the crew for. If you missed any training course on the ship that was it. Most of the time the crew member was working and could not get to training or on other occasions, they had been working nights and were in bed exhausted from another long days work.

If you had three discipline offenses against you it was "bye bye" time. Bearing in mind the crew members work a nine-month contract with no days off in that time. It was on occasions very difficult for the crew member to remember all of their tasks as they all work flat out 24/7. I was really impressed with the work ethic of these men and women.

Senior Officers Behaviour

The Staff Captain loved his weekly disciplines, he would take great pleasure ridiculing the crew members. It was abhorrent to watch them so upset and watch another human revel in it. After a week or two, I started to meet up with the crew members and coach them for judgment day. It was great to see the crew members fighting their corner and week after week just getting a warning or the case dismissed.

This part of my job wasn't in my job title and was very time consuming. However, it was worth it to see the outrageous Staff Captain who was a control freak tied up in knots by the crew members as we had researched the facts like a Crown Court trial. Something to which had never been brought up in a conversation before.

I think it's fair to say the crew members appreciated my assistance, but trust me I got far more pleasure than anyone as the Staff X had no idea what was going on. It's fair to say he was disappointed when he had nobody to 'shoot' That was his terminology as he was desperate for promotion and he knew Head Office in Miami would study the weekly figures. How upsetting is it that one man was happy to have so many crew members worried, anxious and upset to try and get a promotion?

This particular individual would smoke in his cabin and more importantly on the bridge 24/7 and as already discussed be wanting to discipline a crew member for turning up five minutes late to a training course or not washing the bedding properly.

The months have now passed by and I have had time to think about my life on the Norwegian Sun. I came full of hope and enthusiasm as I had retired after a 26 year career in the Police. I left with my dreams shattered!

The Chief Constable personally requested I take a career break in case things didn't work out. Having spoken with a number of ex Merseyside Police colleagues who are SECO's (Security Officers) within the company over the past 18 months, I was convinced that I was able to adapt to ship life. Although I was prepared for a tough first contract, I maybe was not as prepared as I should have been for disaster after disaster.

I was originally going to work on the Norwegian Jade but was switched on two occasions prior to my departure from the UK and ended up on the Norwegian Sun. It was certainly interesting working alongside another Security Officer who was more interested in getting young crew members back to his cabin and drinking alcohol. His days would be spent on "grooming" trips around the ship. I didn't realize how damaging that partnership would become until about week 4 of my contract when Captain XX came to the ship.

I had originally asked why the report on this particular Security Officer had not been completed as everyone was allegedly aware of what he was up to. Nobody would take ownership of the problem! The report was left for me to complete within the first couple of days of him leaving the ship. I specifically asked why the female crew members felt vulnerable due to this Senior Officers actions whilst onboard. Things were to get rather more complicated. A female crew member came to see me to report a sexual offence namely rape, that had taken place onboard the ship by a Senior Officer. A second female crew member also made a formal complaint of harassment by the same officer. In my opinion, if the matter had been dealt with properly the individual officer would not have been on the ship to commit the offenses in the first place.

Things Changed for the Worst when the newly appointed Captain arrived

The senior managers Captains and Staff Captains work a rotation of 10 weeks on and 10 weeks off.

Crew members and Managers informed me that things would change once the newly appointed Capt XX arrived and they were right. Within 24 hours Staff Captain X changed overnight like I have never seen before. His girlfriend had left the ship and he never smiled once after that. He would shout at me constantly on a daily basis about anything. It was clear to me he was not coping with the extra tasks placed upon him. Capt XX is the most intense person I have ever met. Trust me I have met some characters in my time but this guy was in a league of his own.

Staff X stated he was desperate to be a Captain and as I was the new hire things were not always to his liking. It became normal to phone me and demand reports and investigations with immediate deadlines. On occasions, he would give me half an hour for complicated and protracted enquiries. Even though Staff knew I was working on other projects equally with deadlines. As Staff X stated he had to call Miami as many times as possible as this was his promotion at stake.

"Trust me Chief of Police we will both break you"!

