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From the Bridge: Below Deck annoys, damages but doesn’t destroy industry

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From the Bridge: by Dorie Cox

A reality show of yacht captains, crew and their guests on charter has been a big hit with TV viewers since 2013. But not as much so with a group of captains at this month’s Triton From the Bridge lunch.

“Below Deck Mediterranean” started its second season last month on Bravo. The original “Below Deck” is in its fifth season now. The shows generate plenty of conversation, so we asked captains how they think the shows have affected yachting.

“We try to insulate owners from what happens behind the scenes, and this show does the opposite,” said a captain in the discussion group.

Most of the captains had seen at least a few episodes and they all knew about the show.

“It is addictive,” another captain said. “I go over to my friends’ boats and it seems like they’re always watching it.”

“It is entertaining,” another captain said.

Attendees of The Triton’s June From the Bridge luncheon were, from left, Capt. Scott Lockwood of M/Y Li-Lien; Capt. Mike Lepree of M/Y Nirvana; Capt. Sally-Ann Konigkramer of M/Y Sofia; Capt. Adam Belshe of yachts Marema, Invader and Flyer; Capt. Shay Williams of M/Y Caprice; Capt. Trevan Blackmer of TNT Yacht Service; Capt. Jared Stevenson of M/Y Precious Moments; and Capt. Rocky Miller. Photo by Dorie Cox

Individual comments are not attributed to any particular person in order to encourage frank and open discussion. The attending captains are identified in an accompanying photograph.

Behind the scenes on charter

Much of the crew behavior in the show does not reflect well on yachting, all of the captains agreed. Life onboard during each episode’s charter is filmed and edited to include aspects not typically seen by owners or guests: the crew mess, crew quarters and crew off-duty.

“Crew sitting in the salon using the guest silverware and china?” one captain questioned. “What is going on?”

That sort of scene troubled all the captains at the table.

“My concern is the owner is going to say, ‘Oh my god, is this what they’re doing to my boat when we don’t have guests onboard?’ ” a captain said. ” ‘Is my crew drinking my champagne and having sex in the hot tub and whatever else they’re doing there?’

“And we have potential charter guests who are saying, ‘Are these crew talking smack about me behind my back, making fun of me the whole time I’m paying copious amounts of money to be on this vessel?’ ” this captain said.

This is not what yachting looks like on the boats these captains run.

“I’ve been on many different charter vessels and never has any of that nonsense gone on under my watch,” a captain said.

Most of the group admitted they have seen bad crew behavior.

“I have seen some wild stuff go on, probably stuff you would see on that show,” another captain said. “Some people did get fired. If it was my boat, they would be gone.”

Crew relationships aren’t optimized on the show like they usually are, a captain said.

“They must do a personality grid and put the ones on this end of the spectrum together with the other end,” this captain said.

“The one’s who are incompatible, you mean,” another captain said.

“Right,” the first captain said. “The ones that would work together and make a good team are not together.”

Most of the captains feel the show editing is exaggerated for drama because it sells advertisements.

“It’s the Jerry Springer of the yachting industry,” another captain said of a tabloid show popular for controversial and emotional guests.

What people think

Yachting is still a private, small and tight-knit community, a captain said. But as yachting grows, more people are naturally exposed. And now millions of people who don’t work with the industry are also watching.

“People have a false sense of what yachting is, based on this program,” a captain said. “I was saddened by the whole thing. And if the only thing [about yachting] on TV going out there is that show — which it is — it’s frustrating.”

Aside from newcomers, the shows make the industry question things a bit more, a captain said.

“Now they have an insider’s view of potentially what could be going on onboard their multimillion-dollar asset,” a captain said. “Now they ask questions they never would have thought to ask.”

One yacht owner even asked one of the captains to watch the show with him.

“He asked, ‘Does this really happen?’ ” the captain said. “I said, ‘No, it’s completely different’.”

“My office questions alcohol expenditures now and nothing has changed from my side,” another captain said.

Another owner compares his boat crew to “Below Deck”.

“He would call me up and say, ‘I’m not coming round this weekend. I don’t want anyone coming round the boat and you guys partying it up and all sorts of fun stuff’,” a captain said.

These impressions are what captains work hard to prevent.

“It’s not their job to worry about what goes on on their boat,” a captain said. “It’s putting in their mind, ‘what are they doing on my boat?’ It’s our job to make sure they are carefree. They don’t need to know about the bilge pumps, the black water and what’s going on in the hot tub.”

When the show started, many in the industry worried it would encourage unqualified crew to join.

“It has brought a lot of people into yachting that think it is nothing more than a big party,” a captain said. “We got backpacking kids coming from Idaho thinking they can come have sex in the hot tub for a year between college.

“They see envelopes full of hundred dollar bills being handed out after what looks like a sex- and drug-fueled week,” another captain said. “They think this is the best job ever.”

They must think “I want to get hammered and cause all sorts of drama and have my job on the line all the time and have an absolute blast,” another captain said.

“Our first duty is the safety of our crew and guests and the vessel,” the first captain said. “How can we assure that if we have these shenanigans?”

One captain worked with a crew placement agency in the past.

