Corkonians happy to be all at sea on the 'Allure of the Seas'

The Allure of the Seas is the world’s largest ocean liner. Among its 2,284 crew are Corkonians Derek McKnight and Aisling McCarthy.

Its sister ship will dock in Cobh on Monday, says Michelle Jackson.

THERE’S a new breed of Irish at sea. Derek McKnight and Aisling McCarthy are crew on the Royal Caribbean’s cruise liner, Allure of the Seas. Her sister ship, the Independence of the Seas, will dock in Cobh next Monday.

Derek and Aisling, both from Cork, have been working with the cruise company, the world’s second largest, for a combined 19 years, one of 72 nationalities on the Allure.

The ship, launched at the end of 2010, is the world’s largest passenger ship, and can carry 6,296 passengers and 2,284 crew.

Up on the galley, executive chef Derek runs his kitchens like a finely-tuned machine. As he strolls through the 17 restaurants and 24 kitchens, he is greeted by passengers and colleagues round every corner. Communication, he says, is key to a smooth operation.

“We all talk about what is needed on the ship, and we listen to each other. I look after my staff and they look after me,” Derek says.

With a staff of 350, his team feeds the 8,500 guests and staff 24/7.

Derek says that he was “a black sheep” at school, but it didn’t prevent him from building an impressive resumé, which began in Rockwell Hotel School in Co Tipperary, where he graduated in 1989.

From there, he started his life on the open seas on the QE2, sailing out of Tokyo.

Derek worked on Cunard’s flagship until 1996, when he went to the Cayman Islands, where he joined the island’s first five-star hotel, as executive chef.

In 2003, he moved back to Ireland and opened his own bar and restaurant in West Cork, and became executive chef of the four-star Maritime Hotel in Bantry.

But the call of the seas proved too much for him, and in 2008 he returned to the ocean and joined Royal Caribbean.

Keeping in touch with home is easier, second time around. “With Skype and Facebook, we keep in touch every day and, last Christmas, the entire family came out to the ship for two weeks,” he says.

Derek works four months on and two off, which is deserved, because there is no time off on board the ship.

Despite the long hours, Aisling is delighted to be running the on-board spa and beauty salon. She has been working on cruise ships for 14 years, having taken her first job after graduating from the College of Commerce when she was 19.

Aisling met her fiancé, Bojan, on the Allure — he’s a personal trainer, so she’s his boss.

Aisling recalls the moment they clicked: “I was at a karaoke party in the staff quarters and I got up to sing.

“He said that I had a great singing voice and I was flattered, although, at that time, I was 11 stone heavier.”

Aisling says the temptation of the food on board had taken its toll.

“After many years of eating without control on the ship, I had lost all confidence in myself, but Bojan said that he was a runner, and was going to help me,” she says.

Bojan had remembered Aisling helping him on his first day on board.

“He said that I gave him water and helped him with his visa, and that I was kind. I was at my heaviest at that time, so I know that he likes me for my personality, because it is with him that I have become a completely different person,” Aisling says.

With her gorgeous, size 8 figure in a tight-fitting grey business dress, no one would believe that she was once 11 stone heavier. But she says she wants her story to be an inspiration to others.

“I found that I had to go really low, before I got to that stage where I had to do something, and I realised that nobody else could do it for me,” she says.

Aisling gave herself a strict regime — with a 5am start in the gym every morning — an hour before it opened for passengers. The other staff saw the improvement and cheered her on. Aisling says she eats healthily now and opts for the most nutritious meals in the restaurants, and delicious juices and smoothies.

When she’s not on the ship, she spends her free time in Cork, or in Croatia with her fiancé.

“The company is really supportive of couples, and they encourage you to stay on the same ship and help you to organise your roster so that couples are both working, and have free time, together,” she says.

Aisling has adopted the same mantra as Derek. “As a manager, you must take ownership of your area and treat the staff well. We want them to be happy and stay with the company, of course,” she says.

It’s no surprise, then, that as Aisling moved between ships, many of her staff moved with her.

“I’m a start-up manager, and so is Derek — it means we get to work on the best ships and watch as they are made in the shipyard in Finland. We have input into making our facilities the best they can be.”

* The Independence of the Seas — with 4,375 passengers — is to dock in Cobh on Monday next, June 3, at 6.30am, and depart at 5pm.

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