Editor’s Note — Monthly Ticket is a new CNN Travel series that spotlights some of the most fascinating topics in the travel world. In April, we’re setting course for the diverse world of cruises. Whether you’re looking for travel inspiration or insider knowledge, Monthly Ticket will take you there.
(CNN) — Gigantic cruise ships are a marvel of the modern age, but when it comes to steering these oceangoing titans through stormy seas, narrow waterways, in and out of ports big and small while keeping everyone on board safe, the responsibility lies with one person.
It’s a job unlike any other. Leadership skills are a must, as is being able to handle a crisis. Then there’s understanding the oceans — the complex world of currents, tides and winds. Maritime engineering knowledge is a plus. As is the ability to command the logistical demands of a small city. At sea.
So how do you become the captain of a cruise ship?
For Belinda Bennett, it was a long road paved with the doubts of those who repeatedly told her she wouldn’t succeed. During training, she endured the hardships of long periods away from loved ones while learning to overcome seasickness.
In 2016, aged 39, Bennett achieved her goal: she took the helm of the Wind Star, an 148-passenger luxury sailing vessel operated by Windstar Cruises.
It was strange, she says, “maneuvering the ship without an experienced person guiding and monitoring you, and public speaking with all eyes on you.”
“To say it was a roller coaster is an understatement.”
But Bennett, who grew up on the island of St Helena in the South Atlantic ocean, had been preparing for that roller coaster for a long time.
At 17, she commenced a four-year merchant navy cadet training program. This was partly spent on land studying at college, and partly accruing experience at sea. Bennett qualified as an officer of the watch and worked on a cargo ship for 18 months, where she was responsible for keeping an eye on the bridge and ensuring the ship stayed on track.
“It was long and with many challenges,” is how Bennett describes her training.
The Wind Star, which debuted in 1986, is designed to make guests feel like they’re on a private yacht. The vessel operates via computer-operated sails on masts, and accommodates only a small number of passengers and crew.
When Bennett took the helm of the ship in 2016, she became the first Black female captain of a cruise ship.
“To be honest, I was doing my job and embracing the new role,” she says. “I don’t feel special being the first Black female in the cruise industry […] Breaking the glass ceiling was just another bonus of reaching the top of the profession, and encouraging others to follow is a pleasure to see.”
Rising up the ranks
Captain Inger Thorhauge has worked for Cunard Line since 2010.
While no two paths to captaincy are necessarily the same, most captains start as cadets, working in lower positions on board a ship, like Bennett did. Training, further qualifications and increased experience allows them to rise up the ranks.
The first step in Inger Klein Thorhauge’s sea-faring career was working as a cruise ship stewardess during her college vacation.
Thorhauge, then a teenager living on the northerly Faroe Islands, had never considered becoming a captain.
But she quickly realized that while she didn’t enjoy cleaning up after passengers, she did love being at sea.
“I thought there must be a different way of doing this, but still have the experience and still have the ability of traveling around. And somebody said to me, ‘So why don’t you apply as a cadet?'” Thorhauge tells CNN Travel.
Thorhauge applied, was accepted, and began training on board ferries and cargo ships crisscrossing the globe.
While she enjoyed the experience, Thorhauge still didn’t see working at sea as a long-term career.
“Never in my head, or in my visions did I think that this was what I was going to do for the rest of my life,” she says.
But whenever she was at port, Thorhauge would always notice the cruise ships, gleaming and glamorous. She was keen to work on board one of those vessels, as an officer this time.
One day, she decided to go for it, sending off 18 applications to cruise lines across the world.
Cunard Line, a subsidiary of Carnival Corporation, and one of the world’s most famous cruise lines thanks to its famed 20th century transatlantic crossings, was the first to respond.
Thorhauge was invited to interview and began working with Cunard in 1997. Time passed, and Thorhauge was promoted, steadily taking on more responsibility. She worked for a while for Seabourn, Princess and P&O cruise lines, before returning to Cunard to debut as a captain in 2010.
Thorhauge took the helm of Cunard’s Queen Victoria, a 294-meter-long ship that then held just under 2,000 passengers (the vessel has since been refurbished, and can now hold an extra 93 travelers).
Before commanding Queen Victoria, Thorhauge spent time at Carnival Corporation’s Training Center, where simulated sailings allowed her to practice emergency scenarios, stability and crowd-managing, as well as day-to-day management of the ship.
“You can’t just turn around and ask the captain now — that’s you,” she recalls thinking when she stepped onto the bridge as captain for the first time.
But like Bennett, Thorhauge embraced the challenge.
“I really felt I was ready. So it wasn’t scary or anything, it was just really exciting,” she says.
“There are never two days alike”
Belinda Bennett in front of the Wind Star, the luxury sailing cruise ship she took the helm of in 2016.
Decision-making is a key part of being a cruise ship captain.
“There are never two days alike,” says Belinda Bennett of life on board Wind Star.
“Broken machinery has to be dealt with, and when it fails, weather and routing has to be taken into account and decisions made as that changes,” she explains.
As well as technical challenges, Bennett must also oversee any personnel issues. She’s also involved with training new officers.
Thorhauge, who currently leads Cunard’s 294-meter-long Queen Elizabeth ship, which accommodates up to 2,081 passengers, is set to take the helm of Cunard’s newest vessel, Queen Anne, when the new ship launches in 2024.
Queen Anne promises a 21st century take on Cunard’s classic style, carrying up to 3,000 passengers. Renderings show luxe interiors with an Art Deco twist.