My workload was demanding on a day to day basis as one would expect but there were times when I would not be able to keep up with Staff X's demands. That was through no fault of my own, as my handover was poor. As mentioned earlier, the previous Security Officer had other agendas. There were things I was not aware of on the ship. Rather than talk things through Staff X would constantly shout in my face and also shout at me on the phone. Whenever Capt XX was present he would just laugh and say "Trust me Chief of Police we will both break you"!

I did not find this aspect of ship management funny at all. The weeks went by, I asked for some help from Capt XX over a few issues. His reply was "I don't give advice it is much more fun when you get it wrong and I can tell you off". I found this rather bizarre as Staff X was smiling.

Crew members including officers came to see me regularly and complained at how both Capt XX and Staff X were "cracking the whip". I understand about discipline but in my opinion, this was bullying like I had not seen before. It was cruel to see and I was on the receiving end of it and it made me feel very uncomfortable.

Staff X enjoyed his written warnings and would constantly talk of "shooting" the crew prior to the hearings. I was averaging 5 to 7 warnings per week. Staff X on one occasion was happy to give a 70-year-old wardrobe dresser a written warning for allowing her costumes to be used by male crew members from the production team at a drag queen party. Two of the male crew members uploaded the pictures to Facebook.

I asked Staff X if I should complete the investigation with a further two warnings for the Facebook offence. Staff K informed me to forget the paperwork as shoreside would use the written warning against the wardrobe dresser to get rid of her due to her age. I tried to discuss this matter further with Staff X as I believed there had been an injustice. I realized I had made a mistake as Staff X informed me, he decides who gets 'the bullets'. This was in relation to his constant comments of crew members who should be shot. On that occasion, I left Staff X's office. I was approached by the female crew member who asked if the Facebook offenders would get the same punishment. I was non committal at the time, as the weeks went by the crew member stated. "I see the smiling assassin did nothing about the Facebook stuff".

Personal connections and turning a blind eye

Another case was when I received information about an engineer who was purchasing and consuming alarming amounts of alcohol on occasions only two hours before his tour of duty in the ECR (Engine Control Room) as well as smoking in his cabin. Staff X stated he was "going to be shot". I duly prepared the paperwork for a Captain's Hearing as I was told to be on standby to breathalyze this crew member. A few days passed by and I asked what was happening with this crew member. Staff X stated he knew the crew member and he was a friend. He went on to say it would be difficult to upset that department, meaning the engineers.

That meant the ship was sailing through the night with (allegedly) a person in charge of the engine control room under the influence of alcohol. I asked Staff X how was this allowed as I knew there had been crew members punished for minor offenses. I did not see this issue as a minor incident but as I had dared to question Staff X it made me unpopular yet again and was clearly uncomfortable when I made the suggestion that this was a "cover-up". I learnt a few days later that this was an old boys network as both of them knew one another very well. I stated my dissatisfaction as I wanted Staff X to know I was not a weak link. I was very uncomfortable with this situation.

The Captain is God and whatever he says goes

I learnt from my first week onboard the ship there is a 'pecking' order and you are told daily the Captain is God and whatever he says goes. Imagine then on this ship you have two control freaks walking about 24/7 trying to catch crew members out so they can discipline them or when they are not around they use CCTV footage. Don't get me wrong I was aware that things went on and I would deal with incidents but these were minor incidents. I kept such things away from Captain XX and Staff X. The crew members were grateful for the advice as they didn't want to get in trouble or lost their jobs. Their role on the ship was important to them so they could send money home to their families around the world. They did not need to be treated badly by 'Management' who would often say "These people need to know who is boss and they earn a living because of me".

Staff X nicknamed "Smiling Assassin"

The crew members were aware of who to be wary of, it was them who nicknamed Staff X as the "Smiling Assassin". As the ship had no Human Resources onboard, my phone would be in constant use offering advice on all kinds of issues. The crew members wanted to complain about how they were being treated but were fearful of reprisals. They thought if they used their phone or sent a message by email from the ship they would be identified and banished as they believed head office in Miami did not care about them.

