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Below Deck: Superyacht Reality TV

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People have been saying for a long time that yachts would make a great reality show, so it’s no real surprise that the day has finally arrived: Tonight in the US, yachting reality show ‘Below Deck’ screens on Bravo TV. With episode titles like “Luggage, luggage, everywhere” and “Dude, that’s a dude, dude”, I’m guessing it’s not aimed at the intellectual end of the market.   I lost 24 brain cells just watching the trailer. See the trailier here

When the idea for a reality show got floated (sorry) a few years back, there was an outpouring of vitriol on Dockwalk by yachting professionals deeply concerned that such a show would damage the industry.  And now that the show is being launched (sorry), the vitriol is back, as many people see this show as a threat: a threat to the image of the yachting industry, one that will imperil the golden rule of discretion and make yacht owners and guests view crew and yachting differently.   

Of course the ‘reality’ is dubious.  Crewed by actors and yacht crew who want to be famous, and chartered by wannabe actors who want to be famous, and edited and produced by people who want to be famous… well, it’s safe to say that the ‘reality’ of yachting will be the first victim.  That’s not to say that there won’t be situations portrayed in it that we have all actually encountered in our jobs on yachts (the producer worked as a stewardess for 3 seasons, and there are three yacht crew in the cast), but people do not act naturally while surrounded by a film crew. And even if they do let their real selves out on occasion, the final cut is made by people who want sensationalism and spectacle.  This is for telly, after all.  No one wants to watch a stewardess clean a cabin for 3 days to the sound of Rihanna on repeat. Not least because of Rihanna.

This morning, The New York Times has published an article on the series entitled “Who wants to sail with this ship of trolls?”  It’s not a glowing review, to put it mildly, calling the show ‘bland’ and the guests ‘insufferable’ , concluding that, “It’s a good thing the earth is flat, because that means the Honor, the yacht that is the focus of the new Bravo reality series ‘Below Deck’ is bound to sail over the edge someday. That would presumably relieve us of the obligation to pay any further attention to the people on it.”

The show was shot during a 5 week Caribbean charter on the 50m Cour de Leone, which was renamed ‘M/Y Honour’ for the show.  The original crew were given time off, although the captain Lee Rosbach, the first mate and the engineer stayed on board (but not as characters in the show) to ensure the boat stayed in one piece.  And 9 ‘crew’ were brought in in their place, only 3 of them with any yachting experience.  And this alone allows people to dismiss the show as unrealistic, with real captain Lee Rosbach admitting in an interview with The Triton. "They pretty much acted like crew I would have fired- they were all in way over their heads. There were a couple that worked really hard and might have made good entry level crew.” Might have made good entry level crew?  Oh dear. 

Show co-producer Rebecca explained the casting choice by saying, “The original crew were perfect, but we had to bring in new crew that we’d screened, as we couldn’t be sure that the other crew weren’t convicted felons or wouldn’t punch the cameraman.  Oh, now this smacks of disingenuity. Yacht crew aren’t well known for punching people on board, and criminal records are, well, records. Not difficult to check. Of course, what she isn’t saying here is that most professional yacht crew wouldn’t touch this show with a boat hook and a sturdy pair of Marigolds.

This excuse allowed the introduction of a merry cast of TV-worthy characters running around in hilariously tight blue polos. The bios on the show’s website are comedy gold, as it sounds like they have been written by either the cast themselves, a small child, or a shoddy dating website.  We have the chief stewardess Adrienne Gang,’ a veteran of the yacht industry’, who lives by the philosophy ‘work hard, play hard’. Original.  Other useful facts are that she once wanted to be a doctor and used to tour with rock bands.  The fake captain, who looks remarkably like he is made of plastic, has had a love of the water since a young age (jolly good), while CJ LeBeau (yes, that is his name) is an Eagle Scout and a philanthropist, but he has a rebellious side as well . He also, you might like to know,  “gets out of most sticky situations with his witty flirtation and likeable personality.”  Snort. We have the chef, who enjoys the bachelor lifestyle, and a stewardess called Kat who is a ‘jokester’ , ‘life of the party’ enjoys snowboarding and has been through the Panama Canal. Riveting.  Oh, Bravo TV, bravo for giving me a giggle.  And of course we have a gay ex-Marine. Openly gay crew members are increasingly seen on yachts, and rightly so.  But to imply that they are represented on each yacht is a fallacy. And then we also have Sam, the stewardess who has a degree in industrial engineering, a degree which apparently separates her from the typical “uneducated yachty (sic) drifter”.  She prides herself on her leadership abilities, which is a shame really as she’s not chief stew, and going by the episode descriptions this causes some drama.  I’ll stop now, but really, these bios are tremendous fun.

