Rewind 200 years and the only women found on a cruise ship were the carved wooden figureheads of topless ladies (an offering to the oceans in exchange for calm weather), attached to the bow. Women had no place onboard because they were believed to be bad luck on ships, while their presence was said to distract the sailors and steer them off course.
Not that Belinda Bennett – the world’s first black woman cruise ship captain – let the antiquated idea that women don’t belong at sea, break her stride.
Ahead of Mothering Sunday, we caught up with the woman who joins Serena Melani (the first woman to captain a new cruise ship) and Kate McCue (the first American woman to captain a giant cruise vessel), in helping make cruise ship history.
Were you always drawn to a life at sea? What attracted you to the cruise industry?
Growing up on a small island, the sea has always fascinated me and still does. I didn’t set out to work in the cruise industry though... I worked on a private yacht in Monaco for two years and wanted to stay in the yachting industry. However, after gaining my Masters Unlimited Certificate, it transpired that I was a little “over qualified” and an apparent threat to what was a very male-dominated yachting industry. So I joined Windstar in 2005 and, happily, have been here ever since.
Why did you choose Windstar?
I love the company's ships and the intimate atmosphere onboard – you actually get to meet and greet everyone, guests and crew alike.
And there are some fabulous places, which smaller cruise ships, unlike larger vessels, can call at so it's the perfect cruise line for me and also any guests who want to get “off the beaten path” a bit.
Did the fact cruise industry is a male dominated world ever deter you?
Never. And it shouldn’t deter anyone coming to sea. Times are changing.
What challenges have you faced and had to overcome?
I’ve encountered both racism and sexism over the years, but I have refused to let it ever be an issue. It’s not my problem: it’s theirs.
Tell us a little bit about your rise through the ranks at Windstar?
It’s been tough and very challenging at times – starting out, I had to prove myself in a male-dominated industry. But, as I tell my guests onboard, I am a woman who has had to work twice as hard so that makes me twice as good, right?
Where’s home when you’re not aboard Windstar?
That would be St Helena, a small British island outpost in the South Atlantic Ocean between South America and South Africa.
What do you love most about being captain?
I love the daily challenges of the job – no two days are alike and that’s something I relish – and I adore meeting new people and seeing new places.
And what is the most challenging aspect of being a female captain?
I haven’t experienced any extra challenges in this position, as a woman. I have an excellent team to work with, thank goodness.
I think the challenges that women encounter occur as your rise up through the ranks, as opposed to when you are at the top. As a female captain you have overcome pretty much most challenges in the industry by this point.
What are the qualities that a good cruise captain needs?
Great listening and communication skills, an approachable demeanor for all – and a strong mind.
Do you see yourself as a role model for other women?
Not in the past, but I am starting to now having received so many lovely comments and messages from around the world. I set my personal goals in life, which I have achieved so far through hard work and dedication and a strong support network. It's been fun ending up in the headlines and sharing my story, but it's been incredibly exciting and gratifying to hear that I'm inspiring other women to forge similar career paths.
How has cruising changed over the years?
Recently, I’ve noticed that young people have discovered cruising, which is good as it challenges the perceived perception of cruising. Cruises are no longer the domain of mature travellers.
Is now the time for women to rule the waves?
Now is as good a time as any for women to come to sea. The British Merchant Navy need recruits and it’s a wonderful and rewarding career. If I can do it, anyone can.
What are your favourite ports of call and why?
I love the Dalmatian coast: the Croatian coastline and ports are beautiful. And for anyone who has sailed with me, they know I have a particular affinity for Italy. In Sorrento, I have a personal tradition of buying Italian leather handbags. You’ll notice the word “handbags” is plural. Meanwhile in Portoferraio, the capital of Elba – a small island located in the Tuscan archipelago – you can find me eating the best gelato on the planet.
I also enjoy sailing to Bequia in the Caribbean where my favorite spot is Mac’s Pizzeria for a slice of delicious lobster pizza.
What would you say to our readers, who aren’t sure whether cruising is for them?
Keep an open mind: come and take a cruise and find out for yourself. Cruising allows you to see multiple places in a week (or however long the cruise is). It beats being chained to a hotel in one place, on land.
Any advice for other women wanting to break into the industry?
Even though there’s been an increase in women working at sea, the change is still too slow. I’d like to say to other women: “Don’t be afraid to come to sea: you get to travel the world and are paid to do so.”
When you put your mind to something and you really want it, you will work hard for it. And if you really, really want it, no matter what obstacles come your way, you can and will overcome them.
Lastly, if you could invite one person onto your ship, who would it be and why?
Vin Diesel and Channing Tatum are welcome any time! Oprah Winfrey is also a very strong woman and a role model in life, so I'd enjoy sailing with her as well.