It is a lonely life on the big metal tin can because ultimately that is what a ship is thousands of tons of metal, and trust me there are no secrets. There are lots of things going on behind the scenes. The crew told me about Captain XX having a "sea wife" that was the first time I had heard this language. I had to get crew members to explain it to me as I was the new boy I had lots of new terminology to learn. It was ultimately a girlfriend or friend at sea whom you had a sexual relationship with.

By now I was looking at flights home literally by the hour. I knew I was not going to fit in with this team of ship managers and they made it clear to me I was an outsider.

I was getting many mixed messages from Staff X and I think it's fair to say my working relationship with him was severely fractured. I would often dread my mobile phone ringing as it was never a welfare call instead it was now daily criticism of my work or my Security team. I was made to complete discipline forms for a member of my team as the Staff Captain stated we were too close. The working relationship I had with this person was as good as it gets. This member of my crew had done nothing wrong and I had refused on a number of occasions to complete the necessary discipline. How sad is that the crew member had an unblemished record and had worked a nine month contract. Staff X wanted to discipline him a week before he went on vacation. Things were at an all time low and I was now so desperate to leave.

Getting in trouble for following the security protocol 

Whilst on a visit to Santos, I was aware that the company had decided to pull the plug on Brazil for the 2018 season although I was not allowed to discuss these matters when docking our ship and meeting the officials from shoreside.

On this particular occasion as most trips in Brazil, everyone wanted to bring their family members on-board for a free lunch. This wasn't a problem if we had prior notice as the Security team could tick the names off on the prepared list.

On this day three members of the public walked up the gangway and informed my team that they were Port officials. They had come for a free lunch. Their names were not on the list and they refused to show identification and so they were turned away. I had informed Staff X of this incident and he agreed with the action by the Security team. Within minutes the three guys who were, in fact, Port officials had gone and informed the local Chief of Police who immediately impounded the ship. That meant all operations of loading goods on and off the ship had to stop immediately.

Guess who's fault it was for the ship's plight? Yes, you guessed it Security Officer Robert.

Capt XX and Staff X were ranting down the phone blaming my team and I for being unprofessional yet again.

I had to go and meet the Chief of Police and explain our procedure and then go and explain to the three Port officials through an interpreter. I have never been made to apologize on so many occasions when my team had done nothing wrong in the first place.

Capt XX had double standards

Capt XX would walk about the ship telling everyone that he was bored and would constantly engage in female company. The male crew members stated they had no respect for him as he liked to creep up on them and find fault in anything that they were doing. The crew members stated that Capt XX had double standards as he had been in some kind of relationship with a female crew member who was allowed to cross train with guest services. Other crew members would have liked the opportunity to cross train in other departments. The crew members would talk openly of this alleged relationship and would often 'mock' the Captain behind his back.

"Near Miss" Incident in Falklands

I had been on a shoreside tender boat set up at the Falklands and the intelligence from the locals whom I formed a good working relationship with told me that a local Royal Navy vessel which had been moved to a different location due to the arrival of the N/S and the Captain of the ship was not happy due to the N/S getting too close. I was unaware at the time and was unsure what they were actually talking about. I came back to the ship and informed Staff and Captain of what I had been told. My information was dismissed immediately and Capt XX said: "And you went to war over that place". I was aware that later that day both Captain and Staff had to make a detailed report for a "near miss". That was a number of hours after I had informed them. I guess my information was not worthy as most things I discussed were often dismissed like I did not exist.

I did not want to be involved in this kind of environment it was like a "cut throat" atmosphere. Staff X and Capt XX are clearly out for there own means and do not lead by example. My experience went from hope and optimism for the future as I had worked so hard in the twelve months prior to joining the ship. In the end, it was truly painful. A man who would rather "shoot" his fellow crew members and get enjoyment out of it and is a Micro Manager that wants to fix things when they're not broken because he was bored is a recipe for disaster in my opinion.

