After 8 years working on the water, Northland native steps back on landNorthland native Chelsea Verhel knows how to make a homecoming entrance. She rolled — or rather floated — into Duluth on the Yorktown cruise ship Thursday morning on what may be the end of a long run on the high seas for her.
By: Mike Creger, Duluth News Tribune
Northland native Chelsea Verhel knows how to make a homecoming entrance. She rolled — or rather floated — into Duluth on the Yorktown cruise ship Thursday morning on what may be the end of a long run on the high seas for her.
The cruise ship part isn’t as posh for her as you might think. It’s where she works. For the past eight years, the 2004 Hermantown High School graduate has worked on ships, starting as a food server on a paddleboat and working her way up to cruise ships and the chief purser job she now holds.
This homecoming will be the last for a while because Verhel plans to try out life “on land” by leaving the industry and moving to Duluth, where she hopes to get a job that keeps her close to water.
“It’s time,” she said Thursday morning on the sun deck of the 130-passenger Yorktown hours after it docked behind the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center. By
6 p.m., she was with her family at her grandmother’s house watching the Yorktown chug away from Duluth Harbor, headed to Toronto.
“I’ve seen the world,” Verhel said. Now it’s time to be with family and enjoy the events she’s missed out on by being away for months at a time.
It all started out in the most unlikely of places for Verhel: the Iron Range. She had purchased a home and was studying at a community college there when she started a conversation with a stylist at a nail salon.
Verhel was asked about her passions and the stylist mentioned work on a cruise ship.
Verhel certainly loved water, having grown up on Island Lake north of Duluth along with lots of time spent out of the Spirit Lake Marina. “Water’s in my blood,” she said.
“I like to travel. I’m into hospitality,” she said. It made sense.
She studied what she needed to know about working on ships and fanned hundreds of resumes out to companies. She was getting nowhere until she saw an ad in the News Tribune for work on paddleboats on the Mississippi River. She landed her first job. Within weeks, she had moved up the ladder in the dining room and in months was a purser.
As a chief purser with V.Ships, operator of the Yorktown, she is responsible for all the behind-the-scenes paperwork: payroll, human resources, customs.
“I learned it all on the ships,” she said.
She moved to Nashville in 2008. A woman of deep religious faith, she grew to love its people who put a lot of stock into their church life. Nashville is what she calls the “Bible buckle of the Bible belt.” Through her church and travels, she’s served on missions to help people across the world. Her latest venture was a trip to the East Coast after Hurricane Sandy in October.
As is expected, work on the water is demanding. You work for months at a time and then get a few weeks off. Verhel said she quickly moved up the ladder because there is so much turnover. She went into the industry with a commitment, she said, and that helped.
“I worked my butt off,” she said. She would recommend ships to anyone willing to work hard for the reward of world travel. “It takes the right individual.”
Companies fly employees to wherever they want to go during breaks, and Verhel was able to revisit Italy after studying there 10 years ago. She was able to visit her father in Arizona and friends across the country. And, of course, she got to Duluth every six months or so to see her mother, Nancy.
“Travel puts love and power in your life,” she said.
Verhel has been to 30 countries and 60 international cities. Northern Norway gets her vote for favorite stop, probably because when she went there it was the first and only time she’s ever been a cruise guest. No work, just taking in the sights and sounds, she said.
“It was incredible,” she said. “It must be on everybody’s bucket list.”
Her favorite American stop is Nantucket.
She prefers a small ship like the Yorktown because it can dock in places close to where people work and play, like in Duluth. Large cruise ships often have to dock in industrial areas with shuttles or ferries to get passengers and crew to civilization.
She also enjoys knowing her co-workers and passengers.
“A 5,000 passenger ship defeats the whole purpose,” she said.
Thursday’s stop was the first time she’s cruised into Duluth. It’s the first and only stop here for the Great Lakes ship this summer. V.Ships plans two cruises under the Aerial Lift Bridge next year.
Verhel said she wants to come home for good because “it gets harder to leave” each time she visits.
Aside from looking for a job around water, she wants to get involved in the faith community and work on issues like stopping sex trafficking in Duluth.
“I’m called to come back,” she said.
Verhel is confident enough to not worry about the next chapter in her life. The only hitch could be the itch she said ship employees tend to have: a call back to the water.
“It’s an adjustment back to land,” she said. “People just get bored.”
She’s often been called back by V.Ships for work despite taking a break.
“It would be hard to just take a month off” from a more conventional job to return to a ship, she said.
Given all she’s missed back home over the years — holidays, weddings — she’s confident she’ll stick on land for a while despite no firm frame on her future.
“I call it my no-plan plan,” she said.