World’s Coolest Travel Jobs: What It’s Like to Be a Cruise Ship Captain

We chat with the first American female captain of a megaship and learn how she started out, what it’s like to live on a cruise ship, and the most interesting day she’s ever had at sea.

World’s Coolest Travel Jobs: What It’s Like to Be a Cruise Ship Captain

The “Celebrity Equinox” travels to Puerto Rico, St. Maarten, St. Thomas, the Dominican Republic, and the Bahamas.

Courtesy of Pixabay

In this series, we explore what it takes to land—and work—the world’s coolest travel jobs. Previous installments featured interviews with a hotel uniform designer, a social media influencer, and a traveling magician. Up next: a cruise ship captain.

Kate McCue was 12 years old when she took her first cruise. It was a four-day family vacation in the Bahamas on the Premier Cruise Line’s Atlantic. She discovered a schematic of the ship on board and was totally enchanted. She told her dad she wanted to be a cruise director when she grew up, and he told her she could do anything she wanted—including drive the thing. McCue went on to attend California Maritime Academy and worked for Royal Caribbean International for 12 years. At age 37, she became the first American woman to captain a megaship. In April, McCue picked up a new captaining gig on Celebrity Cruises’ Celebrity Equinox, a 2,850-passenger ship traveling to Puerto Rico, St. Maarten, St. Thomas, the Dominican Republic, and the Bahamas. We caught up with McCue to ask about her biggest career break in the cruise industry, the hidden perks of ship life, and the secret to a happy intercontinental marriage.

You just left Bar Harbor, Maine, and now you’re headed to Québec, which means I just called you in the middle of the ocean. How far in advance do you get your sailing schedule?

“Captains are assigned to a ship for about two years, then we’re up for rotation. This is so we can go through the fleet, sail on different vessels, and have different experiences. We know where the ship is going at least a year in advance, and our contracts are three months on board as captains and then three months of free time at home.”

Captain Kate McCue helms Celebrity Cruises’ “Celebrity Equinox,” a 2,850-passenger ship.

Captain Kate McCue helms Celebrity Cruises’ “Celebrity Equinox,” a 2,850-passenger ship.

Courtesy of Celebrity Cruises

What do you do in your three months off? “I’m still trying to figure it out! When you’re working on the ship, you’re on 24/7. It doesn’t matter if it’s 2 in the morning, cruise ship staff members have to be available at every single moment. That’s why crew members get the vacation time we do. When I’m off the ship, it’s a little rough settling back into life on land. Things like making the bed, cooking the food, doing the dishes, and even making the coffee are taken care of for me on board. Fortunately, my husband does all the cooking at home—and the dishes, too.”

Let’s rewind the clock. What was your experience like at California Maritime Academy? Was the school fairly male-dominated at the time?

“Oh, yes. My graduating class had 68 people and only eight of us were female. I felt a little duped because my dad always wanted to go to sea. He entered the Peace Corps and when he came back, he applied to Cal Maritime but was told he was too old to attend. It always stayed in the back of his brain, so when it was time for me to choose a college, he suggested Cal Maritime. He told me I’d get to go on a cruise every year, but what he actually meant was that I’d stand on deck in the pouring rain, learning how to chip and paint. [Laughs] That said, it was the best four years of my life. Everybody looked after each other, which set the groundwork for how it feels when you work on a cruise ship. Celebrity Summit, for example, has 66 different nationalities on board. We’re all a minority of some sort—whether it’s race, religion, cultural background, or sexual orientation—but the crew is one big family.”

What kind of jobs do you do on ships when you’re first starting out?

“When you first start out, your kind of a gofer. You’re on watch with an officer on watch, who teaches you how to put positions down, how to stand and watch, how to paint, and how to do the maintenance of the deck. My second year, I stood watch with a fully licensed officer on a banana boat that went from Ecuador to Long Beach. I assisted on the bridge and learned how port operations worked, from loading the bananas to securing the cargo holds. The third year I went to sea, I was the officer in charge of a watch—standing on the bridge, doing the navigating and the positions and the safety equipment checks, everything.”

“I completely geek out when wildlife comes around—if it’s dolphins or whales, I’m the one screaming from the top of the deck!”

When you say “standing watch,” what are you watching for?

“Anything. Nowadays we have electronics that help us steer the ship, but since the captain can’t be up there 24 hours a day, the officer on watch makes sure all the navigation equipment is working and that we’re on track for where we are intending to go. If we receive a distress message, we monitor the radios to make sure communication is received and assistance is rendered. I like to look out for whales, too. I completely geek out when wildlife comes around—if it’s dolphins or whales, I’m the one screaming from the top of the deck!”

