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Meet Captain Kate McCue, the first American woman to ‘drive’ a mega-ship

The exterior of Celebrity Edge from a tender on Wednesday, December 5, 2018. (Photo: Tim Aylen) Captain Kate McCue has commanded the 2,918-passenger mega-ship Celebrity Edge since 2019. | Photo courtesy Celebrity Cruises

In March 2020, in honor of International Women’s Day, the Celebrity Edge cruise ship set sail on a groundbreaking voyage. Not only was an all-female crew staffing the bridge for the first time, but at the helm was Captain Kate McCue, the first American woman to command a megaship.

McCue, who has piloted the $1 billion, 2,918-passenger ship since 2019, does so her way, wearing Louboutin shoes and accompanied by a hairless cat named Bug Naked who is dressed in a uniform and pushed around the ship in a stroller. The captain has also been known to don a mermaid tail to swim in the warm waters of the Caribbean.

We caught up with the 43-year-old McCue in early 2021 as she was anchored near the Bahamas with a sparse crew, awaiting a post-COVID return to passenger service.

Kate McCue at the helm of the Celebrity Edge.

Kate McCue at the helm of the Celebrity Edge. | Photo courtesy Kate McCue

Right now, you’re on a ship with no guests. Does it feel like a ghost ship?

We have 132 crew members onboard. We all get into a very specific routine. Normally, we have about 4,000 people here, guests and crew, and there’s a lot of positive energy from guests, who are in a vacation mindset. But it doesn’t feel like a ghost ship because I make sure the chandelier in the Grand Plaza is always lit; I see it as the symbolic heart of the ship. And there is music on the PA all the time, because a quiet ship is a very lonely ship.

Is it true that guests are sending care packages?

We are getting care packages like bonkers. They’ve been sending books, puzzles, candy, snacks, decorations. It’s a really a lovely thing for them to do. It makes them feel a lot closer.

What exactly does a captain do? Do you drive the ship?

Yes, the captain does drive. I am the CEO of the ship. I have an executive committee made up of staff captain (the second in command), chief engineer, hotel director, and human resources manager, and they handle their respective departments. I have overall command of the ship. It’s all my responsibility.

Why did you pursue a career at sea?

I went on a cruise with my family when I was 12 years old. It was a four-day sailing to the Bahamas and I spent the entire time with the cruise staff and had a blast. I said to my dad, “I am going to work as a cruise director when I grow up.” And he said, “You can do that, or you can drive the thing.”

When I went to college, he reminded me of that conversation. He guided me toward the California Maritime Academy. The thing is, he had applied there when he came out of the Peace Corps, but they told him he was too old. So, I am living the dream now for both of us.

How did you work your way up?

It is definitely a marathon, not a sprint. It was 19 years from the time I graduated and started sailing on Disney Cruise Line as a third officer [to the day I became a captain]. I moved to Royal Caribbean International, coming in as a second officer, and worked my way up.

In 2015, I was sailing with my husband as a guest on the Quantum of the Seas, where he was chief engineer, and I got a call from Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, president and CEO of Celebrity Cruises, asking if I would come over to that sister company as captain. I said, “Heck, yes.”

McCue’s career was inspired by her first cruise when she was a child. | Photo courtesy Celebrity Cruises

McCue’s career was inspired by her first cruise when she was a child. | Photo courtesy Kate McCue

You have some 1.3 million followers on TikTok (@captainkatemccue) and more than 228,000 on Instagram. Why is it important to have a social media presence?

I want to be able to show a behind-the-scenes view of how things really are on a cruise ship. Also, when I was promoted to captain in 2015, I did not anticipate the external spotlight of being a female in that role, and it did become quite a bit to handle. I use my platform to answer questions and normalize having a woman in this position. I believe the more open we are about it, the easier it is going to be for women coming up.

Do you look forward to the day when you are not referred to as the female captain?

You better believe it. I would just love to be the captain. My name tag only says “Captain.” Some people still tend to call me Kate. I worked hard for the captain title. I want to be called captain on the ship. Male captains are always addressed as captain.

When you’re not on the ship, you live in landlocked Las Vegas. Why Vegas?

Because my parents live there. My dad was working at Area 51 [a highly classified Air Force facility in Nevada]. I don’t know what he was doing—he can’t say. We stayed with my parents when we got off ships. My parents finally said, “We love you, but for the love of Pete, go buy your own house.” So we moved about 300 steps away from them.

Does your husband sail with you?

He could, prior to the pandemic. He loves coming onboard. He’s a bit of a drama queen, though. He’ll walk around and ask people, “Do you know who I am?” And when they say no, he says, “I’m the captain’s wife.” He thinks it’s really cute to say that, which it is.

Having achieved captain, what are your future career aspirations?

I would love to build a ship, to take it from the time the keel is laid until she is put into service. That will be my equivalent of having a child. I would love if my husband was part of it, so we could build it together. On top of that, I’d like to be the ship’s godmother. I don’t think any time in history has the captain been the godmother/mermaid.

What’s with the mermaid tail?

Bonaire is my favorite Caribbean island because it is so untouched. Swimming in Bonaire is like putting your face in a fish tank. It’s just phenomenal. The mermaid tail makes it more fun, being able to swim around and feel like you belong in the ocean. And it’s easy to swim with because it’s a mono-tail that floats. It’s better than flippers.

How do you view the future of cruising post-COVID?

Whenever something tragic happens in the world, it changes the way that we operate, but I think it makes us safer. Our crew members have jumped onto new health procedures and protocols and have a willingness to do whatever it takes to bring our guests back onboard.

I personally like wearing a mask because I only have to buy half the makeup I used to.

When you think about your future vacation options, with cruising you have a controlled environment. I have full confidence that it’s going to be the safest place that you could vacation.

What are you most looking forward to post-pandemic?

Seeing our guests walk back up the gangway. And we’ll be at the top of it with pots and pans and anything we can make noise with to welcome them back on. And I have a feeling that it’s going to come this year. But I am also confident that it’s not going to be premature, that we’re going to do it right, when it’s time.

Fran Golden is an award-winning travel writer who has sailed on more than 150 cruises. In addition to writing for leading travel publications, Golden is the author of more than 20 travel books, including her latest, 100 Things to Do in Alaska Before You Die (Reedy Press, March 2021). She lives in landlocked Cleveland with her travel writer husband, David Molyneaux.

AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

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