Monday 9 December 2019

Ocean's 27: Historic, women-led cruise to set sail for first time

Women were once considered 'bad luck at sea' - now a women-led cruise will highlight the need for more diversity on ships

The all-female bridge and officer team that will head the Celebrity Edge. Photo: Celebrity Cruises.
The all-female bridge and officer team that will head the Celebrity Edge. Photo: Celebrity Cruises.
Celebrity Edge on the seas
The Magic Carpet on Celebrity EDGE - Celebrity Cruises

Hannah Sampson

There's an old seafaring superstition that says women are bad luck at sea.

It's a trope that Nicholine Tifuh Azirh, a second officer with Celebrity Cruises, even heard when she was training for her maritime career, according to the cruise line's CEO.

But next year, Tifuh Azirh and 26 of her colleagues at the Miami-based cruise company will set sail on a trip on the Celebrity Edge that seeks to make history and prove a larger point about women working in the cruise industry.

The March 8 trip - International Women's Day, not coincidentally - will be led by an all-woman bridge and officer team, Celebrity announced this week.

The idea came out of a meeting cruise line executives had this year. Celebrity, which has a female CEO, had celebrated the women's holiday in the past. But they wanted to make a bigger splash this year, and the marketing and public relations team suggested an all-women team on the bridge, or operational control centre.

"I wasn't sure we could pull it off," says CEO Lisa Lutoff-Perlo. "I said, 'Could we actually do this? Do we actually have women in every single position on the bridge where we could put together an entire bridge team for one ship?'"

Captain Kate McCue. Photo: Celebrity Cruises.
Captain Kate McCue. Photo: Celebrity Cruises.

Her staff was confident. Within approximately two days, the entire bridge was staffed with women.

But the idea didn't stop there. Lutoff-Perlo said the company has worked hard to hire women for "hotel-side," too, overseeing areas such as culinary, financial, guest services, housekeeping and medical. The next thought was: "Wouldn't it be great if every major decision or function onboard was run by a woman?"

That's how the group of women from 17 countries got assembled for the trip. They will be in roles including captain, hotel director, staff captain, doctor, cruise director, food and beverage director, safety investigation officer, environmental officer and third engineer.

"It represents such a change in the way that future generations will view working at sea," says Peter Giorgi, the cruise line's chief marketing officer. "It just opens the door in terms of representation and inclusion; when young girls see that this is possible, they'll think differently about what they want to do."

Captain Kate McCue, who became the first female American cruise ship captain in 2015, has been referring to the bunch as "Ocean's 27."

"Excitement does not even begin to describe how I'm feeling about working alongside these incredible, barrier-breaking women on Celebrity Edge for this truly historic sailing," McCue said in an announcement.

"I am inspired every day by the amazing women we have working throughout this organisation - both on land and at sea. They're proof that there's power in diversity."

Lutoff-Perlo said the March 8 cruise is possible only because of the work the line has done in recent years to diversify the fleet's workforce, especially on the bridge.

Since 2015, the company said, the percentage of women working on Celebrity's navigational bridges has increased from 3pc to 22pc. Celebrity says women make up just 2pc of the world's mariners.

"I don't think anybody realises how difficult it is to find women for these positions," Lutoff-Perlo says.

She said the company, which is part of Royal Caribbean Cruises, has dealt with maritime academies where less than 20pc of the student body is female and women are only about 10% of the graduating class. Factor in the complexity of living on a ship for months at a time, as well as societal expectations, and the job becomes even tougher.

Still, Lutoff-Perlo said she wants to keep raising the bar. She said she would consider it a "stellar" achievement to get to 35pc of women in bridge roles.

More cruise lines have highlighted their own women in leadership in recent years. On International Women's Day this year, for example, Regent Seven Seas Cruises said that one of its captains, Serena Melani, would be the first woman in the industry to captain a new ocean ship at the time of its launch.

In 2016, Windstar Cruises introduced captain Belinda Bennett as the first black female captain in commercial cruising. And newcomer Virgin Voyages appointed a woman, Wendy Williams, as captain of its first ship launching next year.

Lutoff-Perlo said that if her company's efforts and next year's cruise are seen as a challenge to the rest of the industry, that's fine with her.

"They need to continue to push forward just like we are," she says.

While the March 8 cruise from Fort Lauderdale, Florida will be full of celebrations of women - exhibitions of art by women, a film series featuring work by female directors, themed trivia and panel discussions - men will be more than welcome, Lutoff-Perlo said.

She said she actually heard from a man on social media who booked a trip on the sailing after hearing about it.

"It was just such a lovely thing," she says.

(c) The Washington Post, 2019

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