02 celebrity cruise captain kate mccue
CNN  — 

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.

Captain Kate McCue has helmed Celebrity Edge since 2019.

“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.