By Nicky Willemse
A PORT Elizabeth woman’s dream job working on a cruise liner in the Caribbean was transformed into a nightmare experience when she was allegedly raped by a fellow crew member.
And 18 months later, she is still haunted by the experience and waiting for some semblance of justice to be done.
After having been repeatedly fobbed off by the company which had contracted her to work in the liner’s spa, she now fears the matter has been “swept under the carpet”.
From the outset her case was dealt with with scepticism by both Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd and Steiner Transocean, which operated the spa on the liner Explorer of the Seas.
Days after reports of the incident came to light, Taryn, 26, (who asked that her surname be withheld) was told by the ship’s management that, because she had had a few drinks on the night of the attack, her side of the story was “not as believable” as her alleged assailant’s and she had “no right to accuse him (of rape)”.
She was then told to get off the ship and sent back to South Africa and to this day the company refuses to tell her if any action was ever taken against her assailant who hails from East London saying the matter is “confidential”.
But Taryn’s story is not unusual and each year thousands of young South Africans apply for jobs on international cruise ships. Cruise Alternatives, one of several SA recruitment agencies specialising in cruise ship jobs, places up to 500 South Africans on luxury ships a year.
However, the jobs are not always as attractive as the recruitment marketing portrays them.
US-based maritime law firm Lipcon Margulies and Alsina, which specialises in cases against cruise lines, says it has obtained a list of sexual assaults from Royal Caribbean amounting to 173 over three-and-a-half years. Of these, not one person has been prosecuted.
“Sexual assault on cruise ships is common,” lawyer Charles Lipcon told Weekend Post this week.
He said the fact that the ships were in international waters made it easier for perpetrators to get away with their crime.
“I refer to it as ‘open season on the high seas’. I believe sexual predators are learning that nothing happens to them, so assaults are increasing.
“In my opinion, they (cruise ships) go out of their way to cover up these crimes to avoid bad publicity or their own liability.”
Taryn, a beauty therapist, worked in the slimming and detox section of the liner’s spa, while her alleged rapist, a fitness instructor, worked in the ship’s fitness centre.
“We were friends. The ship community is very close-knit everyone becomes like family.”
The night of the assault, in August 2005, Taryn was in the crew bar when the fitness instructor laughingly removed from her jeans’ back pocket the key-card to open her room.
“I got up to go and get it, but he ran away. I didn’t think much of it I thought I’d just spend the night in a friend’s room.”
But, checking her own room later that night, she saw her door was unlocked. “I thought it was my room mate, but then I saw he was sleeping in my bed.”
She lay down on the bed next to him and fell asleep. “I know I shouldn’t have walked into the room, but I trusted him because we were like family.”
Speaking through tears, she said: “I woke up in the early hours of the morning . . . he was on top of me. He got aggro when I told him to stop, and I started shouting. I was too scared to move I just lay there.”
She stayed in her room for the whole of the next day, trying to make sense of what had happened. She even phoned him to talk about it, but he brushed her off. It was only later that night, speaking to her room mate, that she admitted to herself that she had been raped.
After that, she ignored him, but wasn’t sure how to handle the matter. “I felt scared and guilty.”
A month later, the deep change in her countenance was picked up by her spa manager, who had just returned after a holiday. After some probing questions, she asked Taryn if she had been raped. “I just burst into tears.”
The spa manager encouraged Taryn to report the matter to the ship’s human resources department. She was then called to a meeting with top management from both the ship and the spa. “They told me there were two stories, his and mine, but his sounded more believable, because I had been drinking.
“I wasn’t plastered, and I know he had been drinking too. The fact remains that I told him to get out of my room, but he didn’t.”
She was then given two options: to drop the matter, or take it further, but she was told that would mean the CIA and the FBI getting involved.
Feeling intimidated, she said she did not want “the whole of the US involved”, but she wasn’t prepared to drop it either. She then agreed to management’s suggestion that the matter be passed to Steiner Transocean.
The spa manager got in touch with Steiner Transocean’s head office in Miami, which operates spas on a number of cruise ships and Taryn was given an hour to leave the ship, which was in dry dock at the time. Before she left, Steiner Transocean agreed to pay for any counselling and medical expenses.
Once back in South Africa, she tried to find out from Steiner Transocean whether any steps had been taken against her attacker, but was told that the matter was confidential.
This was the same response given to Weekend Post this week. “No employee can know whether any action was taken against another employee,” said Steiner Transocean spokesman Bob Boehm. “The allegations were taken very seriously, and we took steps that were deemed appropriate.” He would not provide further details.
The company’s head of claims and risk management Elizabeth Junco later said the FBI investigated all incidents in international waters.
She said they had conducted interviews with crew members who worked with Taryn and the fitness instructor and “concluded that the allegations could not be substantiated”. She said Taryn was sent home “for her own safety”.
Royal Caribbean did not respond to several emails or phone messages.