The final negative experience with Staff X

My final negative experience with Staff X was when he requested six written warnings within 72 hours which wasn't a problem. When I questioned the reasoning behind the warnings as they were all allegedly for late reporting of AGE (Acute Gastro Enteritus). It was clear to see from the forms from the Medical Centre that the crew members were not late in reporting the medical problem. As normal Staff X would not listen to any reasoning. One dare not question his authority. I spent hours preparing the files and meeting the crew members who were anxious as they had done nothing wrong. I organized the Managers to attend and witnesses all of which took hours. The crew members felt aggrieved that they had to come and explain why they had reported the problem late. My work was in vain yet again after keeping the crew members, managers and witnesses waiting for close on two hours in the corridor. Staff X dismissed all the cases which is what I told him in the first place. The man either can't listen or is just so full of his own importance that the new hire Security Officer was so insignificant and worthless that it would be a sign of weakness maybe to listen to a sensible solution which is what I suggested before. I wasted so much time with the files, more importantly causing the crew members unecessary anxiety.

A week earlier Staff X had demanded I give 22 crew members a written warning for failing to have their name badge on during a weekly ship drill. As I told him at the time that was unmanageable as each warning took on occasions well over an hour to complete. He was shouting and screaming as normal and I ended up completing 11 warnings. They were completed for the following week's hearings only for him to phone me up and inform me to get the crew members into my office and verbally warn them which is what I had told him to do in the first place. Another 11 hours work totally wasted.

Captain XX response during a major storm

A couple of days before my resignation from the ship, I knew would be sailing towards Chile and the weather was due to change with winds of up to 54 knots which is around 66 miles per hour. We were in the Pacific and as always when I knew we were going to have rough seas for a number of hours I would stay in my office on Deck 5 and proceed with my reports so that meant another night without sleep. On this occasion, just before midnight in the Pacific Ocean a number of hours from land I was typing away on the computer when all of a sudden all the documents on the shelves within the office just went flying everywhere. I was leaning to one side and I could not correct myself.

I could hear the sound of constant breaking glass and the sound of people screaming. I ran out of my office and I could see tables and chairs all over the floor. Items were still flying about, passengers had life jackets on shouting "we are going to die". I had not experienced anything like this before and I couldn't really process what was happening. I knew the ship was leaning alarmingly to the left-hand side and things were not right. I remember running up to Deck 10 as fast as I could. My body felt strange,  the saliva in my mouth had dried up I was literally bouncing up those stairs. I went onto the bridge and I could hear the bridge team shouting for the first time ever as they were always very calm.

We had been in many storms in my short time on-board. I knew this was different I could sense it. The waves hitting the ship were enormous and we were still leaning to one side.

I asked a junior member of the bridge team "Where is the captain"? The reply was "He is still in bed"!

Even though I knew the situation was serious. The Captain sailing the ship at this time was a Chilean pilot who was on-board to sail us into the ports we were traveling to.

The ship's Captain made a brief appearance on the bridge and trust me it was a brief appearance and then went straight back to bed.

We were hit with a wind speed of 108 knots which is 122mph and were listing 10 degrees.

I asked our Chilean Captain who was a true gentleman "Is everything going to be okay"? His reply "I hope so"! I asked how far can the ship go on one side. His reply was "25 degrees, 30 at the most, and then we would be at the bottom of the ocean".

My heart sank, I was afraid to ask anymore questions.

I knew we had two hours to go before we could take shelter from the sea and use the Chilean coastline as cover for our vessel. I also knew that the ship would list again within the hour. I cannot begin to describe the emotions running through your body when you are facing a situation and the power of Mother Nature at it's peak. The waves continued to hit us from all angles and the risky maneuver of turning a ship right or left with such forces hitting you side on was terrifying. There was certainly no room whatsoever for any mistakes. That is what my friend the Chilean pilot told me later in the morning when we were eating chocolate together. I truly wanted to come home at that point, I was under so much pressure from lack of sleep to outright bullying. The workload was phenomenal, one Senior Bridge Officer turned to me and said: "Robby in my fifteen years at sea I have never known it as bad as this". This fine officer was not just talking about the elements he was also discussing the daily issues that I had to endure from ship management.

