A SEA CHANGE

Hop aboard and meet Las Vegan Kate McCue – the first U.S. woman to captain a cruise ship

On her most recent visit home, Kate McCue planned a relaxing afternoon at Mount Charleston but ended up hiking 17 miles and climbing about 5,000 feet. That’s the kind of determination that helped chart her course to landing her dream job, and becoming the first U.S. woman to captain a cruise ship.

As top commander on the Celebrity Summit, the 39-year-old Las Vegan is responsible for safely ferrying more than 2,000 passengers at a time to ports in New England, Canada, Bermuda and the Caribbean. She’s also a stylish social media darling who knows how to have fun, as evidenced by her vibrant and visual postings on social media.

McCue’s love for traveling the world shines through in her witty observations and cheeky hashtags like #Nauti-Girl. Because so few Americans work on cruise ships, McCue has dedicated herself to getting the word out about what she calls “the best job in the world.” We caught up with her during a break in Miami, where she was to accept an award from the city’s Women’s Chamber of Commerce.

How does someone from a landlocked desert become a ship captain?

 It all started when my parents took me and my brother on our very first cruise. I was 12 years old. The trip was so incredible, and when we got off ship I told my dad I wanted to be a cruise director when I grew up. My dad said, “You can be anyone you want in the world, including the one driving the thing.”

When I started school [at California Maritime Academy in Vallejo], I didn’t know port from starboard, or bow from stern. All I knew was that I was going to go on a cruise every year. I was one of eight females in a graduating class of 68. It was the best four years of my life.

Do you get any unusual reactions because you’re a woman?

The ship I work on right now has 56 different nationalities within the crew. Everyone is in the minority, whether it’s race, religion, cultural background, sexual orientation. Because of that we’re all on a level playing field and have a common bond. Me being female is never a thing.

It’s more rare that I’m American. When you graduate from Maritime Academy, most people go where the money is, whether that’s offshore drilling or oil tankers. That never interested me. What interested me was seeing the world and working with people all over the world.

How many countries have you visited so far?

I have not been to Antarctica but I’ve kind of been everywhere else. I have this thing called the marble mission that I do when I go to someplace new and exciting. My best friend had an Uncle Bob. When he was a kid he collected marbles, and after he died from pancreatic cancer in 2004, his family decided that whenever they did something Uncle Bob would like, they’d leave a marble behind. When I was promoted to captain, I asked my best friend’s father if I could have some of the marbles. There’s one on the 122nd floor of Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world in Dubai; one in the Chinese fishing nets in India; one in a souk in Oman. Whenever I leave these behind I’ll take something from the area and put it in an envelope with a detailed description of where the marble is and post it on Instagram. Guests will come from the ship and be like, “We found your marble!”

Biggest lesson learned at sea?

Be true to yourself. When I was promoted to staff captain, which is the rank below captain, they send you for a psych evaluation to make sure you’re pretty sound to take care of [thousands of] people on a ship. I met with the examiner afterward and he said, “That was great, you passed with flying colors. The only thing I note is you tend to smile too much.” When I was promoted to captain and going to see the fleet, my husband reminded me of that. For the first two weeks, I tried my best (to smile less), but when you get the job you’ve always wanted and are surrounded by the best people, it’s hard not to smile! I decided to be myself and it’s been good ever since.

What advice do you have for those wanting to take unforgettable trip?

I always say try the local. I have been in some of the strangest places in the world, and I’m still standing and if I had missed out on those experiences it would have been really sad.

I like to hop on the double-decker buses and get a layout of a city. Once I’ve got an idea of what I want to see, I’ll go back to particular areas.

What do you wear when you’re not in your captain’s uniform?

 Lululemon, head to toe. Even my bag — I have a backpack that has a purse that can zip on the front of it so when you’re going through the airport, it doesn’t count as two items. Everything from Lululemon is like that — it’s all convertible and reversible. I have a little black dress I can wear four different ways. It’s the perfect little black dress.

How did you meet your husband, who also works at sea?

We met on a ship. Our very first date he had me blindfolded, and I climbed up the ship’s stack. He had duct-taped a blanket and strawberries and pillows so we could have a picnic looking out over the Caribbean. It’s gone downhill since then!

We did work together for quite a while, and when he saw I was ready for promotion, he said, “In order to get recognized, you should be on your own.” As soon as I went to the next ship and was flying solo, I started to get promoted very quickly.

He’s a chief engineer. Right now he’s in France building Royal Caribbean’s new line. Unfortunately we can’t work together because then I’d be the boss at home and at work.

Where do you like to go when you’re back in Las Vegas?

Our perfect date night is hopping on our bikes, riding eight miles to Aliante, put $20 in the machine, we sit, we play, have a drink, watch a movie and ride our bikes back home. My husband is such an amazing cook that (even though) the restaurants are great in Vegas, but I think he can do better. My mom and dad are around the corner so we eat there, too. I wish I could tell you about the clubs but I don’t even know their names. We do like to do staycations — we want to try every hotel casino on the strip.

Anything you especially miss about Vegas when you’re out there on the waves?

The weather! It’s pretty perfect all the time.

Technology has evolved from when I started sailing and you had to send telex [to get a message home] and pay $7 per word. Now I can Facetime with my husband when he’s in Australia and there are several time zones between us. Technology keeps you so connected, but if you look on the flip side, for example on cargo ships you used to eat dinner with the crew and go watch a movie together and the camaraderie was so great. Now everyone eats dinner and goes back to their room and they’re on Skype and Facebook, so you kind of lost that social interaction on the ship.

 How do you spend the holidays?

I will be on ship until February 20, so I’ll spend all the holidays on board. Celebrating with different nationalities is awesome. Everyone has a special dish, something that their parents make back home, a different tradition. You get the whole world in a holiday.

Parting thoughts?

The Caribbean is still very much open, and it needs us to keep going. With all the hurricanes and weather we’ve been having, it’s a good time to start going back and giving them the aid they need, whether that’s in tourism or whatever we can do for them.