Sex surprise at sea: when a dream cruise turns into a nightmare

A Co Antrim couple say they opened their cabin door to find a crew member having sex

Even on a €5,500 trip of a lifetime, holidaymakers don't expect this. A Northern Ireland couple are seeking compensation after saying they boarded their Norwegian Cruise Line ship to find another man and woman having sex in their designated cabin.

Bobby and Mary Jackson, aged 64 and 62, from Carrickfergus, in Co Antrim, had flown to Singapore to spend a week aboard Norwegian Jewel, which accommodates almost 2,400 passengers, as it sailed to Phuket, in Thailand, last autumn.

At first their key card wouldn’t open the door to their stateroom. Once they got it to work, they were met with the unexpected sight. “I could see the back of a man on the bed who was directly facing us, and it was obvious he was in the middle of having sex with a woman,” Mary Jackson says.

What I witnessed was extremely unpleasant. I was traumatised, and I needed a glass of water. We are not prudes, but this was ridiculous

“I was horrified. What I witnessed was extremely unpleasant... I shut the door immediately and we went into the cabin next door, where my sister was staying, while the staff sorted this out. I was traumatised, and I needed a glass of water... We are not prudes, but this was ridiculous.”

When the couple complained to staff, they say, they were told the ship was full and they wouldn’t be able to move to another room

"We went back to the cabin and tried to go back in there, but although the woman had left, the male was still there," Bobby Jackson says. "Two of the ship's crew in white uniforms eventually persuaded him to leave. He looked very sheepish. I asked if the crew knew him, and they told me he was a worker on the boat."

Norwegian says video footage – presumably of a corridor outside the cabin – does not corroborate the Jacksons’ version of events. But the story has thrust forward questions of just what goes on aboard these ships.

Lisa Niver, a travel journalist and former cruise-ship crew member, says the Jacksons’ experience was outrageous. In her seven years on a number of lines (although not Norwegian), she says, many crew were not allowed on to passenger decks. “When I worked onboard, the rules were very clear and strict. Breaking the rules had severe punishments, including being fired or turned over to local authorities, both of which I saw happen.”

While the cost and nature of many cruises keep them firmly populated by well-heeled older passengers, ships catering for a younger and drunker clientele have become well established, particularly in the United States and Australia.

And, for a certain kind of crew member, the promise of working and playing hard also has appeal. As Brian David Bruns, a waiter turned author of Cruise Ship Confidential, recalls of finishing a 16-hour shift: "It's like you just came off the frontline. What do you do? You hammer shots so you pass out ASAP."

Those crew members with the energy for liaisons, after months at sea without a day off, might well prefer a passenger's stateroom to their own quarters below deck

Those crew members with the energy for liaisons, after months at sea without a day off, might well prefer a passenger’s stateroom to their own quarters below deck, where those below officer class typically bunk up with three others in a cabin. And although younger western crew might work as entertainers or in customer-facing roles, the hardest graft is often done by lower-paid labourers. In international waters, aboard ships carrying thousands of crew, let alone passengers, anything goes.

The Jacksons say they were initially offered compensation of £100, or about €115, in credit towards another cruise on the line this year, which was then upped to £200 each. The couple say they rejected both offers.

Norwegian has told Newsweek, the US magazine, that "a full investigation has taken place and appropriate action has been taken, and Norwegian Cruise Line has been in contact with the Jacksons regarding their request for compensation".

But the horror the Jacksons say they were presented with by the Norwegian crew member was essentially one of bad timing. Perhaps the real takeaway of their story is that no one sold on the brochures of azure waters and around-the-clock service wishes to be confronted too vividly with the reality: that the bed booked for a dream holiday will have been all too recently occupied, for better or worse, by another. – Guardian and agencies