“You can do anything you want, including drive the thing.” With those words Kate McCue’s father, Patrick, planted the idea – when Kate was just 12 – that Kate could captain a cruise ship.
She’s now worked for cruise lines for 13 years, was the first American woman to captain a giant cruise vessel and will soon take the helm of Celebrity Cruises new flagship, Celebrity Edge.
A life at sea first captured a young Kate’s imagination during a four-day family voyage to the Bahamas. “The idea of being able to do this as a career, I thought, was mind blowing – to be able to have fun all the time and travel around on the ship,” she told Telegraph Travel.
Initially, Kate had been tempted by the role of cruise director, but it seems seafaring ambitions ran in the family. Patrick McCue had applied to the California Maritime Academy, or Cal Maritime, after being stationed in Ethiopia for the Peace Corps but hadn’t met the age requirements. However, Kate reignited that latent interest and applied to the college when she was 16. She’s carved a career on the sea ever since, working her way up from second officer.
Forging her own style of captaining has ranged from having an open door policy (so that her crew are welcome to come and talk to her when they need) to using Instagram to document her time at sea. She’s gathered over 58,000 followers on her own account, plus another 18,000 for her Elf Sphynx cat, Bug Naked, who accompanies her on each cruise.
Kate's mix of glamour, playfulness and eye for a good shot are a compelling testimony for life aboard, whether as a customer or as part of the crew. A small selection of posts include Kate posing with on board entertainers, Kate wearing a mermaid tail while perched on a sailboat and a close-up of a flamingo in Aruba.
“One of the best things about the job is being able to travel and experience the world. My posts are kind of geared to that to show that there lots of opportunities in this job. And, if you see it, you can be it,” she says.
Kate’s also an advocate for making a marriage work when each person's job takes them to different far flung destinations. She met her husband, Nikola Petrovic, while they were working together on board a Royal Caribbean ship, 13 years ago.
“If you can live in a crew cabin together, you’re going to make it, whatever,” says Kate. Nikola is now a chief engineer, working on other ships.
“I’d say the secret to a happy marriage is 12 time zones,” Kate jokes. “Maybe that’s not the best advice for everyone. But, for us, it really works. It’s feast and famine – whenever we get to see each other priorities change. We don’t argue about the little things. You take your time, as precious as it is, and you make the most of it.”
With Kate's three months on, three months off schedule (typical for those working in the cruise industry) she and Nikola can catch up at least quarterly – he will often join Kate on board and they take holidays together. “It’s kind of a honeymoon everytime we get to see each other.”
Being at sea with her husband in tow must be Kate’s ideal as she doesn’t relish her time off. When she’s on a break back home in Las Vegas, she says, it feels like being retired.
During one break she looked into becoming an Uber driver before signing up as a dog walker. “After a month of no calls, I figured out no one walks their dogs in the desert, in the summer, during the day..."
But the sea was soon calling and Kate was back with her on board “family”. The diversity of its workers is one of many things that add up to make cruise an unusual, and vibrant, industry. Among the 1,243 crew members on board Celebrity Equinox, for example, there are 72 nationalities.
When she was first promoted to captain, Kate was often asked what kind of challenges she’d faced on the way up – as a woman – but she couldn’t name anything.
“[On board we’re] all a minority of some sort, whether it’s by race, religion, orientation, gender or culturally. That puts us on a level playing field that’s unspoken, we are family when we’re on board the ship and that’s how we treat each other.”
That’s not to say she hasn’t seen the industry evolve. “Back in the day you had these tyrannical captains that you couldn’t speak to unless they spoke to you. Over the 20 years I’ve seen the rounding of rough edges of these people. Or, if they couldn’t adapt there was no place for them on board the ships.”
Kate has hewn her own style of captaining – for example eschewing the Captain’s Table (a tradition in which a small group of passengers are invited to join the captain for dinner on one evening of a voyage) for a more egalitarian approach. “People want to talk to you and I’ve found that if I go to a captain’s dinner, I spend three hours with eight people which still leaves 2,900 other people [to talk to].” Instead she places herself in a busy public area so she’s available for everyone to chat to, for example walking out with the rest of the audience after a show.
And meeting passengers can often be one of the most interesting parts of the job. For Kate, among the most memorable is Mr Albert Thurston, a man who joins the ship Celebrity Summit for 48 to 50 weeks a year. “He was my date for all the major holidays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s”.
He’s a hit with all the crew – on Celebrity’s formal nights known as “evening chic” he gathers red roses and delivers them to each person who looks after him on board. “He is the most consistent thing on that ship.”
Another of Kate's favourites was Jack Jones – the singer behind the theme tune to Love Boat, the American series set on a luxury cruise ship – who joined Celebrity Equinox last September.
“I thought, ‘oh my god I have to get him to sing the theme song from Love Boat’," says Kate. "And he did [...] then, at the end, he said, 'I’ve never seen a captain like you in my life'.”
For anyone who thinks working on a cruise ship might be a drudge, Kate certainly proves otherwise. “I would never want to do a nine to five because going to sea every day is different. The people on board, the places you’re visiting, even the weather, no one day will be the same as the next.”
Adapting to change is a must, then. When it comes to being responsible for the ship, Kate takes it in her stride. She’s up at 6am and usually finishing at 10pm. But she’s available 24/7, even if she’s ashore, when she carries a ship phone with her. “I always take a nap [in the day] because the likelihood is if they are going to need me it’s going to be two or three in the morning.”
The demands of the job are balanced out by the opportunity to travel the world. Some of Kate’s favourite voyages have been to the ABC islands (Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao), Canada and New England and a cruise that coincided with the New Orleans’ Jazz Festival on which her husband joined as a surprise.
“Bonaire was my very favourite island of all time. It’s untouched, it’s still very rough and at the same time gorgeous. You stick your face in the water and it’s like putting your head in a fish tank.”
As for the future, Kate’s very much planning to remain on board. “God willing, I have another 40 years in me as captain.” She's soon taking over from Captain Costas Nestoroudis on Celebrity Edge. After that, her dream is to captain a ship from the laying of its keel (the main basis of the hull) to the time its taken from the shipyard and bringing it into service. “It’s like having a child for a captain, so that’s my next big hope.”
By Emma Featherstone, The Telegraph
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