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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26

Rock The Boat

Craig Silliphant
Published Thursday May 14, 06:40 pm
Cruise ship gigs are a great way to make some cash and see the world

“You’re basically working in a hotel,” says singer/guitarist Tim Vaughn. “It’s just on water.”

Vaughn’s referring to the practice of musicians working on cruise ships, which was called “the oil fields for musicians” by one player I talked to. For as long as I can remember, good local musicians I’ve known have been taking gigs on seasonal cruise ships.

“When I was going to school at the Musician’s Institute in L.A., I had a week where I paid rent and my last bit of tuition and had no idea how I was gonna survive for the next few months,” says Christian Kongawi of The Rebellion and other projects. “I was talking to the Drum Dean and he said, ‘Why don’t you try and audition for Carnival Cruise Lines? They’re hiring.’ I didn’t even really know what it was about back then.”

“I had some friends that were playing in a party band on a ship in Australia,” says Vaughn on how he became a singing sailor with P&O Cruise Lines. “They needed somebody to fill in for one contract as the frontman. I ended up going back and co-fronting with the guy that I was filling in for.”

There’s an obvious standard of musicianship required for such a venture, and both Vaughn and Kongawi had to audition — though Vaughn’s was more of a formality because he was joining a pre-existing band, whereas Kongawi joined the ranks of the show bands. But once they’d made the cut, Vaughn headed for Australia and Kongawi to Miami.

“You’re thrown in a group, usually with people from all over the world,” Kongawi says. “They have an apartment building in Miami, and you meet there with all the other musicians and rehearse. You get to meet the musicians going on all the boats, because all the musicians live in the apartment at once and all rehearse in the studio there. There could be 10 to 15 bands at a time rehearsing there.”

Each cruise line and band works a different way, but it’s a pretty sweet gig if you can get it. You’re travelling all over the world, chilling in beautiful tropical locales and being paid well to work a mere handful of hours a day.

“There are entertainers that work up to 14 hours a day,” says Kongawi, “but as far as us musicians, we have a lot of spare time for fun. We work two to three hours a day, sometimes not at all depending on the day. We get the same guest privileges, getting off at the same places as they do.”

Still, there’s also some extra work that each musician discovers when they set foot on the boat.

“It’s in the fine print that you don’t get to know right away, until you’re on the ship,” says Kongawi. “No matter what your position on a ship, in case of emergency, you have an emergency position. Heaven forbid, if the ship was sinking, you have a specific thing you’re supposed to do as it relates to, you know, guest safety. There’ll be the odd drill. It’s all regulated by the Coast Guard.”

“We’re still crew and we have safety duties as well,” agrees Vaughn. “We have to fly the company flag the whole time that we’re out there. But because we’re entertainers, in our particular situation anyway, we have deck privileges. So we can go eat in some of the other restaurants and stuff, and we’re expected to socialize with other passengers.”

Speaking of socializing and customer service, musicians sometimes have promiscuous reputations, and people on holidays that are taking a brief leave from their life might be so inclined to pursue a musician (wink wink, nudge nudge, and all that). I wanted to get some juicy, scandalous details, but it sounds like these cruise ships have very specific rules for fraternization.

“The fraternization line is very... We’re not allowed to fraternize on the other side of things, I guess,” Vaughn chuckles. “That’s a no-no. That’ll get you fired.”

“But you are there to have fun with them,” adds Kongawi, “and that might involve going out partying with them — that’s what they’re there for, you know? But there’s a line.”

Other than keeping it in your pants and working the odd extra shift in the name of safety or whatever, this all sounds like a lot of fun in the sun. But like anything else, it can lose its lustre over time and a glass-half-empty kind of person might say that you’re trapped on a floating prison on the ocean for months at a time.

“There are little things,” says Kongawi, “like living in a small cabin with someone you only met when you got on the boat, or not being able to contact certain people right at the time you want. It can get to you. People that I’ve met that have done it for five to eight years are kind of bitter, I’m not going to lie. We call them ‘dark musicians.’ They’ve just been doing it too long. They have a hard time enjoying things. Like if we’re having a beer on a beach in Mexico, and us newbies are like, ‘Man, this is awesome, isn’t it?’ They’ll be like, ‘Aw, we fuckin’ come here every week, fuckin’ Mexico.’ It’s mostly people who have done it for a long time.”

But the little things aside, a cruise ship gig affords steady work for good musicians, which is all too rare.

“As you get older, being a musician, you realize that it’s not just about the love for it,” says Vaughn. “You’ve got to pay the bills too, right? Having a steady gig for five months of the year is something most musicians don’t have. That allows me to do my own thing when I get home, and I don’t think I’d be able to afford to if I didn’t do this.”

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