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Call me your captain

Kate McCue in 2015, became the first American woman to captain a cruise ship. Now she is at the helm of the Celebrity Edge, one of the most innovative and luxurious ships in the world. In her interview, Kate talks about the basic stereotypes of her profession, shares her thoughts on how to combine a successful career with a happy family, reveals her favourite areas of the ship and explains why she prefers a cruise ship to life on land.

When I started in 2015 we only had a 3% female bridge team fleetwide. In 4 years we’ve gone from 3% to 22%.

How many countries did you visit last year?

Croatia, I was at the Caribbean, quite a few islands down to north, south, east and west. I can’t complain, this year will be something along the Mediterranean with the Edge itinerary.

What’s best part of your job?

The people and the crew members whom I get to call family. Every cruise we have 2900 guests and 1200-1300 crew members. The guests are changing every week or however long the cruise is. I am trying to get to know as many passengers as possible while they are on board. If I’m tired or sitting on my desk doing some paper work and emails, I’ll leave my cabin and go to the guest areas and meet the guests. They come onboard to have a good time and when people are putting out that positive energy it gets your adrenaline going. So I will actually go back to the cabin with this buzz.

Are guests surprised when they see that you are their captain?

The very first thing I say when I introduce myself to every single person onboard the ship via the PA system is “Hi, this is captain Kate but you can call me a captain because it took me 19 years to earn this title’ so they know what to expect. But on many occasions people thought I’d be taller when they’ve met me in person. I don’t know how that comes across in the PA announcement. I think they expect to see this very Amazonian persona who is controlling the Christopher Columbus steering wheel. The other thing that surprises people is that the ship’s steering wheel is smaller than the steering wheel on a car. It doesn’t have to be big anymore.

What about other misconceptions about your job?

People expect that I am on the bridge all the time and spend 24/7 up there. So when they see me around the ship they are always surprised and the number one question I get asked is, if you are here who is driving (and this is driving me crazy) the boat. This part is when I get to educate everyone on the difference between a boat and a ship. You can put a boat on a ship but you can’t put a ship on a boat, that’s why we are on a ship with lifeboats rather than a big boat with life ships. It’s a size thing. So I think the fact that I don’t live on the bridge 24/7 really surprises a lot of people. But I’ve spend 19 years doing watch on a bridge for 8 hours a day so I’ve earned my time to walk around the ship and enjoy what we have.

The ship’s steering wheel is smaller than the steering wheel on a car.

What’s the hardest part of your job?

The hardest part is actually one of the most rewarding – every day is different. The places we are visiting, the people we have onboard, even the weather. You’ll never have the same day or experience twice. That keeps you on your toes all the time because it’s ever evolving and changing but at the same time I couldn’t do an office 9 till 5 job because I like the excitement of everything changing.

Would you call your job stressful?

I actually have a hard time even calling my job a job because I like it so much. I would say rather than a job, it’s my passion and with your passion I think you look at things differently. So what might be stressful to someone, I find really enjoyable. I’ll give you an example; we were sailing into San Juan, Puerto Rico, and we had rain squalls that hit the ship and gusting winds up to 48 knots which I had not experienced on a ship before. What that causes you to do is really focus, concentrate and go to a place that you don’t get to experience very often, and at the end of that I called my parents and said that today I’m a better captain than I was yesterday. It was stressful but it was also an opportunity to focus myself and now I know what the ship is capable of and what I am capable of.

There aren’t many female captains out there. Would you call yourself an exception or something extraordinary?

I would not consider myself special. I think every captain, every crew member, every person on a ship has a special story and something that makes them special. Being a minority because of gender, race, religion, cultural background, sexual orientation etc. is irrelevant. We have 72 nationalities onboard. We are all unique in some way so there aren’t many female captains in the industry is because it hasn’t been very visible in the past. Using tools like social media, we will put a different spin out there and show people that you don’t have to fit into a specific stereotype to do something and hopefully that’s the message that’s coming across.

It took me 19 years to earn this title.

What’s the main thing to take into account if you want to become a captain?