Looking at your career to date, what do you consider your first big break?

“When I joined Royal Caribbean, I came in as a second officer and worked with a female first officer. After my first contract ended, she wrote this amazing letter to the captain recommending me for a promotion. The captain took it to heart and I was promoted to first officer for my next contract. That was a big break. And then, of course, when I got promoted to the captain position—that’s the biggest break of all!”

Tell me about it. Did you know it was coming?

“I had no idea! I was actually asleep when my husband woke me up and said there was an email from Celebrity, the sister brand of Royal Caribbean. The letter was so incredible. It came before Father’s Day, so I asked if I could tell my mom and dad before the promotion was announced publicly. I printed out the letter and gave it to my dad for Father’s Day. When he got to the part about the promotion, he looked up at me, he looked down at the letter, he looked back up at me, and then he just started sobbing! ‘Captain?!’ When you work hard for 19 years and it pays off, it’s like an out-of-body experience.”

What are the personality characteristics of a great captain?

“The navigation, the maneuverability of the ship—those are things you can learn. But you have to be able to listen to people and you have to be empathetic. Where a situation may seem black or white, you have to be able to see gray and find workarounds.”

Managing such a large and diverse team must be the hardest part of your job. You have the engineers in the boiler room, housekeepers, chefs, activity directors . . .

“I actually think the hardest part of the job is also the most exciting: Every day is different. Tomorrow we’re in a different place, with different people, and even different weather. Constant change keeps you on your toes. Three months sounds exhausting, but I find it exhilarating. And if I’m ever feeling tired, I’ll talk to our guests. I feed off their energy.”

It seems like it’d be impossible to be bored.

“Oh, yeah! ‘Bored’ is not a word we use on board the ship. [Laughs] Bored on board . . . nice one! But even when we’re in port, I love doing the city tours.”

Speaking of port stops, do you have any strategies for tackling a new destination in such a short window of time?

“I usually go through our shore excursions department and destination concierge. They know everything about every port: what to do, where to go, what to see. In Portland, Maine, for example, we went to the lighthouses, Kennebunkport, and downtown Portland. We got our lobster rolls and our fried clams. It was the whole Portland mashup in six hours!”

“Tomorrow we’re in a different place, with different people, and different weather. Constant change keeps you on your toes.”

What are your accommodations like on board? Have they changed a lot over the years?

“When I first started as a cadet on the training ship, we had 18 bunks in the same room and we all shared a bathroom. When I was working on the banana boat, I had my own cabin with a bed, a little workstation, and a bathroom. Now, as captain, I’ve got a bedroom, an office, a living room, a dining room, three bathrooms, a spare room, a laundry, and pantry . . . I’ve even got a toaster!”

When passengers see you in a restaurant or other public space, what do they ask you?

“How I got into this, how I got started. They want to know about challenges of working on a cruise ship. They also want to know about my husband: Where is he? What does he do? How often do you see each other? Do you have kids?”

Do you think guests ask about your husband because they’re trying to reconcile how you balance such a busy life at sea with a personal life at home?

“Yes. But times have changed. When I first started sailing, we were sending telex messages at $7 per word. Now I see my husband twice a day—once in the morning and once in the evening, thanks to Skype and Messenger. So the distance is still there, but the relationship doesn’t have to suffer. I like to think that the secret to a happy marriage is 12 time zones. It feels like a honeymoon when we finally go on vacation together!”

OK, last question and it’s an easy one: What’s one thing we’d be surprised to learn you pack?

“Uh, my cat?”

[Laughs] Other than the cat, which I grant you is unusual.

“Other than the cat and the cat’s wardrobe, my Louboutins go with me on every ship. I say that we should make ’em part of the official Celebrity uniform, but I’m not winning that battle.”

Captain Kate is on Instagram! Track her high-seas adventures by following @captainkatemccue.

>>Next: What It’s Really Like to Be a Social Media Influencer

Ashlea Halpern is a contributing editor at Condé Nast Traveler and cofounder of Minnevangelist, a site dedicated to all things Minnesota. She’s on the road four to six months a year (sometimes with her toddler in tow) and contributes to Afar, New York Magazine, Time, the Wall Street Journal, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, Bon Appétit, Oprah, Midwest Living, and more. Follow her adventures on Instagram at @ashleahalpern.
From Our Partners
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
More From AFAR