At the helm as a female trailblazer

Andrea Sachs

THE WASHINGTON POST – Kate McCue remembers her first cruise as if it were yesterday and not more than 30 years ago.

She was 12 years old, and, after the trip was finished, she told her father she wanted to be a cruise director when she grew up.

Her dad supported her decision but encouraged her to think bigger: Instead of just planning activities for passengers, why not run the whole ship?

Last month, McCue returned to her position at the helm of the Celebrity Edge. For the first sailing from a United States (US) port in 15 months, she put on her uniform – a navy blue jacket with four and a half gold stripes on the sleeve and a nametag on the lapel that reads ‘Captain’.

“It only says ‘Captain’ because when I had ‘Captain Kate’, people tended to call me Kate,” McCue said. “It took me 19 years to earn that title.”

In 2015, McCue, who was 37 years old, secured a place in the maritime history books as the first female American captain of a megaship. (A megaship is an extremely large commercial vessel, such as the 1,004-foot-long Celebrity Edge.)

Other members of the small group of female cruise ship captains include Karin Stahre-Janson of Sweden, the first woman to hold the top seafaring spot, and Belinda Bennett, the first Black female captain.

Kate McCue oversees the Celebrity Edge’s navigation, operations, safety, passenger service and its 1,220 crew members. PHOTOS: CELEBRITY CRUISES/THE WASHINGTON POST
Bug Naked, an elf ear Sphynx cat, is Kate McCue’s sailing companion. The cat rides around the ship in a baby stroller

“There are certainly many stories and stereotypes about women sitting at home waiting for their captain husbands to return from some long voyage,” said Margaret Andersen, author of the book On Land and on Sea: A Century of Women in the Rosenfeld Collection. “But if you dig into history, you will find that there were a lot of women who went out on sailboats and other kinds of ships.”

Andersen pointed to young trailblazers such as Ellen MacArthur, who at age 24 sailed alone around the world in record time, and Tania Aebi, whose father presented the high-schooler with a choice of money for college or a sloop.

She chose the sailboat and spent two and a half years at sea with her cat. She wrote about her 27,000-mile odyssey in the book Maiden Voyage.

After graduating from the California State University Maritime Academy, McCue received a job offer from Disney Cruise Line. She has worked in many roles on ships in Asia, Australia, Alaska, the South Pacific, the Mediterranean, the Middle East and the Caribbean. Her schedule is three months on, three months off.

As captain, she’s in charge of navigation, operations, safety, passenger service and 1,220 crew members. She also makes sure that the Celebrity Edge and its passengers follow the laws in the places where the ship docks.

McCue shares her stateroom with Bug Naked, her elf-ear Sphynx cat whom she pushes around the ship in a baby stroller. Their cabin is attached to the bridge, the main control centre.

“I never get stuck in traffic when I go to work,” she said.

During the first 10 months of the coronavirus pandemic, McCue stayed on the ship in the waters around Florida until the crew members could safely return to their homes in more than 60 countries.

To pass the time, she rescued an osprey trapped in a stairwell, taught herself to use TikTok, practiced yoga, watched sharks swim around the sea floor and flushed the pipes in 167 staterooms on Deck 12, one of her favourite activities.

Now that she has resumed her captain duties, she has had to give up the weekly plumbing rounds.