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Meet Belinda Bennet, the first black woman to captain a cruise ship

March 09, 2019 at 10:00 am | Women

Mildred Europa Taylor

Mildred Europa Taylor | Staff Writer

March 09, 2019 at 10:00 am | Women

Belinda Bennet is the first black woman to captain a cruise ship. Pic credit: Seatrade Cruise News

She has always had a passion for the sea. Growing up in one of the most remote islands in the world, St. Helena – a part of the British Overseas Territory, Belinda Bennett loved the ocean and wanted to be a marine biologist.

Right from the age that she could walk, she was already in water, having found herself on a small island. At age 17, she took a job as a deck cadet on her home island ship, the RMS St. Helena – a cargo ship that transports vital supplies to the remote island from the African coast.

After years of training in the classroom and more years of applying her knowledge at sea, Bennett would climb the ladder to become one of just a handful of women in the commercial cruise industry to helm a ship.

In 2016, at age 40, she was made the captain of the MSY Wind Star, a four-masted sailing ship with 148 guests and 101 crew.

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Belinda Bennet. Pic credit: Windstar Cruises Blog

Having run into both racism and sexism over the years, becoming the first black female captain in the commercial cruise industry is no small feat. Historically, women were seen as bad luck on ships because “they distracted the crew, which would anger the sea, causing treacherous conditions as revenge.”

Thus, many professional maritime academies would not even admit women until the 1970s when things changed. Even with that, there was no woman cruising a ship until 2007.

Currently, only a few women are making waves as captains, with the first American female captain appointed around 2015 to helm a mega-cruise ship. Women now make up 18 to 20% of the workforce, according to statistics cited by Forbes, and there is still more work to be done to change that.

Bennett, who is encouraging women to break barriers into her field, has had her own share of challenges. She told Forbes that while training as a cadet, she sailed with chief officers who made her “work harder than the other guys.”

“During your cadetship you’re starting out as a sailor, so you do every job that they do. I had a chief officer, unfortunately, who made me work later than the sailors, so they would knock off for the day, and I would be left outside continuing to work until it got dark. It really was a make-or-break-you time, and me being me, I refused to be broken.”

Even when her mother was against her decision to train as a deck cadet, she was determined as she decided to get her cruise ship license and leave for South Tyneside in Northeast England for training.

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Windstar Cruises. Pic credit: Windstar Cruises Blog

The experience, she told Travel Age West, was a “culture shock” for her, as she had never ridden a train or seen an escalator until then. She also had no knowledge of racism.

“There were five women and 70-odd men in our class, and some of those in charge were determined to break us, but I wasn’t going to be broken,” Bennett said.

Eventually, she became the only woman to make it through the course and into the maritime industry. Bennet had a brief stretch as chief officer for private charter yacht SS Delphine, and Isle of Man Steam Packet ferries, but when she tried to go back to yachts after her masters, she was not successful.

“The yachting industry wasn’t quite ready for me at that time. I remember being sat down by an agent in Antibes and being told that finding a job in the yachting industry would be very hard because of three things: 1) I had a higher education than most captains at the time; 2) I was a woman; 3) I was black,” she told Forbes.

Bennett then joined Windstar Cruises as Second Officer at the Port of Monaco in September 2005. Over her more than 13-year career, Bennett has worked on a variety of Windstar ships, progressing to chief officer and now captain with the luxury small ship line.

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Captain Bennet with her crew. Pic credit: MFame

As captain, Bennett is responsible for directing the operations and activities of officers and crew members onboard, including: safety, maintenance, certification, documentation, passenger services and compliance with multi-government regulations, according to Windstar.

Under the company’s open bridge policy, “you can stop by at almost any time and visit me on the bridge,” Bennet, who is known for being “sociable” and “engaging” with Windstar yacht guests said.

As a female captain, she is often greeted with cheers when she makes appearances to introduce the crew or make announcements. Her 102 crew members also give her the respect she needs, and with her policy of open communication, things get done easily on board.

She, however, has some creative training ideas to keep the crew on their toes, said the Travel Age West.

Sailing through the Caribbean in winter and Europe in summer, her favourite ports-of-call, as of 2016, included 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 Sorrento in Italy, where I have a personal traditional of buying Italian leather handbags. You’ll notice the word “handbags” is plural. I also enjoy sailing to Bequia in the Caribbean, where my favorite spot is Mac’s Pizzeria for a slice of delicious lobster pizza. In Portoferraio in Elba, you can find me eating the best gelato on the planet,” she told Windstar Cruises.

Though Bennet said she sometimes comes across people who would not accept her being a woman, she is optimistic that the situation would change.

She inspires women and the next generation who would want to be in her field to work hard towards achieving their goals.

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Captain Bennet receives an award. Pic credit: The Maritime Executive

For her success in the cruise and maritime industry, Bennet recently won the U.K.’s distinguished Merchant Navy Medal for Meritorious Service.

Alternating usually three months on the ship and three months at home, Bennet believes she has grown past her plan to be a marine biologist.

Her home is obviously sailing under Windstar, though she may, in the future, be interested in marine accident investigation.

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