From timid to tenacious: Gitte Nel’s journey aboard a massive cruise ship
With backgrounds as diverse as the passengers they serve, cruise ship crew members like Gitte Nel undergo rapid personal growth in the microcosm of life at sea.
Gitte Nel manages the Kids’ Club on MSC Splendida. Picture: Hein Kaiser
It sounds idyllic, working on a massive cruise ship that links continents, that boards and disembarks thousands of passengers, country by country.
But it’s different for the crew.
While passengers live their best lives on board, crew graft long hours and work up a sweat to ensure passenger smiles remain wide and angry-face emojis are left at home, where they belong.
It can be life-changing and for MSC staffer and Cape Town-born Gitte Nel, it’s been an accelerated learning curve which is now in its fifth chapter.
She works aboard the MSC Splendida, the ship which will be cruising the South African yearend holiday season this year.
Brother’s death a catalyst to pursue sailing
“I joined the cruising world when I was 20,” said Nel, “I was very timid, a real people pleaser. I didn’t stand up for myself at all.”
On board, it’s a microcosm of people from different cultures, backgrounds and character, she said, and the school of hard knocks can whip anyone into shape, rather quickly.
Her brother’s untimely death was the catalyst in Nel’s decision to pursue a life of sailing.
“I had a lot of feelings to deal with and I felt that I needed a break from home,” she said.
“I have grown so much. Life at sea has taught me an immense amount of lessons. I emerge stronger and I learn more every day,” she said, and laughed that when she first stepped on board a ship as a crew member, she was a “little girl”. Now, it’s all different.
It’s different to being a passenger.
Nel regularly went cruising with her family as a child, but it never crossed her mind that she’d be doing it for a living.
She earned a degree in dancing and human anatomy and also studied education.
These courses provided a useful background for her current placement on the ship: manager of the Kids’ Club. She probably has one of the most stressful and rewarding jobs.
“I have always loved kids, and spending time with them,” she said. “I now get to interact, share and learn from children from all over the world, with a multitude of backgrounds and cultural nuances that you learn to understand and appreciate over time.”
Ship will be brimming with ‘local is lekker‘
She misses her family and friends when at sea and said she was looking forward to the South African season.
The ship will be brimming with “local is lekker”, and she’s looking forward to spending time with people from her home country, hearing some Afrikaans and the myriad of accents that make her feel at home.
“Because we are so far removed from our family and friends,” said Nel, “fellow crew becomes family.
“I have been lucky enough to have several incredible roommates over the years, some South Africans counted amongst them.”
Presently she shares with a Peruvian, “a bit older than the rest of us, but I am fascinated by the stories that she shares, and I learn so much from her wisdom”.
Love has also not evaded life at sea.
Nel is dating a South African crew member who she met on board during a previous cruise. But they are stationed worlds apart.
He has spent the season in the Caribbean, thousands of kilometres away.
Today, however, Nel said, long-distance relationships are easier with video calling and satellite internet on board all the ships.
“We are apart, but we are close, if that makes sense,” she said.
Misperceptions of working onboard cruise ship
No journey is without its challenges and Nel’s life aboard the Splendida is no exception.
“There’s often a big misperception of working onboard a large cruise ship. People think it’s all about visiting exotic places, that it is glamorous. We are privileged to see the world, but it’s work first and foremost.”
A really tough workday can stretch well beyond 14 hours.
However, the joy and satisfaction she gets from her job is infectious. It shines through when she talks about the children. Their innocence and laughter, she said, are the highlights of her day.
“They make me laugh. When they do the things they do, I remember, that this is why I’m here.”