Every evening, whether the Celebrity Edge cruise ship is crisscrossing the Caribbean or meandering around the Mediterranean, Captain Kate McCue writes night orders for her team.
She always includes a note of how many people are on board the ship.
It’s important, says McCue, “to understand the gravity of the responsibility.”
Celebrity Edge is one of Celebrity Cruise Line’s largest and swankiest vessels. It cost $1 billion to build and can house almost 3,000 passengers and over 1,000 crew members.
McCue’s job is to take charge of this enormous floating city and steer it safely around the world.
Following her early days learning the ropes with Disney Cruise Line, McCue rose through the ranks at Royal Caribbean and moved to Celebrity Cruise Line to captain Celebrity Summit in 2015 – a promotion that made her the first female US cruise ship captain.
She later moved to Celebrity Equinox and has helmed Celebrity Edge since September 2019.
Today, McCue chats to CNN Travel over video call from her home in Las Vegas, where she recently returned after spending months unexpectedly stuck at sea in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
Unexpected choppy waters
Covid-19 brought the cruise industry to a standstill – virus-hit ships were quarantined and passengers were denied disembarkation. Ports were closed and cruise lines spent months trying to get passengers, and later crew members, home.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a No Sail Order for ships traveling from US ports.
The weight of responsibility of captaining a cruise ship had never been more apparent.
McCue’s second stint on board Edge commenced in December 2019. The plan was she’d work three months on board, and then three months off.
The last voyage of McCue’s December-March stretch was to coincide with International Women’s Day, a special Celebrity sailing in which the ship was entirely staffed by female officers.
“That was a pinnacle moment in my career, to be able to be on a ship that was manned by what we called the ‘Oceans 27’,” says McCue.
“But that is the cruise when everything kind of came to a head with Covid.”
McCue’s reliever, supposed to arrive from Greece, never came.
“We all found out the flights from Europe were canceled,” she recalls.
McCue’s husband, who also works in the cruise industry, was on board Edge on vacation at the time.
As Covid worries heightened and uncertainty grew, he traveled back to Vegas, and McCue planned to follow.
“I said: ‘Don’t worry, I’ll be home in two weeks, no problem.’ Fast forward to seven months later, when I finally signed off earlier this month.”
McCue spent the spring, summer and first days of fall navigating the choppy waters of Covid-19’s cruise restrictions and trying to do her best by her staff.
She stayed up to speed with cruise industry updates, but says she had to limit her general news consumption to stay sane in the face of so much uncertainty.
“From regulations and closures of countries around the world and situations that were popping up – you couldn’t have written a Hollywood script that could include all of the things that were coming at us,” says McCue.
Complex CDC guidelines, a lack of commercial flights, widespread travel bans and closed borders complicated crew disembarkation.
Speaking to CNN at the height of the crisis, some crew members said they felt abandoned by the cruise lines, amid reports the situation was having an impact on staff’s mental health.
McCue says the crew on Edge rallied around one another, and she celebrated every time a crew member successfully disembarked the ship and reunited with their loved ones.
“It was important for me to stay as long as I could to make sure that the 1,350 crew members that we had on Celebrity Edge – and all of the crew members that we had in our fleet in the Caribbean – that we could get off, did get off.”
One of several Celebrity Cruise Line vessels anchored in the Caribbean, Celebrity Edge became the ‘mothership’ – the vessel designated to take disembarking crew members into Miami for sign off. The ship also took provisions and mail from Florida to the other ships.
When McCue disembarked in October, only four crew members remained on board Edge – and she says they were all working again.
“I look back on that 10-month contract as the most satisfying contract of my career,” says McCue.
“There weren’t stripes, there weren’t positions, it was – in the end – 80 people that just knew each other as family. And that was really cool.”
In fact, for McCue, disembarking and leaving the bubble of Celebrity Edge was bizarre, as excited as she was to see family again.
“I was petrified to get off,” she says.
Postcards from the Edge
As Celebrity Edge spent months in limbo, McCue also documented life on board via her Instagram account.
She’d started the account when she first began working at Celebrity, encouraged by the PR team to show social media users a slice of seafaring life.
She’s currently got 204,000 followers and counting.
“The way I always looked at the Instagram was yes, it’s an inside look at the captain’s life, but also, it’s my digital photo album. And whether people love it or not, that wasn’t really my concern. My concern was to be able to go back and look at my memories that I’ve made since I became a captain.”
From photos of cotton candy sunrises on the horizon, to videos of dolphins dancing in the waters below to clips of crew tie-dying shirts to pass the time, McCue’s Instagram is a whirlwind look at life on board the ship.
This summer she started experimenting with TikTok, which she says is “just for fun” – although she’s already gone viral in a clip responding to a sexist comment – and YouTube, where she answers more in-depth questions about life at sea.
There are also cameos from her cat, Bug Naked, who accompanies McCue on Edge and has an Instagram account of her own.
Working as a cruise ship captain, no two days are the same – even pre-Covid – but McCue says one thing most days have in common is a wakeup call courtesy of Bug.
On sea days, it’s important to McCue to be available and accessible for the guests as they enjoy life on board.
On port days, it takes about an hour and a half to two hours for the ship to dock. Once the ship’s arrived, sometimes McCue will go out on the cruise excursions and explore the destination with the guests. If she stays on the ship, she’ll do inspections and meet with crew.
McCue eschews the tradition of captain’s dinners – she decided prioritizing time with a small group of guests wasn’t the best way to connect with passengers. Instead, she hangs out in busy areas of the ship and chats with guests as they enjoy their day.
In general, McCue says she’s been able to put her own stamp on her job.
She recalls back when she worked at Royal Caribbean, and first became staff captain – second in command on the ship. McCue had to take the mandatory psychological evaluation, which ensures staff are up for the job.
“At the end of it, I sat down with a gentleman to go through the results,” recalls McCue. “And he said: ‘Everything was perfect. But I find that you tend to smile too much.’”
When McCue started at Celebrity, she found herself returning to this feedback, and trying her best to remain poker-faced.
“I was focusing so much on that, that I couldn’t enjoy what I wanted since I was 12 years old, that had come to fruition. So, I said: ‘Throw that out the window, I’m going to be me.’”
Nowadays, McCue enjoys injecting her personality and wide smile into her role – and it’s advice she gives others: you can take your job seriously, do the job well, and be yourself.
Offering these words of wisdom and acting as a role model for other young female seafarers is important to McCue, but she hopes one day it’ll be redundant.
“I look forward to the day where, honestly, being the first female anything isn’t a thing anymore.”
McCue says that, at first, having the spotlight on her both as a captain and as the first female captain was “overwhelming.”
“I almost felt it was a bit unfair, because the men, when they were promoted, they got to do their job. And they got to do their job 100%. I felt like I had to do my job 100% but then I also had to do this representing of being a female.
“But then I realized, if I don’t do it, who else is going to do it? If I don’t do it, how will people see it?”
Right now, McCue is looking forward to the resumption of cruising and is confident the industry will bounce back from 2020.
Long term, her goal is to take a ship out of the yard in a new build.
Her ultimate dream? Becoming a ship’s godmother.
“I don’t believe any time in history has the captain of the ship also been the godmother. So, we put that out in the world. I don’t know who will hear that, but fingers crossed.”