‘Drive,’ he said, and now she does

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After facing a battery of questions to determine her fitness to be the staff captain on a Royal Caribbean ship, Kate McCue was told she had aced the test – with one exception.

She tends, the examiner told her, to smile a lot. He said she could come off as less than serious.

Four years later, preparing to take the helm of Celebrity Cruises’ Summit at age 37 as the first American woman in the cruise industry to command a mega ship, McCue was reminded by her husband about the smiling thing. Keep a straight face, he said. Keep it in. Be serious.

“And I tried that,” McCue says. “I really did – for two weeks. It was killing me, because that wasn’t who I was. I was spending too much time thinking, ‘Don’t smile, don’t smile, don’t smile.’ But when you love your job so much you can’t help it. So I kind of ditched that whole idea and everything’s been good since.”

By McCue’s telling, everything was also good before. A native of San Francisco, she spent most of her childhood in Georgia after a sojourn in Michigan, in each case moving with her father’s engineering and construction job.

When McCue was 12, her family took a cruise to the Bahamas on the Atlantic, nicknamed “The Big Red Boat” for its paint job. “I didn’t see my parents the entire time,” McCue says. “I was off, made a lot of friends and just had a blast.”

“You can do anything you want in the world, including drive the thing.”

On the car ride home, she told her parents she wanted to be a cruise director. “You can do anything you want in the world,” her dad replied, “including drive the thing.” It led her, years later, to the helm of a mega ship.

McCue took her father seriously and followed high school with four years at the California Maritime Academy, graduating as a watch officer.

After a resume blitz was roundly greeted with silence, she applied to be an onboard bartender for a cruiseline where someone noticed she was qualified to be on the bridge. McCue was hired as a third mate – bottom rung of the ladder.

That was in 2002 and a year later she moved to RCL, where she worked her way up that ladder to staff captain in 2011 and master four years later. While McCue remains the first American to reach that height, RCL also lays claim to promoting the first woman ever to top command, Karin Stahre-Janson of Sweden, in 2007.

McCue credits both Lisa Lutoff-Perlo, Celebrity president and CEO, and the line’s VP for marine operations, Capt. Patrik Dahlgren, for capping her rise to ship’s captain.

“Capt. Kate” is pleased that while friends and family are impressed by her responsibilities, they also still recognize the person in the uniform. “The idea of the tyrannical captain that no one will speak to – I’m not like that at all,” she says.

Tyrants aren’t accused of smiling too much.