You’d think with all the maritime traditions you see carried out at sea, the ascension of a new ship’s captain would be celebrated with a bizarre but time-honored ritual or two. Maybe the singing of a boisterous sea chantey. Or drinking champagne while strapped upside down to the ship’s bow. Or maybe a slow walk up a gangway while water from the bilge pump is sprayed overhead in celebration.
But for Celebrity Cruises’ newest captain, her big promotion was literally just another day at the office.
“I’m in Miami, meeting the beautiful people of Celebrity Cruises,” Kate McCue told Yahoo Travel on the day the cruise line officially announced she’ll be the next captain of Celebrity Summit. When the San Francisco native takes the helm aboard Summit in August, she’ll become the first American woman to captain a major cruise ship (Swedish mariner Karin Stahre-Janson became the first female cruise ship captain in 2007 when she took command of Royal Caribbean’s Monarch of the Seas).
So far, there have been no bawdy maritime rituals to mark McCue’s new promotion. “Unfortunately, I think those days are long gone,” she laughed. Still, her captain’s coming-out celebration at Celebrity’s offices was still memorable. “I’ve been getting a lot tweets and Facebook friend requests,” she said, including a congratulatory Facebook message from Stahre-Janson. Twitter also lit up with “Girl Power” appreciation, as we see from this Girl Scouts tweet:
“It’s been a bit nuts today in all the best ways,” McCue said of all the attention. Sounds like she might go a bit nuts herself having to wait a whole month to take command of the Summit; she is itching to get that captain’s stripe on her uniform. “I’ve been doing a lot of pushups because that extra bar on my shoulder is going to weigh me down!” she laughed, though you get the feeling she’s not entirely kidding.
As happy as McCue is to break the American gender barrier in this profession, she’s even happier to reach her goal ahead of schedule. “Making captain by 40 was the goal,” said McCue, who is 37. “Hitting it three years early is phenomenal.“ Though 37 might seem young to be a cruise ship captain, McCue said there are plenty of captains younger than she (though some might find it troubling to board a cruise ship skippered by someone who wasn’t alive when “The Love Boat” was on).
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“I feel ready to take this on,” said McCue. “This is something that I’ve been working for for a long time. For almost two decades this was the goal. And to finally be there it’s pretty amazing.”
Navigating uncharted waters
For most of McCue’s 15-year career in the maritime industry, there were no women sitting in the captain’s chair of a major cruise line. So what made McCue think being a captain could in the cards for her?
“When I was 12, my parents took me on a cruise to the Bahamas,” she remembered. “When we got off the ship, I told my dad that I wanted to be the cruise director — the person that plans the fun events on board."
But her father got her thinking a little differently. "My dad said, ‘You can do anything you want in this world, but that includes driving [the ship] if you want to,’” McCue recalled. “So that was always in the back of my brain.”
McCue went on to study at California State University’s California Maritime Academy, where she said she was among a “select few” women. “There were only 8 of us in a graduating class of 60,” she remembered. After graduation, her career at sea flourished; she rose through the ranks, going from a cadet and deck officer to eventually serving as a second in command on Royal Caribbean’s Jewel of the Seas (Royal Caribbean International also owns Celebrity Cruises).
A 15-year rise through the ranks finally put McCue in the captain’s chair. Did being a woman affect her career? (Photo: Celebrity Cruises)
Through it all, McCue said being a woman was never a problem for her. “I have gone through the same process that a man would coming up through the ranks and put the time in accordingly,” she said. “I haven’t encountered any issues on the way up. I’ve had such good mentors — captains and fellow officers on board who have always supported me.”
Fittingly, McCue was at sea when she got word of her promotion. Last month, she was aboard Royal Caribbean’s Quantum of the Seas on a vacation with her husband, who also works at sea. (Yes, the couple takes cruises on their days off. How’s that for dedication to craft?). Her vacation was interrupted by an email instructing her to call Celebrity’s President and CEO Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, who offered her the new assignment. “Of course, I couldn’t wait to say yes,” McCue said.
McCue and her husband had to keep her promotion secret until this week’s announcement. But she did tell the person who first inspired her to aim for the captain’s chair. “I told my parents on Father’s Day,” she said. “I videotaped my dad with the good news because it’s a dream come true for him as well. And my mom, too. But it being Father’s Day, it was extra special.”
It’s good to be the captain
So now that she’s preparing to assume command of the Summit, she’s extremely excited. “I’m a huge foodie,” she said. “The Summit has nine restaurants and I plan to experience them all within the first two days on board.” Again, she may not be joking.
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There are also some challenges, too. As captain of the 91,000-ton, 965-foot Summit, McCue will be responsible for the safety of its 2,158 passengers and 952 crew members. And there’s the more personal challenge of being at sea away from her husband and parents in Las Vegas.
“We do three months on and three months off,” she said of her maritime schedule. “However, the advantages of that is I have two families: I have a family at home and I have a family on board. So I have twice the love and support and I get to share my time with both equally."
Inspiring the next generation
Why stop at cruise director? Girls, like McCue back in the day, are setting their sights on the captain’s chair. (Photo: iStock)
McCue’s has one piece of advice youngsters looking to follow in her footsteps: get your sea time in.
“It’s not a quick road; you can’t just whip up a captain,” she said. "It’s something that you have to put your time and energy into. But once you do, if you decide that’s what you want, there is not a more rewarding job on this planet.”
And girls who — like McCue did 25 years ago in the Bahamas — decide that being a cruise ship captain is what they want now have something McCue didn’t have growing up: a role model. As McCue joins the growing list of women ably and visibly serving on the bridges of cruise ships, she’ll provide an inspiration to young sailors everywhere — and hopefully will establish a maritime tradition that proves even more enduring than sea chanteys.