Update: Captain Wendy Williams is no longer serving as captain of the Scarlet Lady at Virgin Voyages.
When the Scarlet Lady departs for her maiden voyage this spring, Virgin Voyages sailors will not only be treated to retro-futurist luxury suites, globally inspired restaurants, and roaming entertainment — they’ll also be part of history as they board a ship helmed by Captain Wendy Williams, the first Canadian woman to captain a ship for a major cruise brand.
With women representing less than three percent of the maritime industry’s workforce, Williams’s appointment to Captain aligns with Virgin’s mission to make waves.
While Captain Wendy’s role with Virgin Voyages is new, her relationship with the sea goes way back. Born in the coastal Canadian city of Sept-Îles, Quebec, Williams was destined to be a thalassophile: her father, a marine electronics engineer, used to let her tag along with him to work. This early exposure eventually led her to a 28-year career — and counting — at sea.
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Williams’s professional life on the water began in the commercial fishing sector, where she monitored fish stocks and foreign fishing fleets in the Canadian fishing zone and endured six-month stints with no land in sight. The experience planted a desire to matriculate in a maritime academy, for which significant sea time is required, so she began deck handing.
“I went out and I got a sea time job as a deckhand and then that turned into, all in all, about 10 years of work with the coastal fishing fleet off the west coast of Canada. And that was really interesting — boats of all different shapes and sizes, all different types of fishing activity. And it’s also where I met my husband,” she adds. “So I’m very thankful to fishing for many things.”
She and her husband enrolled together at the BCIT Marine Campus, where she earned her master mariner certification. After school, she was quickly picked up by Royal Caribbean, where she went on to work for 15 years before moving to their sister line, Celebrity Cruises.
Williams felt a sense of belonging in the cruising industry, but her desire to do something “just a little bit differently” made her the perfect fit for Virgin Voyages. Though she has served as second-in-command on the bridge of mega cruise ships, her role with Virgin Voyages will be her first promotion to Master of a cruise ship — the head honcha with ultimate authority.
When I spoke to her, Williams was on her way to the shipyard to meet the Scarlet Lady for the first time. “I’m getting goosebumps,” she told me. “I think I’m going to shed a few tears, but whatever they say about epic, it’s going to be epic. It is already epic for me on a very personal level.”
She continued, “It still feels like a dream. It’s fantastic. I am so incredibly honored to have been chosen for the role. I’m still waiting for someone to run up and pinch me and tell me it’s not really happening. I am overjoyed.”
Her excitement stems partially from the fact that Virgin Voyages is committed to rocking the boat (metaphorically, of course). From the time they announced plans to introduce a cruise line, the company has boasted in their promise to deliver an experience unlike anything the industry has seen before.
“What we are going to produce as a company and as a team is going to change the face of cruising,” Williams declares. “We’re not in competition with anybody. We’re going to be our own entity, and we’re just gonna do it our way, and we’re going to enjoy doing that every step of the way … I’m just really excited because I think it’s something that the industry needs. It’s not going to appeal to everybody, but it’s going to appeal to those people we want it to appeal to.”
And while her current state of affairs is indeed exhilarating, Williams is quick to recognize that her journey to this point has been hard-fought; she’s proud to be a “first” but points out that it’s problematic this milestone has taken so long.
“Even though I’m absolutely over the moon, and elated with what is happening in my life, why am I the first Canadian woman to be in command of a major [cruise brand’s ship]? Why hasn’t this happened before now?” she asks. “I joined an illustrious group of women out at sea who I admire greatly as captains, but sadly, there’s really just a handful of us.”
As a female working her way through a particularly male-dominated field — remember, women in maritime occupations are outnumbered by men thirtyfold — Williams is no stranger to charting her own course.
“I was saying, up until very recently, that I don’t really have any war stories,” Williams says. “I think it was more that that kind of did happen a little bit, but I used to just put my head down and go, ‘Okay, it’s just going to bounce off me, and I’m not going to listen to what they’re saying...and I’m just going to show them through my hard work.’ And although that’s what I did, I don’t believe that that’s the right thing to have to do."
