“Mary” grew up in Ontario. She was a competitive swimmer and a violinist and was always fascinated by cruise ships — whenever she passed a travel agency, she tells New Times, she would pull out the cruise brochures, transfixed.
Mary says that love was horribly tarnished, though, when she was sexually assaulted by a crew member on a Royal Caribbean ship — and when the company did little to help her.
Mary’s tale is told in a Miami-Dade lawsuit against the cruise line and in an email interview with New Times. (Her name isn’t included in the lawsuit, and New Times agreed to maintain her anonymity due to her claims of sexual assault.)
The company hasn’t replied to multiple emails from New Times requesting comment on her allegations and has not yet filed a response in Miami-Dade court. Mary and her attorney say her story highlights an ongoing problem for the cruise industry, which has repeatedly come under scrutiny for how it handles claims of sexual assault on the high seas, where jurisdictions are unclear and justice can be hard to find.
Mary says her cruise fascination was stoked in college when she spent a holiday break as a youth staffer on a Norwegian ship, realizing her childhood dream. She completed her undergraduate degree, moved to Korea to teach English, and then volunteered in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. “I love meeting new people,” she says, “and I love learning about and immersing myself in new cultures.”
She did another stint with Norwegian and then one with Royal Caribbean. “Yes, it was long hours and often exhausting,” she says, “but I truly loved everything that encompassed working on a ship.”
In the fall of 2013, Mary joined another Royal Caribbean ship, Mariner of the Seas. For six weeks, it was great — Mary even applied to extend her contract.
And then, suddenly, it was horrible: One night, Mary says, she returned to her room and went to sleep, only to wake up several hours later with a man’s hand around her throat. It was another ship worker, who was in a relationship with Mary’s roommate.
“I told him to stop several times and fought to get him off of me,” she says in an email to New Times. “Within seconds I could tell that he was completely naked and had me pinned enough to get his hand lower.”
Mary “started making loud noises.” Her assailant got back in bed with Mary’s roommate. Mary lay still for awhile. “After a few minutes, I gathered the courage to rush out of my room.”
But things only got worse. Mary says she notified the ship’s chief of security about the assault. Then, the next day, while she was still in a state of shock — “I was freezing, shaking, and feeling superconfused” — she visited the ship’s doctor. She says he brushed her off, telling her she didn’t need a rape kit. He told her she could speak with a psychologist on the phone, “but that I probably didn’t need it because I looked fine,” she says.
Another worker kindly took Mary aside and told her that she should indeed press for a rape kit. The doctor ignored Mary’s request for a woman to perform the exam, finally completing it himself. “After all that,” he joked, “you owe me a lunch.”
Soon, Mary grew physically ill from the stress and was quarantined in the same room where she was attacked. Rumors began flying. Mary’s roommate stopped speaking to her; other co-workers — taking the side of the alleged perpetrator — threatened Mary and said she had ruined the young man’s life.
“Bullying is horrible anytime, but on ships there is no escape,” she writes.
In late November, about two years after the alleged assault, Mary filed a civil suit against Royal Caribbean and the accused. Her lawyer, veteran cruise litigator Michael Winkleman, calls it a textbook case of how to mishandle a sexual assault aboard a ship. After the attack, Mary returned home, where she spent a long time under psychological duress. She received counseling, but not from Royal Caribbean — she reached out to the company for help, she said, but no one ever responded or got in touch with her to see how she was doing.
Mary has since completed a postgraduate diploma in alternative and traditional medicine. She accelerated her coursework as a way to try to forget about the experience, she says. But she’s still hurt — and she knows other cruise workers have gone through similar ordeals.
“I can’t make sense of any of it,” she says. “The more I think about it, the more upset I become. It was just one blow after another.”