Port Days vs. Sea Days

At the beginning of my career working on cruise ships I was offered a contract that was going to Hawaii. I thought it was an incredible once in a lifetime experience. What I found was that my naïveté of cruise ship life was showing. The reason being, that while Hawaii is beautiful and wonderful, if you are on a cruise to Hawaii and you aren’t on a US flagged ship, you’re going to be sailing there from mainland North America (aside from trans-Pacific crossing). This is all because of The Jones Act and this means a whole lot of sea days.

Now, why is this a bad thing? As a passenger I actually love sea days but working they can be long and tiring. Today we’re going to take a look at Port Days and Sea Days from the perspective of a passenger and of a crew member.

Sea Days
As a passenger I love sea days. Usually I put the hanger over the door knob requesting room service for breakfast the next morning. The day is mine to do whatever I want with. I leisurely drink my tea on the balcony in a bathrobe and look out at the ocean. Mid-morning might be a wander around deck or to go get a specialty coffee or maybe for a swim in the pool. Maybe it’s lunch in the buffet and afternoon trivia. At night we would go to dinner and then maybe to the show. Sometimes you might even find me stopping at the puzzle table. Probably drinks and listening to music at some point. For me sea days are a chance to relax in between busy port days, a chance to enjoy more of the amenities of the ship, and take in some entertainment. They are days of leisure that can be filled with as much or as little as you want.

This also means that the more sea days on your itinerary the more important your ship selection is to make sure it has amenities that will keep you happy. And, conversely, if you are really excited about the amenities of the ship you are going on, whether it be for water slides, bumper cars, rock climbing walls, or a really awesome spa, make sure you have enough sea days and time onboard to really enjoy it.

When you work on a cruise ship sea days can be long and tiring, especially if you are in a passenger facing position. The reason for this is that when there is no port to go to the ship becomes the destination and there needs to be enough to eat and enough to do to keep them happy. My working hours on a Sea Day (non-Grand Voyage) could easily be 11 hours (or more). They were busy and often emotionally and physically exhausting. There was a lot of fun in my job, and that would often make the days go by quickly, but long days coupled with always being “on” meant that a lot of sea days in a row could be hard. Cruises that sail across oceans are notorious for being both rewarding and challenging on the crew. On those cruises you get to know the passengers really well as you are seeing them all day everyday. This can be incredibly rewarding as you build relationships with the passengers and feel like you have an even greater impact on their cruise vacation. It can also be exhausting.

After I started working on ships, and after an entire contract of sea days going back and forth to Hawaii (I saved a lot of money though not having as many port days) I assumed that everyone that worked onboard had this same experience – sea days were heavy work and port days were a bit more relaxed. However, for some departments onboard sea days can be a little bit easier than port days. For instance, a lot of the maintenance that the technical department needs to get done can’t happen while the ship is sailing, so if there is a big maintenance project to get done the port days end up being busier than the sea days.

Port Days
Port days are a huge part of why people go on a cruise at all. It’s a chance to see the world one stop at a time. Some passengers wake up first thing in the morning and try to be the first ones off the ship. Others wait until it’s a bit less busy and then are the last ones back to the ship. Some passengers are on shore excursions and some are wandering on their own (this is pre-COVID era). There are some passengers that will stay onboard during a port day just to enjoy the relatively empty ship.

Some port days are short, half days (think 7am-1pm), others are relatively full days (8am-4 or 5 pm), and then there are overnight ports where the ship acts as your hotel while you explore the cities at night and into the next day.

Port days can be as busy or as leisurely as you’d like, but regardless of how you do a port day, it’s inevitable that there will be less people on the ship.

With a good majority of passengers ashore less crew are needed to feed and entertain and support the needs of those passengers. This means that some crew can have time off. Normally on a port day this means time to go ashore or shore leave. However; there is always a minimum required number of crew that need to be onboard, not just to accommodate the needs of the passengers but also to respond in case of emergency. This is typically known as In-Port Manning or IPM.

For me port days as a crew member were somewhere between going on a tour, exploring on my own, or searching for good Wi-Fi (usually off the beaten path and somewhat away from the typical passenger locations) or go to the grocery store to get snacks for the cabin. They would also provide me with the constant debate of:

I am in this incredible place so I should go ashore, and:
I am so tired I need to make the responsible life decision and take a nap but so and so just knocked on my door and they are heading into town and do I want to go with them? Yeah, it’s okay, I’ll eat ashore and nap during dinner time, it’s fine. How often am I in ________ (insert really cool place here)?

Of course, port days were working days, too. A port day for me could range from four to nine or ten hours of work, depending on a whole variety of circumstances (if there were any inspectors onboard, whether or not it was a tender port, how many staff I had, etc.). And, even though port days were still working days, in my position we worked slightly different hours on port days and it might be that I had the chance to sleep in (and forgo shore time), or it could be a good time to do laundry, or just have some “me” time to recuperate.

Now, while port days for me would typically offer a bit of a break, for some of the other crew port days are just all around busy. It could be maintenance, it could be that you work for Shore Excursions so your port days are a huge basis of your work, it could be that it is a tender port and you are driving one of the tenders, but, in general, port days are easier for most of the crew than sea days.

Which do you prefer? Port Days or Sea Days? Were you crew? Which was better in your role?

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