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Monarch - Q & A to her captain, Karin Stahre Janson


In the male-dominated world of global shipping, Karin Stahre Janson is used to raising eyebrows. Now the self-described "tomboy" is making history as the first woman in charge of a major cruise ship. "I'm a pretty tough girl," says Janson, 38, of Stromstad, Sweden. "I've always said I know what I'm doing." Janson, who has taken command of Royal Caribbean's 2,400-passenger Monarch of the Seas, talks with USA TODAY's Gene Sloan about her rise through the ranks and life at sea.

Q: When did you first feel the pull of the ocean?

A: I met a lot of sailors when I was a student (taking sailing lessons) in my early teens. They told me about their lives, about exotic places they visited. I was hooked.

Q: These sailors, in fact, helped you get your first job on a ship. Tell us about that.

A: It was the summer I turned 19. It was a small petroleum tanker sailing around coastal Sweden, Norway and Denmark. I was a junior seaman, the lowest rank, and I was just there to try it for six weeks. I painted, chipped rust, scrubbed the decks, greased the pumps — whatever needed to be done.

Q: And you loved it?

A: I realized I liked the life. It's not a stationary workplace. It's never the same, day to day. But I also realized I didn't want to swab decks for the rest of my life. I wanted to be on the bridge and navigate. So I enrolled in cadet school.

Q: You were a woman breaking into a very male-dominated world. Was there resistance?

A: Ninety-nine percent of the time (in those early years) I was just treated like one of the boys. I can remember one grumpy old sailor telling me I shouldn't be there, that I should be out making babies and looking for a husband. But I have met very few of those (on ships).

Q: Why did you switch from cargo ships to cruise ships?

A: I like working with and for people. On a cargo ship there are maybe 15 or 20 crewmembers; on a cruise ship there may be 800 or more. It's a much more social life and a more interesting life. (On Monarch of the Seas), we come from 60 different nationalities. You learn about different cultures, religions. And you meet the guests.

Q: What do you think has held women back from commanding a cruise ship until now?

A: It's all about timing. Back in the '40s and '50s, when shipping was blooming, it was hard, muscular work, and (therefore) it was very male-dominated. These days it's all about brains and knowledge.

Q: Are there any advantages to being a woman as captain?

A: They say females are better at multitasking, and that's a plus because there are a lot of things happening at the same time .… (and) maybe we show more empathy.

Q: How has the crew reacted?

A: It's all positive. Everyone is saying, "It's about time, and we're so proud you're on our ship." Also our guests are very positive. I had an old lady the other day pat me on the head, which is hard since I'm 5-11, then pinch me on the cheek.

Q: Your favorite port?

A: Mombasa in Kenya, because you see the small, old-fashioned sailboats coming in with bags of spices, then (it's transferred) to big shiny container ships that take it around the world. It's this wonderful meeting of old and new.

Q: Least favorite port?

A: Any oil terminal in the winter when it's raining horizontally.