We chat with the first American female captain of a megaship and learn how she started out, her favorite on-shore excursions, and the most interesting day she’s ever had at sea.
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 then and there 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. McCue turned 40 in January and has more milestones to celebrate. She and her husband recently bought a house in Las Vegas and she has a new captaining gig: Starting in April, McCue will helm 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 last fall, when she was still driving the 2,158-passenger Celebrity Summit, to ask about her biggest career break, the hidden perks of ship life, and the secret to a happy intercontinental marriage.
You left Bar Harbor, Maine, yesterday 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 off at home.”
What do you do in your three months off?
“I’m still trying to figure it out! My husband and I have a new house in Las Vegas. My parents live in Vegas and my cousin, who works on a Royal Caribbean ship as an environmental officer, lives across the street. We’re all in the same neighborhood, about 300 steps from one another. So when I go home, it’s usually a long list of honey-dos. When you’re away for so long, you’re living a double life. When you’re on the ship, you’re on 24/7. It doesn’t matter if it’s 2 in the morning, I’m available. That’s why we 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. He’s pretty incredible. His contract is 10 weeks on, 10 weeks off, because he works on a different ship with our sister brand. When he’s not home, I go to my mom and dad’s for lunch and dinner. They take care of me.”
So your husband is also a ship captain?
“Ohhhh no, no! [Laughs] You cannot have two captains under one roof. That would be drama, oh my gosh! ‘I’m the muscle!’ ‘No, I’m the muscle!’ My husband is a chief engineer, so he’s in charge of all the technical on board the ship: the refrigeration, the electrical, the engine. He likes to think he is the most important person on the ship because without him the ship wouldn’t go anywhere, but I beg to differ—I think the chef is the most important person on board.”
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] I’d seen movies like Animal House; I knew what college was all about, right? So imagine my reaction when I showed up at Cal Maritime and they had a stack of khaki uniforms and told us to meet on the quad at 7 o’clock every morning. I was like, What is this?! That said, it was the best four years of my life. There was never a male-versus-female thing. I received a scholarship for being a minority, but that was the end of it. I was just Kate and these were my brothers. 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 we’re one big family.”
What kind of jobs do you do on ships when you’re first starting out?
“You’re kinda like the gofer. When you first start out, 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. If you go engine, it’s similar: You’re standing watch with an engineer, learning how to clean an oily water separator, give out assignments, fix things, and so on. 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 they showed me 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.”
"On board . . . we’re all a minority of some sort—whether it’s race, religion, cultural background, or sexual orientation—but we’re one big family.”
When you say “standing watch,” what are you watching for?
“Anything. We’re trying to go from point A to point B, and nowadays we have electronics that help us steer the ship. Since the captain can’t be up there 24 hours a day, the officer on watch makes sure all the navigation equipment is working, that we’re on track for where we are intending to go, and that we’re looking out for other traffic. 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! And rainbows! Rainbows send me off the edge.”
So your engineer husband works below deck. I imagine it takes very different skills to work above or below deck.
“So different. But I didn’t realize how different until I met my husband. He is so methodical about the things he does—a true engineer. When he fixes something he has taken apart, he goes piece by piece by piece putting it back together. I’m like, ‘Let’s get this show on the road!’ When I hear my husband talk about fixing the car and how the manifold is blah blah blah, I completely zone out. Whereas engineers, they tune in to that kind of thing.”
Looking at your career to date, what do you consider your first big break?
“Disney Cruises was the first cruise company I ever worked for, but they only had two ships; there wasn’t a whole lot of room for growth. 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 about my work on board, recommending me for a promotion. The captain took it to heart and I was promoted to first officer for my next contract. She didn’t have to do that. Everybody goes through the paces, but because she took the time to actually acknowledge my work, that was a big break. And then, of course, when I got promoted to the captain position—that’s the biggest break of all! And the best day of my life, too.”
Tell me about it. Did you know it was coming?
“I had no idea! I was sailing as a guest of my husband on his ship, and I was actually asleep when he woke me up and said there was an email from Celebrity, the sister brand of Royal Caribbean. Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, Celebrity’s president and CEO, said she wanted to promote me when she was over at Royal, but the executives were dragging their feet. So when she came to Celebrity, she said, ‘Now I have the ability to make it happen.’ 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. She said absolutely, so 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 got real quiet. 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 19 years for something and it comes true, it’s like an out-of-body experience.”
