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Confessions of a Cruise Security Officer

by Sid Lipsey of Yahoo Travel

A cruise is a vacation full of fun and frivolity under the sun. But if you step out of line (and we’re not talking the conga line), you’ll have to deal with cruise ship security officers. They’re often a courteous and helpful bunch, but they also have the power to confine you to quarters, lock you up, and, in some circumstances, escort you off the ship to sit in a foreign jail. Cruise ship troublemakers, beware: What you gonna do when cruise ship security comes for you?

Vincent McNally knows all about the life of a cruise ship officer. After a 30-year career in the FBI and a stint as an instructor for Iraqi police in Baghdad, McNally decided a work-vacation was in order: He became a security officer for Holland America Line.

What made McNally choose a life at sea after leaving the FBI? “My wife and I went on my first cruise,” he remembers. He says he enjoyed it — a lot.  “I said to my wife, ‘I’d like to go and work on this. This looks good and you can travel the world.’ And that’s exactly what we did.“

McNally worked as a Holland America cruise ship security officer for five years. “The security officer does everything,” McNally tells Yahoo Travel. “I usually had a staff of seven or eight people, depending on how big the ship is. It could be more for bigger ships.” He says his job involves checking people on board, training, and assisting in port security at ports of call.

And, yes, dealing with the occasional problem passenger is part of the job, too. “Ninety-nine point nine percent of the people are fine,” says McNally. “Everybody gets along and we have a good time.” But the loudmouth drunks and troublemakers are inevitable — and one of the things that make working security on a cruise ship a challenging gig. “It’s not something you can just sit back and have a coffee and do,” he says. “It’s not that easy.” It may not be easy but it sure is interesting. So McNally shared with Yahoo Travel his tidbits, anecdotes, and confessions from his time as a cruise ship security officer.

Cruise security officers aren’t mall cops

Okay, not all cruise ship security officers are ex-FBI agents like McNally. “I may be a little unique, because I have a little bit more experience than most security officers,” McNally says as modestly as he possibly can. “I’m not bragging, but it’s just factual.”

Still, though, you’d be surprised at the strong law enforcement pedigree you may find among cruise ship security officers. “[At Holland America], there were police detectives working on the ships as security officers,” he says. He’s encountered even more law enforcement vets in the training sessions he’s done for aspiring ship security officers. “[Some] were police officers, mostly detectives and lieutenants and sergeants,” he says. So next time you think you can act up on a cruise ship and only have to deal with untrained fake cops, remember: You may be squaring off against an ex-police lieutenant. Or FBI agent.

Drunks are a problem — of course

Thousands of people on vacation. A dozen or so bars. Countless bottles of alcohol. A sometimes decadent, party-themed atmosphere. It’s no surprise that the cruise ship environment is in itself a cocktail of excessive drinking. It’s also no surprise that some people don’t hold their alcohol very well and cause trouble.

“Sometimes people come on the ship and they want to drink as much as they can in five days,” says McNally. “That’s a problem. Then we just gotta get them to their rooms and get them to sleep it off until the next day. Calm them down.”

If you got so wasted on a cruise that you needed security called on you, you may have something more to deal with the next day than a hangover — at least you would if McNally was working security. McNally says he’d often sit down with the offender on the day after. “Have a regular conversation listing the parameters of what they can and cannot do,” he says. “I found it’s very helpful to have a contract. I’ll make a contract up in concert with the captain and have them sign it. It says they will no longer have a drink for the rest of the cruise, depending on how severe the problem was.”

McNally says that contract was often effective in dealing with those who over-indulged to problematic levels, although some would later ask him to let them out of the no-drinking contract. “Some would come back and say, ‘I’m here on a long trip…’” he says. “I said, ‘No, you have to follow along. The other option is you get drunk again and then we come into a foreign port and you’re in somebody’s jail and you don’t want to go there.’” The threat of ending their vacation in a foreign jail was enough to sober up problem drinkers.

Another big problem: prescription drugs

You’d be surprised at how big a problem prescription drugs can cause for security personnel on cruise ships — both those who take prescription drugs with alcohol as well as those with mental illnesses who go off their meds.

“Especially if they’re on the manic or depressive side,” says McNally. “They’d start screaming and yelling and then all of a sudden they take a pill while I’m talking to them and they come right back down.”

Part of dealing with a problem passenger, he says, is ascertaining what’s fueling the problem — is it alcohol or something else? “You have to be aware there are people who may have a mental illness, maybe even be suicidal,” he says. “I’ve had one [who was suicidal] and I was able to talk him down.“

Dealing with problem passengers is like a hostage negotiation

“One of the things that I pride myself on is that I never had to fight an individual all those five years,” McNally says. “If they were inebriated or if they were out of control, I was able to negotiate anything.”

