June 2, 2013

Misadventures of a Cruise Ship Cupcake Girl. ~ Cheryl Tan

Source: farm4.static.flickr.com via Terri’s on Pinterest

Last year, I was fired from being a Cupcake Supervisor on a large cruise ship.

On April 12th, 2012 I boarded the ship wide-eyed, with absolutely no idea what I was in for. After a month into the role, I was ready to bolt.

Life started off great. Being the only cupcake girl onboard, dressed in a pink uniform and pigtails, it was fairly easy to make friends with members from crew, staff and officer divisions. Actually, there was another cupcake girl—my manager. She was onboard for a month to pass on her knowledge to me before flying home to Florida. Nonetheless, making friends was a breeze.

On my second day, I ate alone in the staff mess next to a group of musicians. After a few exchange of smiles, we started a conversation and my friendship journey on board began. Accompanied with my contagious laugh, it was tough to miss my presence on the ship. I was bowled over by the hospitality of my new found friends and I made a self-commitment to succeed in my job.

One of the first things that anyone would tell newcomers would be: do not trust anyone except yourself on the ship.

Author’s own cupcakes, via Cheryl Tan

This was perhaps that toughest lesson I had to learn (which I never quite learned, actually) because I value sincerity and authenticity. My weird working schedule wasn’t the first to tire me out but it was peoples’ attitudes/personalities which took a toll on me. Not knowing who to trust onboard, I often took my frustrations to the mat. It became a normal sight for people to see me getting off work in the late afternoon and swapping my pink outfit for comfy lululemon gear.

Armed with my yoga mat and iPhone, I would blast music into my ears to block everyone in the gym out, as I sank into my mat and flowed through practice for a good hour. I wanted to forget about my job, frustrations, people, and just savor that special moment of me time—the time that I was allowed to be Cheryl, and not Cupcake (my nickname on board). Little did I know till much later that every single moment on that ship, I was fighting an internal battle to shine as Cheryl because the management staff did what they could to surpress her. By the end of a month and half, I was close to being broken.

Working on a cruise ship is tough. There are no off-days and life has to be adjusted to a schedule. My schedule varied, depending if it was a sea/port day.

Example of a Port Day (early arrival):

0700: Roll out of bed, brush teeth, get dressed.

0715: Begin selection of cupcakes to frost for the day.

0730: Whip the frosting, frost. Mix the frosting with flavors, frost. Whip more frosting, frost. Mix, frost.

0830: Start decorating all cupcakes with sprinkles and make them pretty.

0910: Put cupcakes into the freezer, clean up, and bid farewell to pastry crew.

0930: Shower and get dressed.

1000: Meet friends to disembark ship.

1300: Rush back to ship, get dressed in uniform, get cupcakes from galley and display them in the cafe.

1330: Cafe opens (even though guests embark the ship at 1600).

1340: Stand at the counter for hours with zero customers.

1700: Head off for yoga and dinner

2000: After a shower, head back to cafe to serve non-existent customers.

2245: Start cleaning up the cafe.

2300: Cafe’s officially closed.

2305: Party/sleep time!

Example of a Sea Day:

0715: Roll out of bed, brush teeth, get dressed.

0730: Began selection of cupcakes to frost for the day.

0745: Whip the frosting, frost. Mix the frosting with flavours, frost. Whip more frosting, frost. Mix, frost.

0845: Start decorating all cupcakes with sprinkles and make them pretty.

0915: Put cupcakes into the freezer, clean up, bid farewell to pastry crew and run to cabin to squeeze in an ultra quick shower.

0930: Collect merchandise from storeroom and display them on table for sale.

1000: Merchandise sale starts.

1045: Get cupcakes from galley, display them in the cafe, take morning pastries and deliver them to crew mess.

1115: Back at merchandise table.

1200: Lunch

1230: Back at merchandise table.

1400: Tear down of merchandise table.

1415: Head back to the galley to prep for adult and kid cupcake lessons.

1500: Kid class begins (normally no one would show up and I’d just be standing behind the counter waiting).

1530: Kid class ends.

1630: Adult class (no one would show up).

1715: Adult class ends.

1730: Yoga (or rest) and dinner time.

2100: Head back to cafe to serve non-existent customers.

2245: Start cleaning up the cafe.

2300: Cafe’s officially closed but cleaning continues for USPH inspection.

2330: Call managers to inspect cafe.

2400: (hopefully) Off duty.

It was an interesting experience to adhere to schedules like such. But it wasn’t the schedule that killed me—the management did.

Perhaps I wasn’t polite enough to the management or it was apparent that I couldn’t keep to my schedule well enough in the beginning, but they were great at stifling every single part of who I was. I couldn’t keep up with the rules (i.e. throwing away uneaten/unsold cupcakes because the crew isn’t worthy of it unless they pay for it, working overtime with no pay) and was afraid to ask for time off to rest or explore different ports. My small shared cabin became smaller than ever. There were times that I contemplated jumping overboard (true story).

