For Capt. Kate McCue, the weight of the moment hit her when the Celebrity Edge was untied from the dock at Florida's Port Everglades. She was about to pilot the first major cruise ship to embark from a U.S. port with passengers onboard in more than 15 months.
"For me it was the moment we said, 'let go of lines,'" she said, pausing to hold back tears. "That's a big deal. Because that meant it was real. It was something we looked forward to for so long."
The Celebrity Edge departed Fort Lauderdale on June 26, alongside fireboats shooting streams of water into the air, the horn on the Celebrity Equinox, docked nearby, blaring, and groups of people at the port and on beaches nearby waving and celebrating the event, including a man playing a trumpet. Dozens of TV news crews were on hand for the event.
The 2,900-passenger ship is about 40% full and has a 99% passenger vaccination rate. It is currently sailing a seven-day western Caribbean itinerary.
Brian Abel, the senior vice president of hotel operations for Celebrity, said that his family was among revelers on a beach waving as the ship left the port. He said his wife encountered many travel advisors on that beach.
"There were a lot of travel agents there with bottles of Champagne and telling stories about how excited they were that cruising is back," he said. "It's a big family, and the travel agents were out there waving to us with emotion. Our industry is coming back."
Richard Fain, CEO of parent company Royal Caribbean Group, said that for him, the most emotional part of the last few days has been talking to the crew.
"Without exception, what I've seen is they're so overwhelmed and so happy," he said. "So many of them said, 'I feel like I'm home,' and that was really quite moving to me. It's a good day."
McCue and Abel agreed.
"When you speak to [the crew], they are getting back to doing what they really love to do -- and that is make a difference in everyone's guest vacation experience," McCue said. "They have an impact on every person coming onboard the ship. They've been looking forward to that day."
She added that despite all the fanfare of the moment, "while this was such an important day, the day for me that is really going to matter is the day that the last Celebrity Cruises ship starts sailing [again]. I know that day is coming."
Fain added that after what seemed like an endless 15 months -- "and none of us imagined it would be 15 months -- now it seems like a mere blip. But this was the start."
The passengers are no less enthused. After having cruise after cruise rebooked and canceled, a couple from Florida saw that the Edge was really going to sail and booked it right away.
"We wanted to be on the first sailing we could, and it happened to be the very first sailing. We are just so happy to be cruising again," said the wife over lunch at Luminae, the specialty restaurant for suite guests.
It is perhaps this enthusiasm to cruise, and the long wait so many cruise fans have had, that has made them more appreciative than they'd normally be on a sailing. Abel said that guest satisfaction scores on the Celebrity Millennium, which launched three weeks ago from St. Maarten, were the highest in the history of the brand for the first two sailings.
"Not only are we sailing healthy and safe, but guests are saying it's the best vacation they've ever had," he said.
Fain said the "extraordinary" guest satisfaction scores are very much linked to the employee engagement scores, which he said are also "off the charts."
"Those two numbers correlate absolutely," Fain said. "There is simply no doubt that as the crew are engaged and passionate -- I think passion is our defining characteristic -- and they are passionate and therefore, one leads to the other."