Life below decks

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As I wing my way from one major Macintosh event—MacMania 3.5, Baltic Blast—to another—Macworld Expo, Boston—I’ve decided that the appropriate way to wrap up my experience is by reporting what transpired on my last night aboard our cruise ship, Holland-America’s Westerdam . Saturday night was special not only because it was the last time I’d have the opportunity to dine with my most companionable table companions, Leo Laporte, Ben Long, and photography instructor Bill Durrence and his wife Barbara, but also because it proved to be my opportunity to gain some insight into what goes on below decks. It’s like this:

While finishing off a day with Ben in the Ocean Bar, one of the ship’s guest entertainers, Gary Arbuthnot, approached and asked if I had some connection with the Macintosh as I looked very much like the guy who appears in video form on Macworld’s CD. After acknowledging that the guy on the CD and the guy sipping a refreshing cocktail were one and the same, I asked Gary if he’d be willing to put me in touch with some of the ship’s musicians. Having earned my keep for a number of years as an entertainer I was anxious to learn what it was like to take your show on the road—or the sea, as the case may be. He agreed to make the arrangements.

After Gary put in a bit of spade work with the guys who make up the show band—the band that provides the music for the entertainers who hop on and off the boat at various ports—we set up a meeting for the last night of the cruise. I’m grateful that we did.

As we gathered in the third-deck Ocean Bar I had two issues in mind—how the band uses technology to perform their jobs and, perhaps more importantly, how they manage to remain sane during those long months at sea. As it turns out, the first directly affects the second.

Most of the people working the boats are on a contract that lasts between six months and a year. The more senior members of the staff have the shorter contract whereas the room stewards and food and beverage staff, who are largely comprised of people from the Philippines and Indonesia, have signed on for the longer contract. The musicians and sound and stage technicians are asked to commit to a six month shift. Guest entertainers such as Gary hop from boat to boat and cruise-line to cruise-line and may stay for the entire cruise or get off the boat when their show’s run is completed.

Of the five musicians and one sound tech I spoke with—Gary, drummer Bruce Stodola, guitarist Charles Pike, keyboard player Michael Anderson, bass player David Lane, and sound engineer Paul Doherty—the Mac was well represented. David has a PowerBook and records with Apple’s Logic and Propellerhead’s Reason. Bruce studied at Boston’s Berklee College of Music where he exclusively used Macs. Although the ship’s $250,000 theatre system is based on a proprietary Yahama mainframe and control surface, a Power Mac G4 runs video content, a setup that sound engineer Doherty said is common in his line of work.

Those who don’t own Macs most often cited the price and availability of hardware and software as the reason they’ve stuck with their Windows PCs. When I mentioned that I’d heard similar feedback from other Windows users they suggested that for those aboard the boats, price was a different sort of concern.

They went on to describe a “flea market” in St. Petersburg that sells any Windows application made today (and if you don’t see the program you want, you ask one of the vendors if he can lay hands on it, he makes a call, and it’s in your hands in a matter of minutes.) This stuff is sold at prices that strongly suggests it’s anything but legit. How cheap? Try $2 for a copy of the latest version of Photoshop.

“You can find Mac programs too,” reports drummer Stodola, “but they cost about $30 more.”

Pirated DVDs are also in abundance, go for around $1, and are often made available long before the official studio release of the disc. Bass player Lane said they found copies of the latest Star Wars—complete with a visible time-code readout—the day it was released in U.S. theaters. These discs are often played on region-free Australian DVD players that sell for around $30.

Moral and financial issues surrounding piracy aside, I asked the band how the technology they had at hand affected their lives. To a man, they lauded the ship’s wireless Internet service and the availability of inexpensive mobile phone calls.

“For a ship’s crew member a phone call home is priceless,” said Australian Doherty. “Email is invaluable.”

Those Mac users among the band use iSight cameras to keep in touch with family and friends. The B and C decks, where the crew lives, have a private wireless network (though it shares the ship’s satellite broadband connection that the band confirmed was slow on this cruise “With you lot about,” referring to the number of MacManiacs who’d brought along their laptops). When in port, crew members can often be found using one of the many freely available WiFi hotspots with their laptops.

For the Filipino and Indonesian crew members, connectivity is even more important. For the most part, band members are young and single whereas the Asian crew are often older, have a family at home, and have signed on to work the boats in order to provide a better life for their children. A cabin steward I spoke with has such a child.

“What day is today? The 10th?” he asked. “Tomorrow is my baby’s second birthday.”

With just a month off to visit home between contracts, email and the phone are vital links for these crew members to stay in touch with their families.

Wrapping up our talk with a return to the issue of sanity aboard a boat that serves both as your workplace and home, I asked the band how they maintain relationships when they spend so much time at sea. Lane is fortunate to be married to a woman who works aboard the Westerdam, which helps explain how he’s been able to carry on for over three years. The others confirmed that keeping relationships going is a challenge, even if, as is often the case, that relationship is with another crew member.

Stodola explains it with typical drummer aplomb:

“You don’t lose your girlfriend, you just lose your turn.”

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