Meet Virgin Voyages' first ever female captain

When Virgin Voyages sets sail for the first time in April 2020, Captain Wendy Williams will be at the helm. We caught up with the woman herself to find out more about how she became Captain of the Scarlet Lady…

“We always lived by the ocean and our family was involved with working with people on the water so I guess it's just become part of my nature,” Captain Wiliams explains. She was born in the Canadian province of Quebec and her father was a marine electronics engineer. It was he who gave Williams her first experiences of being on a boat.

“I would go to work with my dad when I was really, really little, probably three years old,” she says. “We'd go off and we'd visit all sorts of big ships together so I met lots of captains. I used to love going to work with my dad.”

Now, with a successful maritime career of her own, Williams is excited to get on board Scarlet Lady and set sail with Virgin Voyages. “For me, the Virgin brand is synonymous with being successful and with innovation,” she says. “It’s not afraid to take a challenge. I have really always liked Richard Branson, I have always thought that he was a visionary. For me it just seemed like possibly the break that I needed to try and experience life on cruise ships a little bit differently.”

Despite having worked on the bridge of cruise ships for more than 17 years, Williams’ intention was never to go into the maritime industry herself. In fact, she had planned to go into nursing but found it didn’t make her as happy as she had hoped. What made her happy was being on the water. To put herself through university, Williams had started working on fishing boats.

“I was out on the vessel a lot for the summer and I fell in love with being out there. It wasn't glamorous, it was all smelly fish but the boats themselves were fascinating,” she says. “I would finish my work and I would spend every moment that I could up on the bridge with the navigation team learning about things. I quickly fell in love with it.”

From there, she decided to become a deckhand and worked on a number of ships off the west coast of Canada. Here, she met her husband, who was running his own fishing vessel at the time. It was at this time that Williams decided she wanted to do more in the maritime industry. “I was working with my husband and we both decided the same thing. The fish stock was on the demise and morally we didn’t want to be responsible for decimating the stocks anymore. We were a very small business so we decided to opt out and use our sea time to better ourselves.”

They set out to get their international captain licences and were desk mates as they studied. Once Williams had her first licence she was hired by Royal Caribbean Cruises and worked for them for nearly 16 years. After a brief stint at BC Ferries, where her husband is now a captain, Williams joined Celebrity Cruises. But she decided it was time for something new. “And that’s when Virgin came along. They’re doing things a little bit differently and I really wanted to be part of that.”

Scarlet Lady

So what is it exactly that excites Captain Williams about Virgin Voyages and their first ship the Scarlet Lady?

“First and foremost, she’s mine!” Williams laughs. “Secondly, no-one's ever driven a Scarlet Lady, no-one's ever managed a Scarlet Lady, no-one has ever worked on a Scarlet Lady before. It's an immense amount of planning, collaboration, discussions, meetings, wanting to do the right thing, wanting the work to do our thing, making sure that our thing aligns with every policy that we have to align with. It is just an immense amount of work. 

“I spent some time in our office in Plantation, Florida, and was surrounded by a group of people that, even though they're working long hours and have an immense amount of work under each person's control, they still managed to be thoughtful and happy.”

And Williams has been impressed with the work of the Virgin Voyages crew so far. “The collaboration is amazing. We're building something from the ground up. We're taking a lot of best practices from the industry, we're not copying them in any way, we're doing things our own way. But we're looking at what actually works, what fits the policies that we can make our own. 

“It's a really amazing experience starting something. It's not the first cruise company obviously but it's the first of this kind and being in at the grassroots level is absolutely exciting in every way you look at it. It's hard to even paint the picture, sometimes it's overwhelming. There's just so many ideas and there's a lot of excitement in the air for sure.”

But as for the ship itself, Williams is tightlipped. “I can't give away our secrets but suffice to say it's going to be very impressive. I've done an initial walk through the ship, things are really just cement floors and a lot of girders right now. But I'm sure that once our wonderful design team has gone through and appointed everything she's going to be stunning.”

Captain Wendy Williams in the Virgin Voyages office

Maritime family

Being married to a captain and having grown up in the maritime world, Williams is in the fortunate position of having a support system that really understands her work. 

“[My husband] loves what he does. We're two captains and we get one another, we really, really understand where each other is coming from. Not only am I supported while I'm out at sea by the company who hires me but I'm incredibly supported at home, which actually matters the most to me,” she says. “I'm encouraged to be me, I'm encouraged to do what makes me happy but at the same time every single day I check in because that's my grounding, my husband and my family.”

When she’s not sailing, Williams lives with her husband and their Rottweiler, Daisy, on a farm just north of Qualicum Beach on Vancouver Island. “It’s such a happy place for us,” she says. “We are developing it as we speak. We have a very large vegetable garden and I have flower gardens. My other passion other than sailing is gardening. I could be in the garden forever.

“We hope to fill our property with some fuzzy creatures. We're looking to adopt some donkeys, we're looking to have some sheep and some chickens. We want to have a real hobby farm. It's one of the dreams we have and we're making it a reality. Little by little we're getting there.”

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