As for the guests, they actually are paying charter guests.  An ad was run by Bravo TV requesting people who might like to be on a show, but will have to pay for the privilege to cover the charter fee. 50 000 dollars each, according to the original ad.  Not your typical charter guest then, but Americans who want to be famous.  

“Oh, it wasn’t scripted,” said one guest on a forum. "We just did what we wanted and they filmed us.” For my part I believe it wasn’t scripted, simply because on the advertisement we have some woman lying on a deckchair waving languorously at one of the crew and saying in a strident American accent, “Can you remove this part of the ship for me?” The ship? The ship? No genuine charter guest, past, present or future, has called a yacht a ship. They never miss the opportunity to say the word yacht, (preferably in a very loud voice).  But while it may not have been scripted, it was most certainly directed, and by its very nature with a bunch of cameramen and fake cast, unreal.

This unrealistic portrayal is making some yacht crew nervous, and others angry. From what I can see, the objections fall into several categories.

1. A strange anger at the ‘real’ crew involved.  The forums are alive with jeers about them never getting hired again, and ‘how to kill your career 101.” Let’s dispense with this one quickly with a quick question: ‘Who cares if they get hired again?’ That’s not an objection to the show itself, it is of absolutely no consequence to anyone but the crew themselves, and they have made their beds.    

2. That these people make yachting look unprofessional to the outside world. One yacht chef wailed that the food looked terrible (despite the NYT saying otherwise), and felt that no-one would take his job as a superyacht chef seriously anymore.  Another sniffed that deck crew would never be allowed to have their hair so unruly on a real yacht, while another was unhappy that during the course of filming the crew were in the tender, shirtless. You know, there may be a few viewers out there in middle America who will base their view of yachting on this show, but anyone who watches reality TV thinking it is reality is a dimwit and for one, I don’t care what a dimwit thinks about yachting, or anything else, for that matter.

3. That the ‘secret is out!”  Ah, and ain’t that the truth. We may even be overrun by young people wanting to get into the industry.   This is not the end of the world. In fact it’s very good for crew houses, training schools and bars.  There are only so many jobs, and captains can pretty easily sort the wheat from the chav – I mean chaff.  

4. The most overwhelming objection is that yacht owners, charterers and potential charterers will be deterred from chartering a yacht because of this show.  Oh, poppycock.  As captain Rosbach says, “I don’t know why people are taking this show so seriously. I don’t think billionaires sit around watching Bravo TV.”  Even if they did, I’m certain they’re not thinking, Oh, I may not charter this year because a low-budget reality show was made about it where the guests were difficult and the crew ran around like monkeys trying to shag each other, crying and drinking. (Ok, so maybe there’s some truth to this show after all.)  Otherwise we’d all be watching ‘Airport’ and thinking, Oh, best not catch a plane again, as someone has made a show about difficult passengers, and then people will think that I am difficult, because I too, on occasion, catch planes.’ 

Anyway, even if the portrayal of difficult guests is spot-on, then real yacht owners and guests won’t recognise themselves in them, because the human ego is protected by a thick wall of self-delusion, making it difficult for us to recognise our own bad behaviour.  For example, I have had a very difficult guest look at me sympathetically and say with no trace of irony,  “Gosh, you must get some really difficult guests sometimes , not like us, hey.”

Anyone who has ever owned or chartered a yacht, or is seriously planning to, are already aware that this is an industry of professionals, working their buttocks off, being discrete, going the extra 40 miles for yak milk and creating an extraordinary experience for them.  Because that is the truth.  And that truth won’t change, no matter how many ‘reality’ TV shows are made on the subject.  People who treat their crew well will continue to do so, and those that don’t care at all what the crew, or world in general, think of them, will continue not to care. If it stops a single person from chartering, I would be very surprised.

5. That discretion is dead.  That the hallmark of the industry-that crew won’t talk- is in jeopardy.  The point is, most still won’t, but as the industry grows, and more issues are being discussed on forums such as these and in magazines, it is inevitable that some stories will come out.

So then, are there any positives? 

This show can’t be considered particularly harmful, but few would say it’s beneficial to the yachting industry.  But perhaps there are a few potential positives to this show being screened, other than stopping people back home asking us if we work on cruise ships.

