To view disruption as a launching point
Holland America Line

Seafaring in a Pandemic

Spencer Schmerzler’s path from SUNY Cobleskill has taken him to the far reaches of the world, from Indonesia to Alaska, and when the pandemic struck, he found himself without a country.

But let’s first rewind to 2010, to the start of Spencer’s journey, which began with two fortuitous meetings. While studying for his Bachelor’s degree in Culinary Business Administration, Spencer was prepping vegetable chips for an advanced culinary course in Champlin Hall. He happened to meet a woman who was taking advantage of the share-use kitchen space to make onion jam for her local business. The two got to talking, and Spencer took a jar of jam to go.

Now, fast forward and, a year later, Spencer is visiting a friend at a festival in Sharon Springs. There, he ran into the same jam producer, Margi Neary who said, “let’s talk.”

“It’s interesting how SUNY Cobleskill brought everything together. I made this connection on campus which led to me working with Neary as the head chef of the café she owned. That was my main focus right out of college. She showed me a lot about the business world and culinary world.” In 2013, the two transformed the business from café to catering, launching the MOS Delicious Catering Company. The name is derived from its use of local produce and ingredients from Montgomery, Otsego, and Schoharie counties.

With a steady job in his field of study, Spencer found himself still trying to figure out his path in life. He loved what he was doing but decided it was time to see where opportunity would lead him. He moved back home to Long Island and worked a couple of odd jobs in the food industry, weighing his options. Wanting to stay in the food industry in a position that allowed him to interact with people, Spencer found what he was looking for in Holland America Line.

The job also came with another perk: world travel. The position was presenting cooking shows for America’s Test Kitchen aboard a cruise ship. One year after moving back to Long Island, Spencer was off to Hawaii, then out to sea, to perform these cooking shows and open traveler’s minds to new dishes and new approaches to cooking. Three and a half years later, and untold nautical miles traveled, Spencer again found himself wondering what to do next after the cruise line discontinued the culinary program.

“I decided to indulge another passion of mine, holistic nutrition. I’d heard about a program in Ireland so, the next thing I know, I’m in Dublin getting my certificate in plant based nutritional sciences and culinary medicine. And that’s when I got the call from Holland-America.”

Holland-America specializes in world cruises and grand voyages of up to 128 days in length. Spencer was asked to fill in as assistant cruise director, an opportunity that he wasn’t going to turn down. “Them reaching out was an incredible honor. I packed my bags and off I went.”

Spencer flew from Ireland to Tahiti to begin sailing around Polynesia as an assistant cruise director. But, about a month after boarding, his ship was forced to disembark all passengers in Freemantle, Australia. COVID-19 had been declared a pandemic, and passengers were directed to return home. Spencer and the rest of the crew, about 500 in total, stayed aboard and sailed to South Africa to pick up supplies and fuel.

The ship’s next destination was Manila Bay in the Philippines, where she was anchored with a couple of dozen other ships whose crews were also waiting to see what would happen next. Would they be allowed to disembark in the Philippines? Would they consolidate the crews to one ship and sail elsewhere?

“There were some ships in our fleet that had COVID-19 onboard. They went through a lot of crisis and uncertainty. How do you deal with this on a self-contained ship when space and facilities are limited?”

Then came the knowledge that, even if the ship were to return to the United States, Spencer would not be permitted to disembark on U.S. soil. As a member of the crew, he was considered first as a seafarer. He would have to disembark on foreign land where he was considered an international traveler and make his way home from there.

Spencer was finally able to disembark in Manilla. From there, he flew to South Korea and then home.

Today, he is back aboard a cruise ship, working as a sous chef for Uncruise Adventures and sailing to remote locations in Alaska, getting up close and personal with glaciers, icebergs, whales, seals, and otters. Plans for the future include pursuing endorsement in the Standards of Training Certification and Watchkeeping to explore working on yachts and finishing the plant-based nutritional sciences program in Ireland.

“We plan, and God laughs. I believe everything happens for a reason. If you don’t take risks, then what’s the point of living? Take the leap! SUNY Cobleskill encouraged me to take those risks, and, right now, everything seems to be fitting in very well. If COVID continues to get better, this season will last through September. Funny enough, the program in Ireland is scheduled to start back up then. So, I might be able to go back. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.”