I ran back down to Deck 5 to help with tidying up the damage whilst Captain XX was in his cabin. The irony of this tale is laughable as Capt XX used to walk about the ship and openly tell everyone in front of me and crew members. I want you to make sure Robby turns out to incidents through the night no matter how trivial they are. If he doesn't turn up he will have me to answer to.

I will leave it for you to decide about his management skills and care for passengers. Talk about double standards!!

I went back up to the bridge in the early hours of the morning when things were a bit calmer. I took several bars of Cadburys English chocolate I had purchased in the Falklands. I kept thanking our Chilean pilot for keeping us from a potential disaster. He smiled and duly accepted his gift. The rest of the bridge team who were still visibly shaken joined in our chocolate feast.

My resignation

Two days later I was to tell Capt XX of my resignation. I had three hours sleep from a 21-hour tour of duty the day before and yet again he was on the phone at 8 am lambasting my team of Gurkhas for not admitting a guy who had walked up the gangway with a backpack on his shoulder asking for the Captain who refused to show any identification. It turns out that this guy was, in fact, an important official who simply would not adhere to the rules.

I was trying to explain the Security aspect to Capt XX of such individuals who were trying to board our ship and he simply did not understand. I don't think I should be the one having to explain Security issues to the Captain. He continued to shout and scream and informed me that I was responsible for my team and it was my fault that the ship was now being impounded.

My Security Team

I had an amazing team of men and women from around the World with a wonderful work ethic. My team was demoralized from the negative, nasty and daily comments they would get from both Captain XX and Staff X. On one occasion my team were getting blamed for a spate of marijuana that was being smuggled onboard the ship by crew members in Montevideo. I informed both Captain XX and Staff X that the crew members were bringing the items onboard in their underwear and that the searching policy did not allow for any intimate searches. Captain XX stated it was the Security teams lack of professionalism that was causing the problem and further went on to say he had seen a piece of cheese coming on the ship. I asked what the significance was regarding the cheese only for him to say the searching was poor and he wanted random one to one searches of crew members.

No food items were allowed onboard the ship and my team were aware of this, however, as some of the crew members stated quite rightly the standard of food for crew members was appalling onboard the ship. The menu for crew members was below standard. There was very little meat, and if there was meat it was full of bones. At each port, the crew members would buy some products to go in their fridges. My team and I did not see a problem with the sealed products and yes we allowed this to take place. Captain XX wanted to make an issue out of it. I asked him to give me a list of what he wanted banning before I went and put out an internal email to crew members. Captain XX refused point blank to give me a list of banned items. I was approached a few days later by a team member who had been approached by Staff X to make sure the lobster and crab came onboard for the Captain XX and Staff X's feast.

On the morning of my resignation

How embarrassing it was for me on the morning of my resignation Captain XX came into my cabin and said: "You should have come to me if you were struggling"! What I wanted to say and what I did say at the time were two completely different things. I felt if I had told Captain XX exactly what I thought of him and his second in command, I believe life would have been very difficult trying to get off the ship. How sad I felt at having to say ship life was not for me, all I really wanted to do was tell the truth.

My letter of complaint to Miami Head Office 

Within a week of being home, I compiled my letter of complaint to Miami Head Office and I was told I would get a reply once the ship Management team on shoreside had read it. Some 8 weeks later I asked for an update of my complaint and to my horror I was told as you are no longer an NCL employee I was not entitled to anything! The crew members still contact me regarding issues they have onboard and as they have now said what is the point of complaining about anything as things just stay the same?

I had planned my retirement with what I thought to be like military precision, I knew exactly what I wanted. This personal experience with Norwegian has been a complete disaster. The company is not interested in anyone who dares to make any kind of complaint. I want the public to be aware that on occasions things are not as professional as they should be. Both Captain XX and Staff X are still in charge of Norwegian Cruise Ships around the World. Staff X is still on the Sun.

I will leave it with you to be judge and jury of this story.

Contact Robby for discreet advice on ship life issues/incidents at robbythebobby@live.com