Botwc Firsts

Belinda Bennett is Setting Sail as the World’s First Black Woman Cruise Ship Captain

Belinda Bennett is Setting Sail as the World’s First Black Woman Cruise Ship Captain

Photo: Windstar Cruises 

If you’re a woman working in the cruise ship industry, then you’re more than likely to be the only woman, or one of very few women, working within your organization.

Right now, women make up 18 to 20 percent of the cruise ship workforce, with the first woman cruise ship captain not being appointed until 2007. Breaking the glass ceiling in this industry is Belinda Bennett, who is the world’s first Black woman cruise ship captain.

According to Forbes, Bennett has worked for the cruise line Windstar Cruises for 14 years. She came to the cruise ship line in 2005 and worked her way up from second officer, to chief officer to now captain, which is a position she was appointed to in 2016. Currently, she is captain of the MSY Wind Star and is in charge of sailing the ship through the Caribbean in the winter and Europe in the summer.

Growing up on a small island called St. Helena, which is between South America and South Africa, Bennett says she’s always had a love for the ocean. She started her career in the cruise ship industry at just 17 years old, working on the island’s local ship called RMS St. Helena. From there, she went on to train as a cadet and admits that her journey to moving up the ranks has been met with a lot of push back and hard work as a result of her gender and race. 

“Unfortunately, I had a rough start,” she says. “When I was training as a cadet, I sailed with the chief officers who made me 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.”

Bennett describes the experience as a make-or-break time and said that as someone who “refused to be broken” she pushed through.

After working on a private yacht of Monaco for two years, Bennett went back to school to get her masters and then tried to work her way into the leadership ranks of the yachting industry. But, she was again met with barriers when she says an agent in Antibes sat her down and told her that finding a job in yachting would be hard because she is more educated than most of the captains, she’s a woman and she’s Black.

Using the criticism to find motivation for a different route, Bennett left the yacht industry and joined the cruise ship industry in 2005 when she landed a job with Windstar Cruises.

Most recently, Bennett’s work in the industry has led her to be awarded with the prestigious Merchant Navy Medal award for Meritorious Service in the U.K. While she says most of the career goals that she initially set for herself have been accomplished, she admits that getting to where she is today has not been an easy feat.

"Being a woman, you have to work extra hard to prove yourself – even more than a man,” she explains. "Some men might not like that, but that’s the way it is. I’m driven. I wanted to be captain, and so, I am."