“I saw firsthand when we got calls from all over the country,” the captain said. “I wasted a whole bunch of my time explaining that you have to have licensing and training and it costs about $1,000 just to get started. You need your STCW, then you come stay in a crew house and then you have to try to get day work before you get hired.”

But most of the captains have not seen any problem.

“We usually see people who are qualified before they ever get to us,” a captain said. “You have to have this license or certification.”

Another captain said that is part of how people often get a start in the industry.

“Doesn’t matter where someone came from if they do what it takes to get the job done,” the captain said.

We wondered if the show affects current crew.

“People don’t get into this to serve people and wash the boat,” a captain said. “Within the first week, they curb their own enthusiasm. You want to get in the hot tub? Guess what, you have to clean the hot tub.”

“And the tender and the Jet Skis,” another captain added.

“So all that’s dissipated, and they’re like ‘Na, na, na, don’t touch nothin’,’ and everything is clean and sparkling,” the captain said.

The captain admits maybe things are a bit like the show when crew is off-duty.

“When they get off the boat, that’s fine,” the captain said.

How to present the industry

When the captains have fielded questions about the show, some defend yachting, but most stick to a simple answer.

“I don’t go into much detail, but if people are excited about it, I say it’s a little like that, then they’re off to their office job again,” a captain said. “But for people in the industry, it doesn’t matter.”

Some people do need more of an explanation, such as the company accountant, a captain said.

“People don’t understand there’s a lot of work that goes on, even with a boat that sits at the dock,” a captain said.

“If it’s someone I’m concerned about, I tell them it’s a show,” another captain said. “It’s a reality show. We’re actually boring.”

One captain feels like an ambassador for yachting and is quick to dismiss the show.

“Anytime I see something on a forum or in a conversation, I stand up,” the captain said. “It doesn’t have to be that way. I explain that when guests are off, the runners go down, everything is put away. Crew are not using the good stuff.”

Final take-away

There is more to yachting than crew interactions, said a captain who knows professionals involved in the shows.

“People that supply the vessels, the brokers, they are all great people that do a lot of other things in the industry,” the captain said. “I don’t understand why it has to be such a negative depiction on every level.”

“I know they need to make money, but very few crew members are like that,” another captain said. “They could make a reality show different. I’m so proud of my crew. They’re like a family, they’re active. They could sell that.”

“No one would watch it,” another captain said.

“If you watch a perfectly run vessel, like most of us run, no one would ever watch it,” agreed a third. “We’re in the background doing our job and no one sees it.”

After all this conversation, we asked if captains really think “Below Deck” hurts the industry overall.

“No, it won’t break it,” a captain said.

“It’s probably drawing more people in,” another said. “The industry is always evolving. There was the more classic boat owner, but there are not many of those people left. So the new generation is keeping the industry alive. Would it be cool if the whole industry was Corinthian? Probably, but at the end of the day there are 30-year-old trust fund babies that are attracted to this life. It is keeping the industry alive. Maybe it does help financially.”

A captain asked the group, “I am curious if charters have increased.”

One captain said a friend’s yacht has increased the number of charters threefold.

“Maybe this has helped the industry financially, but has harmed us as crew,” a captain said.

If a show can affect yachting, what else makes the industry vulnerable?

Hurricanes and financial markets, several captains said.

“And ourselves, the people that work on a boat,” a captain said. “It’s vulnerable to the actual crew. The people that work for and with us, that’s what’s horrible.”

“The actual reality of this industry, the people that don’t take care of the owner and don’t take care of the boat,” a second captain agreed.

Most of what draws viewers to “Below Deck” is the crew. And, as in the show, all yacht crew really play a big part in yachting. Most everyone at the table had a comment.

“I’ve seen good owners, good people to work for, and guess what? They’re out because of that,” a third captain said.

“Then the rich people say, ‘I don’t need this,’ and sell their boat,” the second captain said. “That’s what can really hurt the industry, not a TV show.”

“The show sheds us in a bad light, but the vulnerability is ourselves,” the first captain said.

“Ask any owner or captain what’s the biggest snag, it’s crew,” another captain said. “Nevermind the engines or repairs. It’s crew and that’s why owners get out. Nevermind the show.”

A captain said there will always be people who want a yacht, even if they see “Below Deck”.

“If you separate the people from the boats, I think people still say, ‘I like these boats and I want to go to these places, but I won’t let that happen on my boat,” the captain said. “If I see jokers in a car behaving a certain way, that doesn’t make me not want to drive that car.”

Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome below. Captains who make their living running someone else’s yacht are welcome to join in the conversation. Email Dorie at dorie@the-triton.com for an invitation to our monthly From the Bridge lunch.

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About Dorie Cox

Dorie Cox is editor of The Triton.

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One thought on “From the Bridge: Below Deck annoys, damages but doesn’t destroy industry

  1. Rob Zavisza

    Its unfortunate but while the majority of the private yachts are run professionally and in great standing, looking after the owners and their guests with care. It only takes a few bad apples to spoil the bunch. While its been a while since I have mastered a private vessel, the drama is the part that I don’t miss at all. Crew issues while I ran yachts was always a concern. Finding the right mix of people is the biggest challenge and as the Captain, you don’t want to have a high turnover as it might put a question into the owners mind if you are the problem or the solution. So the Captain’s responses are the right ones to put out there.

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