Please Call Her Captain

“This is Captain Kate, but you can call me Captain because it took me 19 years to earn this title.”

Those are typically the first words that passengers hear booming over the speakers when they are aboard any cruise ship helmed by Capt. Kate McCue. The announcement continues, like the woman who makes it, friendly and lighthearted, but also sharp and direct.

“People don’t have a tendency to call men captains by their first name,” Captain McCue said on a recent phone call from her home in Las Vegas.

Captain McCue became the first American woman to captain a cruise ship in 2015, and commands the Celebrity Equinox — a 122,000-ton, 1041-foot ship in the Celebrity Cruises fleet. Starting in September she will be at the helm of the Celebrity Edge, a billion-dollar ship that was designed by women and overseen by Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, Celebrity Cruises’ chief executive.

What sparked your interest in sailing?

My interest in sailing started when I was 12. I went on a four-day cruise with my parents and brother over Thanksgiving. When we got back, I told my dad that I was going to work on cruise ships. I wanted to be the cruise director. My dad said I could be a cruise director or a captain or whatever I wanted.

Do you have to join the Navy to become a captain?

It depends on the country you come from. Being American, I could have gone through an academy, which is what I did, or I could have started sailing without a license and then put in the time at sea and taken the exams when I could. The academy was a lot more organized and structured with schooling and exams as part of the curriculum. I also could have gone the military route and joined the Navy.

Can you walk me through the process of how you became a captain?

As a cadet I worked on banana boats, taking boats between California and Ecuador. I was unhappy doing [this] because I knew I wanted to be on a cruise ship. I applied to every cruise ship and didn’t hear back from anyone. I ended up applying to Disney as a bartender and was too qualified for that, probably because I had never been a bartender before, so they passed my C.V. along and I was hired as a third mate on a Disney cruise. That was great, but Disney only had two ships and not much room for growth. From 2003 to 2015 I worked my way up, from the entry level position of second officer, progressing through first officer deck, first officer navigation, first officer safety, chief officer safety and staff captain.

What challenges did you encounter on the path to getting where you are now?

I don’t have war stories. I know that’s not the case for everyone, but I’ve been really blessed in my career. I have only worked on international flagships where everyone is a minority of some sort. Most of us have a different religion, sexual orientation, nationality. When I was promoted I never got negative judgment from the crew, and I think the secret is that I was always surrounded by diversity.

Is being a captain in 2018 and 2019 very different than it was, say a decade ago?

There used to be the wrath of the captain. Those captains were older, stricter men and they ran the ships very differently. I’m part of a generation called the new age captains. We’re in our late 30s and early 40s. There’s an interesting gap between the captains who are retiring and the younger people replacing them. I love my job so much I’m not going anywhere for another 40 years, God willing.

Why did you want to be involved with the Celebrity Edge?

I wanted to be part of Edge because since joining Celebrity Cruises in 2015, I’d heard about this incredible ship that will change the way we see cruising and evolve the industry. I love change and wanted to be part of a something that was bringing such innovation and a new level to the cruising industry. Everything about this ship is revolutionary. It is the first ship to be designed using a 3-D virtual-reality lab.

Is there a big wheel on the ship like you see in the movies?

The “Christopher Columbus” dial is no longer. People expect to see that, but on new ships what you see is a wheel smaller than the wheel in your car. On one ship we brought the big wheel from a show and would have people and have them steer. It was a fantastic prop.

Does your cat, Bug Naked, come aboard?

Bug Naked comes when I’m the captain, not when I’m a guest on a trip. She’s got her routine on the ship and I’ve got mine. The guests love having her.

This interview took place in December, following the Edge’s first trip with passengers. It has been condensed and edited.

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Tariro Mzezewa is a travel reporter at The New York Times.  @tariro

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