It started slowly at first. The messages started pinging through: “OMG so addicted to Below Deck, is your life really like that?!”; “Can’t wait to see you…been watching Below Deck, I HAVE QUESTIONS” and perhaps most worryingly (from someone I barely know) “I’m addicted to Below Deck and want to dip my toe into yachting, what do you think?”
Then I flew to the UK and turned on Breakfast TV just in time to hear Lorraine telling viewers she was staying in, enjoying lockdown and binge-watching Below Deck. Hell, even my Dad WhatsApped the family chat to say he and Mum were watching with interest.
Below Deck Fever is now in full swing. Every time I see friends they want the lowdown on whether it’s an accurate depiction of crew life. I wonder if this is what it was like for people from Essex once TOWIE got underway? Did they feel they had to prove to everyone they met that they weren’t just an oversized set of veneers and a spray tan before cracking on with the conversation?
So, what do I tell them? How accurate is Below Deck?
Eventually, curiosity and the constant bleating of friends at home and other yachties got the better of me. I watched my first episode and… it was even worse than I’d expected. I usually love a bit of trashy telly - give me a series of Selling Sunset or Love Island and I’m all in. But I found myself yelling at the TV (“they’re laying the table like it’s a sodding Harvester!”), falling into every producer-laid trap; getting frustrated at contrived crew politics, cringing and covering my face at unprofessional behaviour.
In the end I had to ask myself why it all bothered me so much? Is it too close to home? Does it bring back too many of the bad memories and not enough of the good ones? Or is it because my inner yachtie-snob can’t bear to see a profession I have spent over a decade in so inadequately represented? I suspect a combination of all the above.
I roped in a deck officer, and it soon became clear from his reactions that he felt the same: “Jesus Christ he’s dropping the anchor with no shoes on! Why’s he washing down the sundeck outboard with no harness on? Has that dude seriously just taken his shirt off?”
And then I showed him the episode in which Captain Lee about-turns and ditches charter guests for bringing drugs on board. We turned to each other, laughed and rolled our eyes… bear with me, I’ll explain why later. For now I can summarise like this: Below Deck simultaneously makes yachting look both less and more professional than it really is.
The work of maintaining a superyacht may in its very nature be superficial, but upholding professional and safety standards is important to many crew. Despite trying hard never to be one of those yachties who act like they’re saving lives rather than folding napkins, I found myself wanting to tell my entire extended network that standards on most boats - especially bigger boats - are much higher; that the type of guests and owners I worked for would never appear on this kind of show and neither would most of the professional crew I worked with; that we’d NEVER speak that way in front of guests, work so sloppily, look such a mess, or allow insubordination of that kind from junior crew.
I found myself howling at the TV in frustration, much like Prince Charles (I imagine) when watching The Crown: “THAT’S NOT HOW IT REALLY IS!!”. But no one cares. For a bit of light entertainment, badly behaved people careering through a haphazard season by the seat of their pants is far more amusing than an efficient, well trained crew discreetly completing a charter before going ashore to celebrate. I get it; no one is actually interested in seeing the incredible standards we maintain.
Setting aside professional standards, there are dysfunctions in yachting, we can’t deny it. When the deck officer and I rolled our eyes at Below Deck’s Captain Lee for ejecting his charter guests for onboard drug use, we were not questioning that he took correct action; that is what a captain is supposed to do. We’ve both worked for good, professional captains who would have responded in the same way, but we’ve also seen more than one captain turn a blind eye to drug use. Reality sometimes falls short of reality TV.
When it comes to onboard culture, Below Deck hints at it with the crew’s silly japes and it’s true, captains aren’t the only ones whose moral compasses go astray. Those long hours, the crazy deadlines, the creeping exhaustion as the season goes on, the communal living with other crew (who, let’s admit it, are sometimes utterly NUTS) – they’ve taken their toll on all of us at some point. We’ve probably all had a few yachting moments we’re not proud of – be it stand up rows, sobbing in the pantry, punch ups on the dock, harassment, bullying, bitchiness and in-fighting. Most of us have greeted guests with banging hangovers, been drawn into crew politics and been unreasonable with our colleagues on a bad day.
This is the stuff of humans, not just crew, but everything is exaggerated on board. Below Deck just cranks it up a few notches and maybe I hate it so much because I see plenty of myself in those squabbling, boozing idiots on screen.
Ultimately Below Deck stops short of scandal as much as it fails to portray the miraculous, military-style feats crew achieve concurrently. So, in short, I tell my friends that Below Deck gives a bit of an idea but it's a far cry from the whole story, and it's probably best for everyone to keep it that way.