NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Inger Olsen, who rose through Cunard’s tradition-steeped ranks to become the cruise line’s first female captain, wasn’t dreaming of a life at sea, or of breaking any glass ceilings.
When she signed on to a cargo ship at age 16 she wanted to earn some pocket money.
“I was looking for a job after school and on weekends,” Olsen recalled from her home in Svendborg, Denmark. “I didn’t have any idea what I wanted to do.”
But Olsen, who grew up surrounded by water on the Faroe Islands, liked to travel and enjoyed the life at sea. What she didn’t like was the cleaning duty her steward’s job entailed. So she applied to become a cadet and joined the Cunard Line in 1997.
“I thought I’d do it for a few years and then go ashore and have a family,” said Olsen, 43. “But one year led to another.”
In December 2010, Captain Inger Olsen took the helm of the 90,000-ton luxury liner Queen Victoria to become one of only a few women cruise ship captains in the world.
“I think if you look at cruise lines there’s only two or three,” she said.
Her ship, which carries 2,000 passengers, is the youngest of Cunard’s three Queens, joining the fleet alongside the Queen Elizabeth 2 and Queen Mary 2 in 2007.
Samuel Cunard established his line in 1839, principally to carry the Royal Mail.
The cantilevered balconies, art deco details and grand ballrooms of The Three Queens hark pointedly back to the golden days of ocean travel, when the likes of Winston Churchill and Marlene Dietrich made transatlantic crossings in civilized leisure.
The 1,000 crew under Olsen’s command keep the crystal chandeliers glittering, the mahogany polished and the ballroom dance floor shipshape.
“Each ship has its own feel,” Olsen said. “Once you get used to a particular ship, get the training in it, that ship seems like the best one for you.”
Olsen said fulfilling the hopes of her passengers is her greatest reward.
“When people say this is fantastic, the greatest time of life, then you know that we have delivered what we promised.”
The most difficult part is letting someone go.
“But that goes for any profession,” she said. “The rest — the weather, the ports where there’s a size limitation —- are mostly challenges.”
Olsen said her voyage through the ranks has been mostly smooth sailing in fair weather.
“People have welcomed me all the way through,” she said. “It’s only been extremely positive.”
On leave until she sails from Southampton, England in May, Olsen is enjoying the pleasures of dry land.
“When I’m home I have my house, my garden, my family,” she said. “I go to concerts, spend time with friends. Just enjoy, really. “
She thinks a seafaring life may not suit every woman.
“You’re away for three or four months,” she explained. “Most women who have kids don’t want to be away for that long.”
But for Olsen there’s bounty in the sea lane less traveled.
“At least I can say that I’ve done it. I did it all the way,” Olsen said. “But it wasn’t really a dream, I think. It was more just circumstances, really.”