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There should be a movie about Belinda Bennett, although she’d probably laugh if the idea was proposed. The first black woman to captain a cruise ship — the first black person and one of just a handful of women in the commercial cruise industry to helm a ship — Bennett made her way from a remote island in the Atlantic Ocean to England for years of training and work at sea. And last year, she became the captain of Windstar Cruises’ Wind Star sailing yacht.
Bennett, a British citizen, originally hails from the 47-square-mile tropical island of St. Helena, located 1,200 miles from Africa and 1,800 miles from South America. At age 17, she began working as a deck cadet , much to the chagrin of her mother, who felt she was too young to take on the job. But Bennett, the youngest member of her family, was determined, and she decided to get her cruise ship license and leave for South Tyneside in Northeast England for training.
She says the experience was a culture shock for her, as she had never before ridden a train or seen an escalator. She also knew nothing about 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.
She was the only woman to make it through the course and into the maritime industry, although she says she still keeps in touch with some of her female classmates. More years of training in the classroom followed, then more years of applying her knowledge at sea. Eventually, Bennett arrived at luxury small-ship line Windstar 12 years ago as second officer. She moved up to first officer and now, finally, captain .
Alternating three months on the ship and three months at home (and the journey home currently takes her more than a week), Bennett is a supreme communicator, listening attentively to both the crew and guests. For private time away from it all, she says she likes to take walks in port, swim, go out for meals and indulge in retail therapy.
Bennett gets roars of applause from passengers when she makes appearances to introduce the crew or make announcements, and her progress around the ship is punctuated by enthusiastic greetings for “Captain Belinda.” The captain’s table on her ship is a lively one, full of laughter and passionate discussion, and she is in great demand to officiate at guests’ onboard vow renewals. The 102 fiercely loyal crew members clearly respect her enormously, and she has some creative training ideas to keep them on their toes.
For instance, she recently set up a double safety drill for crew. In the first round, she appointed one muster station crew to take its usual role and the others to become passengers, and she encouraged the “passengers” to simulate the sorts of behavior they might find in a panic situation.
“They fought them, they hid — I could hear one giggling under a table — they demanded life jackets, they clutched onto them,” she said. “And I became a passenger and gave them trouble — it took five crew members to subdue me.”
The crew then had a conventional drill, but their alertness and understanding of what they could be dealing with had changed.
Looking at possibilities in the long term, Bennett says she feels she has outgrown her childhood plan to be a marine biologist; perhaps one day she may be interested in marine accident investigation. But for now, her home is under the sails of Wind Star.
“I have a great team here, and I have seen the ship through its refurbishment,” Bennett said. “This ship is where I really want to be.”
And Wind Star guests certainly want to keep it that way.