“As a woman, we can do anything. We can do anything we set our minds to, and to have anybody say anything bad to you when you’re doing your job — or before you even start your job — it’s just wrong.”
Her advice to fellow women blazing trails of their own is simple: never give up. “My parents used to tell me the only thing that would ever limit me in my life is my own imagination,” she says. “And I believe that that’s true. I think if you set goals for yourself, you should be able to achieve them.”
Williams indeed seems to be living out that advice, working tirelessly to fulfill her professional potential despite the odds stacked against her. Which brings up a question: a trip on the Scarlet Lady will be a vacation for the 2,770 passengers aboard, but Williams isn’t there to kick her feet up — so what does someone who “lives on vacation,” with a job cruising the Caribbean and Mexico, do with off time of her own?
Travel, of course.
“My husband and I both love traveling,” says Williams. “In fact, when we were in our commercial fishing stage, we would fish for six months and travel for six months. We’re backpackers. We’re adventure travelers. We don’t really like to do things on a beaten path. We’re hikers, we’re pretty outdoorsy. We love skiing, all that kind of stuff."
When asked her favorite destination, her evasive answer was symptomatic of a classic case of wanderlust: “I think that’s yet to be seen, ‘cause there’s a lot of places on our bucket list yet. Machu Picchu is up there. We really want to go and see that.”
But Williams’s passion for travel extends beyond a thirst for adventure; her zeal for exploring stems from her belief that it’s vital to see far corners of the world up close, through your own eyes.
“There’s a whole world out there, and if you limit yourself to just being in one place, I think you’re truly limiting yourself,” she shares. “If you’ve been somewhere, you can actually have an opinion about that place. I don’t think it’s fair to have opinions until you’ve actually seen things. I think it’s very important to meet people from different cultures. I think it’s very important to see different sights, things that you may only see in a book. You can actually go and physically be there. It’s enlightening. It’s good for the soul.”
With all her travels, and despite all her time on the bridge of major cruise lines, Williams has never cruised as a passenger. Still, she views cruising as the ideal entry point for new or hesitant travelers.
“I think that everybody should travel, and if you’re not sure where you want to go, cruising is super cool because you get to do kind of like a sampler,” she explains. “So if you’re not sure if you want to go to Mexico, go to one Mexican port and see what that’s like. If you’re not sure if you’ll like a certain place, you’re not going to have to stay there for more than 10 or 12 hours, and then you’ll be on to the next adventure.”
As much as she loves travel, for Williams, there’s no place like home. “Because I spend so much of my year away, I love to be at home,” she admits. “I adore being at home. We have a little bit of a hobby farm. We have six acres on Vancouver Island and it keeps us really, really, really, really busy. We’re developing it, and we’re hoping to welcome some four-legged fuzzy creatures in the next year or two.”
One four-legged fuzzy creature already calls the farm home: meet @DaisyBear_Doggins, apple of Williams’s eye. When Williams is away at sea for extended periods of time, she gets her fix through regular FaceTime calls — and cruise passengers’ service dogs. “Anybody’s dog is fair game for me. We’ll be allowing service dogs on board, and when they’re not working, I’m all over them,” she laughs. “I’m friends with a lot of dogs.”
Cute as she is, Daisy’s not the only one rocking it on Instagram. To keep up with Captain Wendy’s adventures at sea, or to ask her your burning Virgin Voyages questions, head to her Instagram at @CaptainWendyWilliams — there’s a good chance you’ll get a personal response. “I do spend time going through my Instagram,” she says. “I don’t just collect all of the likes. Some people have some great questions, and I try my best to filter through and at least answer some of them every single day.”
Clearly, with a captain like Wendy Williams in command, Virgin Voyages is already delivering on the promise of an unparalleled cruising experience.