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Why life on the high seas is smooth-sailing for these women

All aboard ... three NI ladies who work for P&O ferry company say they love life on the high seas. They tell Stephanie Bell how rewarding they find their job - to ensure all passengers are comfortable

The annual Twelfth exodus sees thousands of people set off for their annual summer break during July. And in what is the busiest time of the year for the local travel industry, while many of us are packing our suitcases, there is a large team of dedicated people working hard to ensure our holidays get off to a great start.

For local ferry company P&O the summer months see a huge swell of families going on holiday, carrying as many as 3,000 passengers in a day across the Irish Sea.

And those on board, who are tasked with making sure our trips run smoothly, it is a busy - and as we find out today through three of the company's female staff members - and extremely rewarding job.

Colleen McAuley (30) has worked for the past 12 years as retail stewardess on the European Causeway travelling twice a day between Larne and Cairnryan.

Colleen's partner Martin Hill (34) works in the engine rooms on another P&O vessel. And while the Carnlough woman works seven days on and seven days off, Martin spends two weeks on the ship with two weeks at home.

As parents their unusual shift pattern allows them plenty of time to spend with their 23-month-old daughter Jessica.

Colleen's job is to manage the day-to-day running of the on board shop which sells a wide range of beauty and fragrances, last minute gifts and confectionery.

It is her dream job, as she not only gets to meet all the passengers and hear their stories about their planned trips, but is now familiar with the many regular travellers who use the ferry for business and short breaks.

She says: "I love working on board the ship and seeing so many different people coming and going. I enjoy my job and it is great to go home every day knowing I have done my day's work to the best of my ability and that passengers were satisfied.

"A great part of the job is that I get to meet all types of people going to different places. Some are travelling for a holiday or to see a show, while others work away and travel with us every week. There are also lots of families and groups, too.

"I love talking to the passengers and finding out where they are going and when they are coming back. It is nice to chat to them about how their trip went and how much they enjoyed it."

Colleen's job involves a 12-hour day during which time she travels to Scotland and back twice, working seven days with the next seven days off.

It is an ideal balance for the working mum as it allows her to be home at night for her young daughter while also enjoying a good stretch of time off to spend with her.

She says: "With seven days off it means we can really plan outings and spend quality time together. Martin gets two weeks off, after two weeks on, so he is at home with Jessica for one of the weeks I am working which is great."

And doing the job during the harsh winter months is not a problem for this veteran sailor who says she found her sea legs very early on in her career.

Colleen says: "It can be rough sometimes in the winter but I am immune to it now. You do get used to is very quickly, it is mind over matter. On days when the weather isn't so good, I think more about the passengers on board and try to help them." While the boats are busy all year round, there is a special excitement in the summer months when more families and holiday-makers come aboard.

It is Colleen's favourite time of the year. She adds: "There is a real buzz during July and August when all the kids are on board and they are all usually very excited about going on holiday.

"Everyone is all go and for some of the kids, even the fact that they are on a boat is an adventure for them. It is just one of the other lovely parts of my job. I've really enjoyed the past 12 years and I hope the next 12 years are just as good."

Carole Clarke (50) is operations manager of on board services for P&O. It is a senior management post giving Carole responsibility for ensuring customers' needs and expectations are met. She manages a team of 48 and looks after all guest service operations on the ships, from catering and cleaning to customer care across both the Highlander and Causeway ferries.

Carole, from Larne, is married to Davey (56) a plasterer and they have two children April (24) and Darren (21).

While her job is land-based, it also involves regular trips on the ferries to oversee staff and operations.

Growing up in Larne, watching the ferries come in and out of the harbour was part of everyday life and from a young age she aspired to work for P&O, joining the company in 1993.

She recalls: "When the opportunity came up I jumped at it and started in a junior post. Since then I have worked my way up through the ranks.

"With my job there is no typical day. I am responsible for the management of the on board services operation on the vessels which includes responsibility for performance of customer services and budgeting as well as on board operating costs, training and development of the crew."

It is a huge responsibility. Also in Carole's hands is customer satisfaction, which she takes very seriously.

Monthly feedback from customers about their experience on board is on the whole positive but any suggestions for improvements will get Carole's full attention.

She says: "Thankfully the feedback is usually positive and if there is any negative feedback we address it straight away.

"Our customers asked us to provide more entertainment for children and we introduced on board kids entertainers three years ago which has been really successful.

"We have also recently changed the food available on the ferry as a result of customer feedback. We listen to our customers and where possible respond to their suggestions."

For Carole, there is a simple measure for how her staff approach their customers: "I always say that you should treat people how you expect to be treated yourself and that involves how you look and how you speak to people."

Although her workings hours are nine to five she rarely finishes on time, but loves what she does. Outside of work she de-stresses by running 40-50 miles a week.

Cristina Simion (32) travels from her home in Constanta, Romania to work on the Larne boats where she lives on board during her two week shifts as team leader on the European Highlander. Christina, whose partner Vali owns a beach bar in Romania, is responsible for the watch supervision of the guest services night team and managing the on board services operations.

She joined P&O seven years ago as an agency stewardess and has been promoted to her current level.

Before starting her new working life at sea in 2008, she worked as a commercial manager for a Romanian company which specialised in dealing with environmental problems.

She says: "This job is perfect for my personality and I see it as a natural progression for my career. I work 12 hours, either during the day or night depending on my shift, with two weeks on and two weeks off.

"Travelling to and from Romania is not such a problem as I only do this twice a month. After so many years at sea, travelling to and from home and work is the norm for me now.

"Living on board is much like home and we have all our own comforts - a single cabin, Sky TV and meals. It's very much a tight knit family with a community spirit on board so you never get homesick.

"It's my job to close the tills in all the outlets, bank the money and fill in some of the daily/weekly reports as well as stock-checks and deliveries.

"I ensure the company's high housekeeping standards are maintained every day, so that our passengers receive the best customer service from my team."

For ambitious Cristina the greatest reward she gets from work is knowing that the passengers on board are happy.

She says: "Customer satisfaction is one of the best rewards you can get in this business. And we receive so many Christmas and thank you cards from passengers which mean so much to us. It makes me happy when I see the crew working as a team to achieve their goals."

Sea sickness was never a problem for Cristina, who adds: "As a petite size 4 I have very small legs which are perfectly stable at sea. I am used to the motion of being at sea after so many years."

Cristina says working on the ferries is perfect for anyone who likes a challenging environment adding: "It keeps you motivated, active and it is rewarding."

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