The gambling that takes place below Deck 5 isn’t glamorous. No flashing lights, no loud bells or whistles, no dancing girls. Tucked away on a rarely used stair landing, seven of us are gathered, sitting on the cold steel floor, smoking and drinking.
The clang of footsteps echoing down the gangway gives us ample warning of the security guard’s approach. He peers into the corridor, around the watertight doorway. We shelter our bottles of whiskey and beer, recently delivered by the Philippine mafia that sells to the crew. Duped into believing this is a dry hallway gathering, he departs and we all breathe a sigh of relief.
This is ship life.
Embarkation day is tough for crew and a happy, albeit confusing, day for passengers. For eight hours, I’ll stand still with a smile plastered on my face, answering the same questions from small groups trickling on board.
Which way to the restaurants? Do these stairs go up or down?
With a welcoming smirk and a bat of my mascara-ed eyelashes, I’ll answer.
Walk to the back of the ship, if you get wet, you’ve gone too far. Yes, stairs go up and down.
Ace king. Big slick. I always lose with big slick, but it’s an exciting hand to play.
A Romanian shop manager is first up. He’s in. Two English dancers are next. I can’t remember their names. With 2,000 passengers each week and 1,000 crew, names become irrelevant. I know as intimate details of their lives as I need to: who they’re sleeping with and what they drink. I also know their poker skills are lacking. They call.
It’s on me. Biting my bottom lip, I try to look natural. I’m a terrible bluffer. I settle with a call and the next three players fold, including the American and the Serbian who’ve been battling it out, taking turns winning each of the pots so far. The dealer exhales his smoke, puts down his Heineken, and picks up the cards.
The first port in Alaska, Whittier, has most guests arriving just before dusk, heading straight to bed or the midnight buffet. Not that there’s much else to do. Whittier has just a handful of houses, a port large enough for cruise ships, a marina for smaller sailing vessels, and the Anchor Inn.
After 11pm I’m free, and after an hour at the Anchor Inn, I’ll stumble back towards my 100,000-tonne temporary home. The Anchor Inn, with prices displayed on a chalkboard that are four-fold, is a crew favourite. Each visit, the pub extends its hours, likely due to the crew’s freshly cashed paychecks and pleas for one more round of karaoke and Alaskan Amber.
Maybe if I didn’t work or if I’d skipped that pub, I’d find myself instead paddling Whittier’s glacial bays with whales and otters in relative solitude. But priorities while living on board are different. Drinking problems run rampant.
A king, queen, seven is laid out. The queen and seven are suited clubs to match my king. The first Englishman bets big. He’s not very good at poker, so probably has a lower pair, which usually wins at this hour. The second Englishman and Romanian fold. I call.
I hardly feel the ship swaying as we sail. Passing shorelines with precariously hanging glaciers and waterfalls visible up in the mountains, the ship glides gently between uninhabited islands and sheltered bays. The calm waters are only interrupted by the wake of the boat itself, or the occasional otter and seal skimming the surface. Each animal will undoubtedly cause a stir. Large pods of whales will be announced over the loudspeakers, and half the ship will rush to look over the side, cameras ready. I’ll sneak glances when I’m able; however, during my 13-hour workdays, most sightings will be missed.
Juneau is the closest thing to a real city we visit in the state of Alaska. The main street from the port has wooden storefronts beckoning tourists to shop locally. Fur pelts, candied salmon by the bulk, and mini totem poles are displayed in large windows. The sidewalks are overrun when four ships are in port.
While passengers open their wallets for helicopter and dog sledding tours of the ice fields, crew disperse to the backstreet pubs or the gondola-peaked mountain. The gondola offers cruise staff a complimentary lift, and the first weeks are overflowing with crew members from warmer climates claiming their first chance at touching snow. Snow angels, snowball fights, and snowmen building contests take place at every last patch of snow melting away in the Alaskan summer.
A burn card is dealt and the turn is placed in a dramatic flick of the cards. Ace of hearts. Two pair. Everyone’s eyes are drooping, likely due to the excessive amount of dollar beers we’ve consumed, but mine are widening.
The Englishman starts with a big bet. I raise without thinking twice. The American takes a long drag on his cigarette and exhales a thin strip of smoke, clearly wishing for the round to be over. The Englishman calls.
I hear the ship’s stabilizers rush water across the pipes beneath us. Soon, I’ll feel the anchor go. Its enormous chain vibrates the lower decks as it’s unraveled. 4:15am, just like clockwork, we enter Skagway. The only reason we’re playing cards tonight is because none of us are bothered about going there.
Passengers will exit the ship in droves, boarding a steam train to the White Pass of the Yukon. “An Engineering Feat of the Klondike Gold Rush,” its brochures claim, but its popularity is a direct result of the lacking entertainment options in Skagway.
Despite its lawless reputation in history, this is the type of town you imagine tumbleweeds blowing through once the cruise ship sails away. The restored gold-rush stylings are reminiscent of a theme park, with only two real streets comprising shops selling watches and jewelry. One visit is enough. While passengers praise Skagway, crew members hardly bother leaving the ship.
The river is dealt. Nine of clubs. The Englishman places a bet, putting me all in. I take a long swig of my beer, letting the bubbles settle as it runs down my throat. Despite the flush and straight draw, I lick my lips and call. Staring at the chips, I start thinking about what I’ll do with my winnings in Ketchikan, the final port.
On the timber boardwalk pier where the ship docks, there’s a fish ‘n chips stand with halibut that crumbles in your mouth and is salted to perfection. Each week, I’ve declined the dozen peddlers surrounding the hut, bidding to take guests out for a scenic float plane flight to a secluded cabin for a salmon bake.
If I win this hand, I’ll agree to a pilot’s exorbitant price. I’ll meander through the wooden low-rise buildings of Ketchikan, avoiding the curio shops and heading instead to the harbour to board the small plane. Climbing on the pontoons, I’ll pause momentarily, watching the salmon jump right beneath my feet, before soaring up into the skies. After miles of dense forest, handfuls of identical bays with uninhabited islands, we’ll descend towards a weathered cabin with a pebble beach and a fire pit in its front yard. A lone grizzly will be my entertainment, crawling out of the woods, catching its dinner right out of the river in front of me.
It’ll be my day as an Alaskan tourist. Just what the brochure promised.
It won’t be like the other times when I’ve stayed in the city limits of Ketchikan, only venturing to Ketchi-Candies for a slab of peanut butter fudge to cheer myself up and escape the sideways rain. Or the times I’ve aimlessly strolled down the wooden boardwalk known as Creek Street, beside the ex-brothels and prohibition establishments turned museums, biding my time before getting a beer at the Totem Bar.
This time will be different. I’ll explore.
All in, I look up at the Englishman. He rubs his eyebrow with his thumb and wears an unapologetic smile. He lays out a jack eight of clubs. Flush. He sweeps the chips in one solid motion as I miserably take a large swig of the rest of my beer. I lean back on the steel wall, letting my head bang onto the fresh white paint.
I’m already vowing to never play poker again. But come next week, just before Skagway, while passengers are excitedly talking about the whales breaching beside the ship, there’ll be another game.
Undoubtedly, I’ll be there, trying my luck for a float plane ride.