A Qualicum Beach resident has been named the first Canadian woman to captain a major cruise ship – Virgin Voyages’ first vessel, Scarlet Lady, set to debut in spring 2020.
Wendy Williams, who when not at sea resides on a six-acre hobby farm in Qualicum Beach with her husband, grew up on the ocean, going to work with her marine electronic engineer father. Originally from the coastal city of Sept-Îles, Que., Williams would tag along with her dad on all sorts of boats like freighters, tugs and tankers.
“I think I just loved it,” Williams said from her hotel room in Milan, Italy. “I love everything about the ocean, swimming in it, scuba diving. I tried living away from the ocean but that didn’t work very well.”
Williams eventually migrated across Canada and was enrolled at the University of British Columbia for nursing. Realizing the medical field wasn’t for her, Williams began a career working in and out of Ucluelet and Tofino, conducting marine research.
“I also deck-handed for a long time and that’s how I met my husband, he was a commercial fisherman and was running his own boat,” Williams said.
Williams is a former captain with BC Ferries, a post her husband, Cameron Gillespie, currently holds.
Obtaining qualifications to become a captain, Williams said, is a layered process. Before someone can get into a maritime academy, they have to have 365 sea days — which Williams said can take some people several years to get. Next, Williams said, you begin taking courses and complete a practicum towards a maritime licence issued by Transport Canada.
“It’s quite an involved process and it takes many years,” Williams said. “I have a master mariner’s licence so I can actually navigate, drive anything on the water… anywhere in the world.”
Becoming the first Canadian woman to master a major cruise ship feels “pretty amazing,” Williams said, but there’s still a lot of work to do to bridge the gender gap in the maritime industry.
“Part of me is just overjoyed at this whole thing and that this is happening in my life, in my career, but the other half of me is sad that it has taken until 2019 for a woman to actually achieve this kind of a role,” Williams said. “I just hope there’s more and more of us as the years go by. But personally, I’m on a high, it’s a fantastic feeling. I’m really excited about the whole thing and this is kind of the icing on the cake for my career.”
Williams said women are largely under-represented in the maritime industry.
“Sadly the statistic is approximately two per cent of the world’s mariners — all boats, all ships, all companies — only two per cent of those people are women… and actually the majority of them are found on passenger ships and working for cruise lines,” she said.
Williams encourages more women to get into the industry to begin breaking down the statistics.
“It is fascinating, it takes you everywhere in the world and as my dad used to say to me ‘you should only be limited in life by your own imagination, nothing else,’” Williams said. “No woman should ever feel that she can’t do anything on this planet. I don’t think gender should come into play, ever.”
Williams added there are many mentoring programs available for women who may be interested in a sea career.
Last year, Virgin Voyages announced its Scarlet Squad program, an initiative dedicated to bridge the gender gap in leadership roles across the maritime industry. The program aims to recruit, support and mentor female shipboard talent, and to grow opportunities for leadership roles in marine, technical and hotel management positions on board.
Virgin Voyages is still in the early stages of the crew for Scarlet Lady but the company has already recruited nearly a dozen female officers.
The Scarlet Lady will be the largest ship Williams has captained. She said it will offer four-, five- and seven-night cruises for up to 2,700 guests and 1,150 crew members. The various cruises will take guests on Riviera Maya sailings to Cozumel/Playa Del Carmen, Mexico and departures from Key West and Bimini.
“Captain Wendy’s extensive maritime background makes her an excellent choice to lead the Scarlet Lady, but it is her spirit and drive to approach life at sea differently that make her the perfect fit to join the Virgin Voyages family,” said Tom McAlpin, president and chief executive officer for Virgin Voyages, in a press release.