Kate McCue – who became the first American woman to captain a megaship at the age of 38 and accessorises her uniform with black platform patent Christian Louboutins – may be pretty, but she’s also gritty.
The woman at the helm of Celebrity’s flagship, Celebrity Edge, was supposed to sign off for three months of shore leave last March. Then Covid-19 hit.
Kate chose to remain on the ship, anchored off the Bahamas, rather than return to her home in Las Vegas, Nevada.
She explained: “When we started to see difficulty involved in repatriating crew, one of things I really wanted to do was to be on board until the last crew member went home.”
She immediately moved her stranded crew into guest balconies “to have them experience what our guests experience. You have access to fresh air and sunshine, and it really makes a difference.”
Kate documented life on-board, in the midst of a pandemic, for her 230,000 followers on Instagram –@captainkatemccue – which she views as her “digital photo album” and “also a way we can represent what’s really happening”.
Bug Naked, Kate’s hairless elf sphynx cat, who accompanies her on each cruise, has more than 45,000 of her own followers on a separate Instagram account.
As well as Instagram, Kate has a TikTok account – “it’s a way to let your goofy out” – and a YouTube channel aimed at the serious cruise fanatic. In her words, it “is more of an insight into what we do.”
The stylish skipper caught the cruise bug at the age of 12.
“My parents took my brother and I on a four-day voyage to the Bahamas. Afterwards I said to my dad: ‘I want to be a cruise director when I grow up.’ And my dad replied: ‘You can do anything you want to do in the world – including drive the thing’.”
Seed firmly planted, Kate applied to California Maritime Academy. Upon graduating in 2000, she sent her resume to every cruise line in the industry.
After 18 months without success she changed her CV and applied to Disney to be a bartender.
“They said I wasn’t qualified to be a bartender, as I had never served a drink in my life, but took me on as a third mate.”
In 2003, she moved to Royal Caribbean as a second officer, where she saw more scope for career progression, and she spent the next 12 years at the cruise giant “working my way up”. In 2015, Kate got a call from Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, the president of Celebrity Cruises, a cruise brand under the Royal Caribbean Group. She was asked if she would become captain of Celebrity Summit.
The response Kate recalls is typical of her: “Hell yes” was the answer.
In September 2015 she became Summit’s commanding officer – the first American woman to captain a modern megaship – before moving to Celebrity Equinox in 2018 and on to her current ship, the billion-dollar Celebrity Edge, in 2019.
She has clear advice for other women wanting to follow in her seafaring footsteps: “Just do it. It’s a scary thought to leave the familiarity of a home and go to sea, but it is the greatest adventure you will ever go on.”
Despite working in what is traditionally a male-dominated environment, Kate is adamant that she has never experienced sexism in the workplace.
“On our ships we have 75 different nationalities, so we are all a minority of some sort. We don’t pick on those minorities, we celebrate them.” And on-board Kate refuses to follow conventional protocol, doing away with the “captain’s table”.
“I’ve found that if I go to a captain’s dinner, I spend three hours with eight people, which still leaves 2,900 other people. I want to be accessible to everyone.”
Kate’s obvious appetite for the cruise industry and savage levels of workaholism shone through during our chat. But I couldn’t help but wonder how she manages to juggle work and marriage to Nikola, who she met when they were both working on board a Royal Caribbean ship.
Kate quipped: “I always say the secret to a happy relationship is 12 time zones.”
She added: “We make it work. Technology has made life so much easier. You used to go to sea, get to a port and hop on that payphone, and you’d have 20 minutes until the next person was banging on the glass saying your time is up.”
Having achieved her goal of captaining a cruise ship, Kate would love to become a ship’s godmother.
She said: “Our godmother is Malala Yousafzai. Now I am no Malala, but it would be special to be responsible for the ship and also be the one who blesses her.”
Looking ahead, Kate is optimistic for the future and believes it will take more than a pandemic to stop people from cruising.
“Honestly I don’t think I have ever felt more confident about anything as I am about our return. Have faith. People will travel again, and we know that they will come on cruises.”
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