Virgin Voyages Breaks New Ground with the Appointment of its First Ship Captain

by Lynn Elmhirst
Virgin Voyages Breaks New Ground with the Appointment of its First Ship Captain

Virgin's Tom McAlpin (left), and Richard Branson (right), with Wendy Williams, who will be at the helm of the Scarlet Lady when she sets sail in the spring of 2020. Photo: Virgin Voyages.


“There's something wrong.  I want to be captain of a ship.” Sir Richard Branson, the famously flamboyant head of Virgin Voyages, had a big grin on his face for the press assembled for the cruise line's latest reveal. 

In Toronto with CEO Tom McAlpin and other members of Virgin Voyages' executive team prior to the opening of Travel MarketPlace East, Sir Richard was introducing the actual first captain of the new cruise line's first ship. 

And like other Virgin Voyages' reveals, it's something that's never been done before: appointing the first Canadian woman to captain a cruise ship for a major line. Quebec native and current Vancouver Island resident Captain Wendy Williams will be at the helm of the Scarlet Lady when she sets sail in the spring of 2020.

“I don't really like to do the same thing everyone else does,” she said of a career path that has already had her as an officer on the bridge of mega cruise ships for over a dozen years. “The Virgin brand is synonymous with innovation, trying new things… and success.  I said to myself, 'I need to be riding the bow wave of something that big.’”

“It's part of our culture,” added CEO Tom McAlpin, “60% of our team is female.”

Last year, Virgin Voyages announced its Scarlet Squad program, an initiative dedicated to bridging the gender gap in leadership roles across the maritime industry through hiring, mentoring and professional growth opportunities.

“Frighteningly, there's only something like 2% of front end crew that are female in the whole world,” Branson said. “And I think companies have to be proactive to redress the balance.  It should be normal, when the captain of a ship comes over the speakers and says, 'This is your captain speaking', you shouldn't get people looking awkwardly around.

“Hopefully this can be the start of a new trend.”

Virgin Voyages has already appointed a dozen other female officers for the Scarlet Lady. They include women in the roles of hotel director, safety officer and environmental officer, as well as female engineers, second, and third officers.

For Captain Williams, cruising has been a fun and rewarding career, and it's about to get even better. As Master of the Scarlet Lady, she'll be able to continue mentoring women to increase their participation in maritime professions, and supporting environmental responsibility and sustainability in the cruise industry.

“It’s a dream come true to be working with Virgin Voyages, a company that is focused on creating an incredible experience not only for our Sailors (cruise guests) but for our Crew as well; while also taking action to minimize our footprint on our oceans.”

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