I think the fact that you’re away from home for at least six months a year, which can be a challenge specially if you have a family you are very close to. However, there are also advantages, like my family can sail with me on the ship whenever they want. Luckily they don’t come all the time cause it’s pretty exhausting to have your family sail with you all the time. But thanks to social media the world is a much smaller place with how we can connect to people. When I first started sailing 20 years ago, upon arrival to a port crew member would rush off to the nearest bank or pay phones and you’d get your 20 minutes to call home and someone was knocking on the glass saying ‘hurry up, it’s my turn!’. Now I keep in contact with my family twice a day and I see them on Skype. My husband works in Italy so I can do the same with him. The idea that I want to have a family and therefore I can’t do it because of my profession or vice versa is a huge misconception because there are ways to work around it.

Who is your role model?

The women who gave me the opportunity to be in this position – Lisa Lutoff-Perlo (President/CEO, Celebrity Cruises Inc.). I met Lisa during a captain’s conference. We both worked for Royal Caribbean and I was so impressed because she was in a very similar position, working in a marine sector where she was surrounded by men. She was a total badass, she was herself, she was authentic and unapologetic and because of being that genuine she really struck a chord. She is one of the first people who helped me realise that you don’t have to be something else in order to fit into that world. I think being genuine goes a really long way.

Do you think we will soon see more female captains?

When I started in 2015 we only had a 3% female bridge team fleet-wide. In 4 years we’ve gone from 3% to 22%. It’s not just the idea of closing the gender gap, we actually have the numbers and people on the positions to back that up. We have more female captains in our company than some of the largest companies combined in all of their brands that are under their umbrellas. That’s huge.

Tell me a bit more about the issues the captain needs to deal with. Does your job require special knowledge or psychology in managing people for example?

One of the nice things on the ship is the chain of command – that’s traditional. So you follow the chain of command and nobody gets left out of the loop and hopefully those issues that come up get taken care of at the ground level so they don’t get to escalate.

Everything falls to a captain. Even if the pizza is cold that’s my problem. I don’t see a lot of cold pizzas coming from me though. It’s just to give you an example of something that could go wrong. Actually, being a female makes you a bit more appreciable, especially if a crew member needs to discuss a personal issue. For example, someone wanted to tell me that they’re pregnant and they were more comfortable talking to me before the HR manager, because he was a man. I think that offers a very unique perspective, they come and want advice about maternity etc.

What’s your favorite part of the ship?

I love the magic carpet; I’ve got my magic carpet necklace which I proudly rock. This is the best souvenir of all the time. The magic carpet goes up and down and it’s made from the ship’s first cut steel and which is phenomenal. No one ship in the world has a magic carpet. it’s transformational, so you can use it in so many different ways.

I also really enjoy Eden cause it’s a restaurant and a bar, and it’s a really cool place to chill and enjoy the entertainment. I sat there for 3 hours one night and I looked at my watch and I was like ‘Omg…”, I had no idea – you get totally immersed there.

Last but no least, the bridge. It’s cutting edge, everything is so technologically advanced. That’s why when I came to take over I had a three-week period before I actually became a captain on board. I needed to get used to everything.

Every day on the ship is different. The places we visit, the people we have onboard, even the weather. You’ll never have the same day or experience twice.

So every ship is different?

Yes, even sisters ships are slightly different in certain things so you always need a familiarization period when you first enter the ships.

I can’t not ask you about your cat? Are pets allowed on ships?

I’m glad you asked – I’ve been waiting for this question from the beginning (Smile). It would be fantastic if every crew member had a cat, although, the reality is that my office and my home are the same space, and because I have a conference room, my cabin is a good size and I am not leaving Bug Naked alone. If a guest is coming with a service animal, they stay with them the entire time, while people with pets is a different story. When we get to a port and passengers are getting off, who is looking after the animal still on the ship? My cat has 24/7 supervision.

Did you deliberately want a cat without fur?

It wasn’t intentional to get a hairless cat, I just came across a Sphinx breed on Instagram and was so fascinated. I’ve never seen anything like that and then I met her in person I fell in love. She is more like dog, she sleeps under your covers between your feet, she has a bath every other day so she likes water and she is very social. I take her up to the bridge when I do the inside access tours, which is a good opportunity for a diehard Bug Naked fan to meet her. She is my world, she makes coming home at the end of the day or passing by the cabin a joy.

Do you feel strange when you are on vacation?

I enjoy being on the ship and honestly if you told me that I would need to spend the next five years onboard the ship and could never get off I would be fine with that. I call it a bubble, everything good happens in my bubble. The real world is a scary place, you have to go out, sit on traffic, to go to the grocery store, pay bills and do all that. Here I have everything taking care of and I have 1200 family members around me all the time so I prefer to stay on board as long as possible.