1. If the show has a shred of credibility about it, it will deliver on its promise of showing the hard work and exhaustion that yachting requires. It may, just may, prepare a few wannabe stewardesses for the reality of the task ahead- the bed-making, the cleaning, the kow-towing.   Despite the wealth of information now available about what to expect, you still come across the oblivious hopefuls, like the young and shiny job-seeker I met last year who asked me, “There’s isn’t really much cleaning involved, is there? I know there’s a little bit, but it’s mostly service, isn’t it?  I really hate cleaning toilets, it’s gross, I hope I don’t have to do much of that.”(Evil old goat that I am, I really enjoyed bursting that bubble.)

2. On the small boat end of the scale, perhaps the greater exposure of yachts may lead to a few more charters.  Doubtful, but possible.

3. A portrayal of crew as actual people might lead the guests to realise they are being judged, and that they do not have complete carte blanche to act as they please.  I know that many yachties, perhaps the majority, would place this argument in the negatives, rather than positives section, but this leads to my next point.

Is there a place for  superyacht stories in the mainstream media, and how dangerous is it? 

There is perhaps a greater issue here. The secret is out. The media have the scent, and superyacht stories are selling papers. Last week, an article in The Guardian, about superyachts and training courses unleashed an absolute storm of rich-bashing in the online comments.  This is a concern, because when the media focus on the sensational, the reality is lost.  That is not to say that I don’t agree that the sheer excess of the industry is sometimes offensive, but as the entire industry is based on sheer excess, it is a difficult objection to rationally sustain as long as you work on, or around superyachts.  They are the ultimate unnecessary item, a floating testament to wealth and success. And hundreds of thousands of people are employed by them, and in the shipyards, the crew agencies, the machinery manufacturers…the list goes on.  They pump enormous amounts of money into economies, they pay our wages and buy us houses.  Looking at that, it is difficult to maintain the rage.

However, this is not to say that, in my opinion, some media attention is necessarily a bad thing, if handled with sensitivity.   There are issues in yachting that I think are worth discussing: violence, sexual harassment, and sexual depravity. I’m not talking here about rudeness of guests, or prostitution, but about abuse of power. 

The typical line of yacht crew tends to be that yacht guests charter a yacht with the sense that they have carte blanche, that this is a place where they can depend on privacy while they behave how  they like, and that yacht crew should indulge them, without judgement.  For the most part, this is true. But not always.

Many years ago, I quit my first yacht when the Madame split one of the Filipino’s noses open with a shoe because a dress fell off the hanger in her dressing room when we were at sea. The next day, the Madame grabbed the same girl by the throat, and in the year after I left, she put her in hospital with internal injuries after a beating.  According to a crew member, the captain had accompanied the Madame on a trip to the Philippines, where this girl and another had been bought off their families with a suitcase of money.  She couldn’t leave:  she was a 21st century slave.

There is a story there, not about yachting per se but about vast wealth and the abuse of power.  I worked on a yacht where on one charter, the principal threw a prostitute down the stairs. Another friend tells me that on her old boat, young Indian boys were brought on for the boss’ pleasure. On another, the guest was Islam Gadaffi.  How do yacht crew handle serving a man politely who was allegedly responsible for massacres and torture?  In yachting, political ignorance is bliss.  But these issues- where our moral line is, and how often we move it, are things that yacht crew must consider.  And if a yacht guest holds back from awful behaviour because they feel that they may be judged or reported?  I say that’s a win. 

That is why I say the subjects must be handled with extreme sensitivity, by careful writers, who know that this is not common in yachting, but can and does happen.  But any fair commentary also includes the wonderful stuff- the nice owners, the extraordinary opportunities, the sheer adventure of it all. 

But the journalist in me, and the moralist, believes that stories need to be told that are bigger than yachting.  No place on earth is a moral vacuum, not even a superyacht, no matter how much money you pay for it.  Or no place I want to live in, anyway. 

So yes, the secret is out, and not all media coverage will be favourable.  Some of it will be written by hacks caring little for the consequences. If you want to be worried about something, be worried about that. 

But ‘Below Deck’? One thing is certain: there is no grave danger to the industry in this show. It is a show, and will not change our reality. 

The cover has been blown off the porthole. And now we wait for the waves.  ‘Below Deck’ may not bring them, but something will. 

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  • Comment by: Timothy Valentine - 8 Nov 2021, 23:31 (3 years ago)

    Despite the demerits of the show, it hit me on good side, so I feel I wanna join the industry.

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