Author’s own cupcakes, via Cheryl Tan

Millions of tears were shed during my stint on the ship, absolutely hating my predicament. So, I came up with a plan. There were two ways to leave the ship. 1.) Resign and pay for your own air ticket home. 2.) Get fired and they pay for your air ticket home. Because traveling to the ship was a personal expense, I decided that it wasn’t worth to cover the return flight myself. I started scouring the Internet and LinkedIn for job opportunities, and spent my late nights writing resumes and sending them out with the ship’s extremely slow WiFi. Home never seemed so far away.

And of course, plans don’t always fall into place. Before a job was secured in Toronto, I was given the boot at 7:30 a.m. and left the ship for the last time at 9:00 a.m. In those dramatic one and half hours, I collected my last paycheck, got my air ticket booked (no one booked my ticket because it wasn’t an expected dismissal), showered, packed my bags and said my final goodbyes to my medical/bridge friends. During this entire time, I was fighting to get a hold of myself and not burst into tears. As I walked off that ship, I was liberated to finally be freed of all my frustrations and unhappiness but the tears kept coming—I was leaving behind some wonderfully forged friendships that I would never forget for a long time.

This job as a cupcake supervisor was truly once in a lifetime experience. I am thankful for this experience because it gave me an insight into humanity, gender equality (or inequality), social norms and behaviors, humility, and most importantly—who is Cheryl.

Here are some lessons that I learned from my short stint on board:

1) Never trust anyone but yourself.

Toughest lesson to date because I’m a trusting person. Perhaps we can take a little spin on this lesson, and say this: trust people, but know how to watch your back. Always be on guard. Extremely tiring, but hey, one needs to survive while being out at sea.

2) Be authentic.

Never stop being you. The moment you allow anyone to surpress the true you, that’s the moment you stop dreaming about life beyond the ship. Stand up for your rights, whether it’s regarding your diet, health, wellness, sanity or job scope. You’re allowed to be you because no one in the world should tell you to be someone else. No one. Even though the ship served horrible vegetarian food, I wasn’t willing to give up my diet but instead told the head chef to rethink his veggie menu (corn on the cob in diluted milk isn’t a freaking dish enough to sustain a vegetarian diet!). Also, don’t lie because they bite you back, big time.

3) Be a friend to everyone.

You need friends to survive on board. Who cares about positions? We are all human beings stuck on the same ship, same drills, same meals (sort of). You don’t need to be chummy with those who pull their weight around unless you enjoy their company. Be friends with as many people as possible, but find a safe group of friends who will provide you with emotional/mental support throughout your stint.

4) Do not succumb to peer pressure.

Go back to point 2.

5) Laugh, drink and be merry as much as possible.

It’s not the worst advice, because you need an outlet to vent all your frustration. Drinking, partying and sexual activities are normal, and help the days pass faster. If you don’t want to be part of this, please refer to point 4. But remember, you need your sanity somehow, so laugh your heart out and scream your lungs out on the deck in the middle of the night. For me, one of my best experiences were yoga sessions beneath a blanket of stars in the middle of the ocean. Bliss.

6) “The secret of happiness is not in doing what one likes, but in liking what one does.”

This was taped to the wall next to my bed which I saw every morning. Three years ago, my friend sent me Valentine’s flowers with this quote. I never quite understood it till my stint onboard. Don’t do things for the sake of doing it. Do it because you truly enjoy it from within. Do it with your heart. Do it with passion. Do it with love. And if you don’t, screw it. The job isn’t meant for you, period, and there are better things out there. Believe and trust that you’ll find something once you start looking out of your comfort zone. We only live once, and we owe it to ourselves to be happy. Do I love cupcakes/baking? Yes. Do I love working on the ship? No. Easy.

Lastly, before I end this post, I would like to sincerely thank all those who helped me survive my time onboard. You were my pillar of support and I can’t thank you enough. Thank you for the late night rants, laughs, drinks, poker games, and letting me be who I was. You guys are gems and amazing individuals. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.

Additional note: My cruise ship was sailing through Asia and cupcakes are either foreign or unworthy of the price they had to pay. Hence, I made low sales on the cupcakes but high wastage because I had to throw them out (a rule which I naturally broke because I can’t justify throwing out perfectly normal cupcakes).


Cheryl Tan is a creative troublemaker, engager, inspirer, adventure seeker, risk taker, traveller, yogini, baker, knitter, and aspiring social entrepreneur. A Singaporean by birth, she’s a world citizen at heart. Currently in Toronto, Canada, Cheryl enjoys good company with a glass of wine. You can connect with her on Twitter or her blog.


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Ed. Caroline Scherer & Brianna Bemel

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