McNally found that dealing with a drunk is kind of like dealing with a stressed-out criminal who’s taken hostages. So he used some of the techniques he used to employ as an FBI agent on problem cruise ship passengers. “There are two principles: hostage negotiation and acute traumatic stress management,” he says. “That’s basically taking the person who is screaming and yelling and calming them down.”

In one case in particular, he recalls using that technique on a drunk and belligerent passenger. “He was yelling and screaming and walking around,” McNally says. “I intervened and then I just basically calmed the person down. You follow the level of voice up and down; you bring them down to a lower level then you escort them back to the room. It’s a difficult thing to do, but it can be done. I think that the format I developed worked pretty well since I had no fights, no physical altercations.”

He did have some close calls, though. When a passenger refused to listen to reason, and the situation threatened to turn physical, McNally would call the ships’s bridge and ask them to send down some additional crew members as backup. Because even drunk people know when they’re outnumbered, that was usually enough to solve the problem.

All in all, McNally didn’t get too stressed out over dealing with drunk/high/mentally ill passengers. “They’re usually just having a brief moment of being dumb and we’re trying to help them out,” he says.

There is a cruise jail 

An age-old question we at Yahoo Travel have been asked repeatedly: Do cruise ships have brigs where they throw people who misbehave or break the law? Cruise lines typically don’t like to publicize such matters, but McNally finally reveals the answer:

“Some [ships] have them and some don’t,” he says. “Basically it’s a padded cell.” Jails, he says, are reserved only for the rarest, most extreme circumstances. “That would be in a severe case where the person has assaulted or gone another level above just yelling and screaming,” he says.

Ship security officers don’t unilaterally make the decision to lock up passengers. “The captain would be the ultimate decision maker and he’d then consult with the duty person and security back at headquarters.” But that’s as far as McNally’s experience with cruise ship jails goes. “I don’t think I ever put anyone in it,” he says. “I just get them to go back to their rooms.”

Beware of ship scammers

There’s one group McNally says is an even bigger headache than drunks: those trying to scam cruise ships by having an “accident” they try to parlay into some kind of settlement. “There’s that small percentage [of passengers] that may want to try to scam the ship via fake accidents and indicating that the ship did something wrong to them,” he says. “There are people who come on board specifically to do that for a free cruise. Most of all those I was able to rectify by investigation and proving that what they were saying was unfounded.” (Reminder: Video cameras are everywhere on cruise ships.)

A lot of times, these scams are your standard slip and fall but sometimes they get more elaborate. McNally remembers one case when a passenger claimed that somebody in the ship’s crew had dropped a straight pin into his glass of water before serving it. The passenger even took a picture of the pin-infested water and gave it to McNally, who began a CSI-type reconstruction of the crime.

“I replicated exactly where they sat,” says McNally, “where the ice came from, where the water came from. I checked all the ice and water.” McNally concluded that, given where the pin was in the glass in relation to the water and ice, the only one who could have put it in the glass was one of the people sitting at the table where the passenger had been sitting — perhaps the passenger himself, maybe?  “When I told him that, he just said, ‘Oh…’ and walked away,“ says McNally. “They feel like they are dealing with some security guard that has no experience.”

They investigate crimes impartially

Crime on cruise ships is a big issue, and many passengers’ rights advocates have accused cruise ship security officers of not taking the issue seriously. Because cruise ship security personnel work for the cruise line, say these critics, in cases where passengers are crime victims, security officers feel pressure from their employers and are more concerned with protecting the company than with helping victims.

McNally denies that. “I’ve never felt that way in the five years I worked for Holland America,” he says. “I worked to do everything possible to assist the victim and to secure the evidence.”

McNally adds there were no cover-ups of potentially embarrassing cases during his tenure. “I’ve never seen any type of security case that was not immediately reported back to headquarters and thereafter to the FBI as far as I know,” he says of his investigations. “For me there’s only one way and that’s doing it the right way: getting the evidence and submitting it, or holding on to it until the FBI comes on board at the next port.”

There are fringe benefits — of course!

When McNally was at sea, he often wasn’t alone. “I was very lucky because as an officer, I could bring my wife with me,” he says. “Usually the evenings I was free, so we could go around the ship. Every night we had a nice dinner, we got to meet people.”

Of course, there’s the chief perk of working on a cruise ship in any capacity: seeing the world. Not that McNally got to see all that much of it; he remembers that some of the busiest times of any voyage were when the ship was in port.

“You basically don’t have the free time to go visit every place because your job in port is to keep an eye on everything,“ he says. “You liaison with the local police and port authority. Make sure that their security is doing their job and vice-versa, they’re checking on us. We have to be available for customs, for all different agencies to board and check the ship. It’s not like I don’t like to do that. I’d like to have had more free time.”

But looking back on his life at sea, McNally has fond memories. So does his wife. “She was upset that I left the job!” he laughs. “She enjoyed every day. It’s certainly interesting. I enjoyed it.”

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