“I got promoted to the captain position—that’s the biggest break of all! And the best day of my life, too.”
Was the first officer who wrote that letter of recommendation your mentor? Or were there others along the way?
“Every officer I’ve worked with was a mentor in some form or another. You take the good with the bad and file it all away—how to speak to people, especially. I worked with Captain Johnny Faevelen on Harmony of the Seas, and he is a showman! He loves his job and his enthusiasm is contagious. On the flip side, I worked with a captain early in my career who would scream at people over the radio. I mean, the guy didn’t even need the radio—all he needed to do was open the window and everybody could hear him! About 20 years ago, ships started introducing HR on board; the tyrannical captain doesn’t have a place in today’s business. The scare tactics, the screaming . . . that’s long gone. But they’re still things I filed away: ‘I’m never going to yell at people. I’m not going to embarrass them in public.’”
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 . . .
“Yeah, but at the same time, I have such amazing people in between that handle things. 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. It also makes the time go fast. 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.”
You must feel like such a celebrity on board! Do people stop you a lot for selfies?
“[Laughs] Sixty-two selfies in a day was my max. But I don’t mind. If I was on a cruise, I’d want to meet the captain, too. The most interesting day I’ve ever had started with a burial at sea. Then at lunch, we had a surprise birthday party on the bridge. And later that day, I did a wedding. So it was like death, birth, wedding all in one day. Who else gets to do that?”
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 or ATVing or scuba diving.”
Speaking of port stops, do you have any strategies for tackling a new destination in such a short window of time?
“Oh, 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. We hit The Holy Donut. It was the whole Portland mashup in six hours! One thing that I always, always, always do is the Underwater Sculpture Park in Grenada. It was on my bucket list, I did it once, and now I want to do it every time we go back.”
What are your accommodations like on board? Have they changed a lot over the years?
“They’re pretty sweet, I gotta say. I have three bathrooms! I don’t use them all, but they’re there. I have my office in the entry, then my living room and a separate conference room. That’s Bug’s room. I jack up the heat to 85 degrees so she’s not cold.”
Wait, who’s Bug?
“Bug Naked is my cat. She has her own Instagram, with about 13,000 followers. Crazy cat people love crazy cat people. But anyway, 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 then the bathroom. Pretty similar setup as a third mate, a second mate, and as a first officer. When I became a chief officer, I got a separate room, so there was a bedroom, a living room, and a bathroom. Then when I became staff captain, I got a bathtub. And now, as captain, I’ve got a bedroom, an office, a living room, a dining room, a spare room, a laundry, and pantry . . . I’ve even got a toaster! But I don’t need any other cooking stuff.”
“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.”
Is that because you just eat in the restaurants on board?
“There are restaurants and a mess hall, but I am a slave to routine: I have the same breakfast, lunch, and dinner every single day. Breakfast is six egg whites, a bowl of bacon, orange juice, and coffee. Lunch is a bowl of grits. Dinner is salmon and salad or chicken and salad. Same thing. Every day.”
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 and I have to disappoint them, because I don’t really have any challenges. They want to know about the cat. Where is she? What’s she up to? Also, my husband: Where is he? What does he do? How often do you see each other? Do you have kids? And my answer is usually, ‘Not any that I know of!’ [Laughs]”
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. We actually spend more quality time talking about our day when we’re apart than when we were together, working on the same ship. Because then, we’d just return to the cabin at 8 in the evening, order room service, watch TV, and go to bed. Now we actually have conversations about our day. 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!”
Where do you guys vacation? Don’t tell me you take cruises.
“We love the West Coast. My brother being near Portland, Oregon, we went there to watch the eclipse in totality, which was life changing. Napa and San Francisco are great, too. Last year was actually the first cruise in 10 years that we’d taken together where we were both on vacation. What we figured out is that we have nothing in common when we are on a ship. Nothing. I wanted to go to dance class, he wanted to sit by the pool. I wanted to see a show, he wanted to sit by the pool. I wanted to go to dinner, he wanted to sit by the pool. You get the point. So, I don’t know if we’ll cruise together again on vacation.”
OK, last question and it’s an easy one: What’s one thing we’d be surprised to learn you pack?
“Uh, the 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 everywhere. Gotta have the red soles! 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.