Thorhauge is honored to be appointed the first captain of Queen Anne. But she also notes that it’s a common misconception that a captain stands, alone, at the bridge all day. In fact, the bridge is staffed with several officers, and all on board decisions come from teamwork and cooperation.
For Bennett and Thorhauge, meeting and working with people from across the world is a highlight of the job. But being a cruise ship captain also comes with challenges, particularly as a woman.
“You have got to be thick skinned and strong minded for this profession,” says Bennett. “You have to be prepared to go head to head with people who cannot accept change and women at sea, and sorry to say, there are still some out there of that mindset in the maritime industry.”
Thorhauge highlights medical emergencies as another challenge for captains. These situations involve quick thinking from the on board team, she explains. A ship might need to be diverted into an unscheduled port, or an evacuation may have to take place via helicopter.
In recent years, the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted some of these pressures. Cruise ship captains were on the front line as the pandemic affected the world’s cruise fleet in 2020.
“The logistics involved and the mental stress of getting crew members home, and losing crew members to the pandemic is something I definitely do not want to repeat,” says Bennett.
Captain Pierluigi Barrile is MSC Cruises’ fleet captain, supporting the captains of each MSC vessel, including MSC Bellissima and MSC Grandiosa, pictured here.
While Bennett and Thorhauge spend much of their time at sea, MSC Cruises’ Captain Pierluigi Barrile works entirely on land.
Barrile, 48, is the Italian cruise line’s fleet captain. He ensures smooth sailing across the board by providing shoreside support to the captains of MSC Cruises’ 19 vessels.
Barrile is from the southern Italian island of Ischia, near Naples. A childhood spent watching cruise ships pass by the island sparked his desire to pursue a career at sea.
He started as a deck cadet on a small cruise ship and subsequently worked for 20 years with Carnival Cruise Line, rising up the ranks to become captain and eventually, in 2017, Carnival’s fleet captain.
“I’m the captain’s point of contact on shore, and we discuss everything from operational issues to just a simple conversation,” is how Barrile describes his job to CNN Travel.
Barrile and the individual captains will also discuss any issues in upcoming ports, as well as officer performance. He’s in touch with all the captains every day, generally via telephone.
Barrile is also involved in MSC Cruises’ training program, helping to train the next generation of cruise ship captains.
The training program, he explains, spans everything from “technical training — bridge resource management, ship handling, electronic chart, voyage management — to more managerial training like leadership, reaction to an emergency, crowd control.”
Barrile also helps plan MSC Cruises’ cruise itineraries. And he’s the one who suggests to MSC management which captain should helm which ship.
That decision, he says, is usually based on an individual’s familiarity with a specific itinerary, region and/or port. He’ll also consider each captain’s experience with different areas of operation, as well as their experience with particular types of cruise ships, as different MSC Cruises vessels operate slightly differently.
Barrile enjoys seeing cadets rising up the ranks.
“Every single career step is very important,” he says. “There is no rush in this career, you need to be third officer, second officer, first officer, staff captain and then captain, so it may take 15 years to get there starting from cadet.
“There is no written book on how to be a captain, it’s mainly based on experience.”
James Watts is a third officer with MSC Cruises who hopes to rise up the ranks.
James Watts is currently a third officer with MSC Cruises. Watts is from the Isle of Wight, an island off England’s southwest coast. Like Barrile, Watts was inspired to work in the maritime industry after growing up watching cruise ships in his local port.
When he decided to pursue a career at sea, Watts started training with a company called Chiltern Maritime, sponsored by MSC Cruises. He spent two years at nautical college and 12 months working at sea.
“The college phases are very tough with several exams, in one term I had upwards of 30 exams, all of which have to be passed in order to carry on in the scheme,” he recalls.
Now Watts is an officer of the watch and just finished a stint working on board MSC Seaside in the Mediterranean and Brazil.
At 323 meters long, MSC Seaside is one of the world’s biggest cruise ships, accommodating up to 5,119 passengers.
“So far it has been great to use all my skills I’ve learned over the years independently and to help the bridge team navigate such an incredible ship,” Watts tells CNN Travel.
Watts hopes to continue training and rise up the ranks. Once he’s completed 12 months working as a third officer, he’ll go back to college to study for his chief mate’s license.
“Working on board does let me see some incredible places and meet people from all over the world. I get spectacular views every day and always changing too,” he says.
Watts admits that working through the pandemic over the past two years has made life at sea more challenging — shore leave hasn’t been on the table, and the distance from home feels greater.
But Watts is committed to a career at sea and excited for future opportunities.
Captains-to-be usually start training in their late teens or early twenties. Watts is 23, while Barrile, Bennett and Thorhauge also started their careers early.
But Barrile says starting at a later age shouldn’t be a barrier to becoming a captain. Neither, he adds, should gender or race.
While the cruise industry still has a long way to go, Barrile says he’s seen ships become more diverse in recent years, with more women taking on leadership roles. Barrile says it’s great to see, and also creates a more creative and inspiring on board environment.
Bennett says her advice to anyone hoping to follow in her footsteps and helm a cruise ship one day is: “I have done it, so can you. Be true to yourself, work for what you want to achieve and you will achieve.”
Thorhauge says hard work and perseverance is key.
“If that’s what you want, if you work hard enough, you’ll get it,” she says.
Top photo: Captain Belinda Bennett on board the Wind Star. Photo courtesy Windstar Cruises