By Lucy Chabot Reed
Yacht crew finally have their own reality show. Well, sort of.
Considering “reality” as a genre of television shows, Bravo TV’s “Below Deck” does indeed follow the crew of a 164-foot (50m) megayacht for five unscripted weeks of charters.
But if we use the dictionary definition of the word reality, “Below Deck” might be a stretch. Sure, in general, crew argue, captains can be tough, stews cry. But a lot of what we’ll see on TV beginning July 1 likely would never happen on a 50m charter yacht.
“They pretty much acted like crew I would have fired,” said Capt. Lee Rosbach, the real-life captain of M/Y Cuor di Leone, the yacht that was used as the set for “Below Deck” and known as M/Y Honor on TV.
Though not profiled on Bravo’s Web site, Capt. Rosbach, the yacht’s real first officer and the yacht’s real engineer remained on board to safely operate the vessel. They do appear in the shows, however, Rosbach being that tough guy with the gray hair.
The show is the brain child of Rebecca Taylor, the show’s co-executive producer who spent three summers working on yachts in New England during college. After getting her degree in film and television, she still carried around the idea to show what life as a yacht crew member was like. She pitched the idea to Bravo, which took it on.
“This life is fascinating,” she said. “There are both professionally run boats, and I worked on them, but I was around enough boats to know that there’s another side. There’s a mix of professional crew and young, transient people. … It’s a really interesting subculture and when you learn about it, you wonder, ‘how does everybody not do this?’”
And though others had similar ideas, Taylor had connections from her time working on yachts. Working with producers, she contacted charter agencies to find a yacht and charter guests who were willing to be filmed.
Then they booked a five-week Caribbean charter on M/Y Cuor di Leone, renamed it M/Y Honor, and gave the real crew (except the captain, mate and engineer) time off.
The eight hired crew came on for the charter and when it was over, the real crew returned and finished the season.
Captains, crew and industry people are already critical of the show, after having only seen the trailer. But there’s enough in there to give them pause including tears, a mean captain, and drama. Of course, all that really does happen in yachting, so who’s to say it won’t be an authentic portrayal?
When critics wonder how the crew could do it, why they sold themselves out, I ask them, what would you do? If you are the captain of a 50m charter yacht and someone books a million-dollar charter, what do you do?
Seriously, what do you do? Do you decline the charter? I suppose you could. But that won’t kill the show; they’ll just go someplace else? What if the boss has already accepted the charter? Do you talk him out of it? Five weeks?
Do you quit in protest? That won’t stop the show either, as your position likely will be filled by day’s end and the show will go on regardless.
Rosbach did his job. Bravo was his charter client and he went out of his way to make everything work, as a good charter captain should, Taylor said.
“He didn’t say no,” she said. “He tried hard to say yes to everything to make it all happen.”
I would guess that most charter captains would do the same. They might not like it, but they would do their jobs. Rosbach set a few ground rules (chief among them that his first officer and engineer remain onboard) and played along as best he could with an impromptu crew that really didn’t have the experience to be successful.
“The producers of the show wanted to show the long hours and the stress of yachting, but most of that was caused by the crew being inept,” Rosbach said. “On a 50m charter boat, they were all way over their heads. A couple of them tried really hard and they might have made good entry-level crew. I’m worried people will think this is what happens on a 50m charter yacht.
“But it’s TV,” he said. “You can put as much lipstick on it as you want and you can call it a reality show, but it’s entertainment. It’s not made in a documentary fashion to reflect what it’s really like. Why everyone takes it so seriously is beyond me.”
Taylor said she wanted the show to be as authentic as possible, and that includes the good, the bad and the ugly.
“People on big boats might look at this and say ‘who are these kids? They don’t have enough experience to be on this boat’,” she said. “But that fish-out-of-water element was massively important to me. It’s the middle of summer with guests on board and you’re working all the time. Sometimes, you don’t have time to hire who you want and you get a newbie who’s in over her head. It does happen.”
Well, that part is true
“Below Deck” follows a group of crew members living and working aboard M/Y Honor, the TV name for M/Y Cuor di Leone. Here’s what Bravo says about the show.
“The upstairs and downstairs worlds collide when this young and single crew, known as ‘yachties,’ live, love and work together on-board the luxurious, privately owned yacht while tending to the ever-changing needs of their wealthy, demanding charter guests.”
Well, that much is true.
“While each crew member brings a different level of experience, they all share a love for this lifestyle that enables them to travel to some of the most beautiful and exotic locales in the world.”
Not sure about that bit about “a love for this lifestyle.” Most of them don’t know what this lifestyle is. Three of the eight cast members have worked on yachts before, though: Chief Stew Adrienne Gang, Chef Ben Robinson and Stew Kat Held. Where, when and how long is unclear.
The show couldn’t have happened with the “real” crew because of all the logistics involved in the show. All the crew had to be American so there would be no visa issues with being paid by Bravo, and they all had to be screened and checked.
“The original crew was perfect, but in the television world, there’s all kinds of reasons you can’t do that,” Taylor said. “It’s almost impossible to find a real functioning crew and step on with cameras and say go. Just because you have the perfect crew doesn’t mean you don’t have a convicted felon or someone with anger issues who’s going to punch the cameraman. All that matters to us in TV.”
Choosing the yacht was challenging, too. It needed to be big enough to handle not only the crew (11 in this case) and charter guests, but also about 15 camera, light and sound crew during shooting. The TV people slept aboard another vessel as the charter cruised around Anguilla, St. Barts, St. Maarten, and Saba, Rosbach said.
The charter guests were real charterers who knew what they were getting into and agreed to be filmed.
“Some of them were fun; all of them were entertaining,” Rosbach said.
Eleven cameras caught all the action on the yacht, six stationary cameras set up in various parts of the vessel, including the crew quarters, and five hand-held cameras following crew.
“In some ways, they’re showing basic human nature, which is not necessarily indicative of yacht crew,” Rosbach said. “You are going to have that dynamic when you put any 12 people together to work and live.
“And you do forget the cameras are on,” he said. “It’ll be interesting to see what comes out. They can portray you any way they want.”
Some yachties are already worried.
“I don’t want guys looking to buy a boat watch this and go, ‘sheesh, is this what I’ve got to deal with? Forget that,’” said Capt. Moe Moses, who was running a yacht in St. Maarten while filming was going on. “Anyone who knows better knows it’s nonsense. I just hope negative things don’t come out of it.”
He was bothered by some of the behavior he saw in the islands during shooting, including the crew zipping around Simpson Bay in the tender, shirtless.
“It just infuriated a lot of us down there,” Moses said. “It’s going to make us look like a bunch of meatballs.”
When filming spilled over to Toppers to catch the crew drinking, Moses and his crew left the bar.
“I didn’t want to be seen in the background,” he said. “Sure [drinking] happens, but when charter guests are on the boat, crew are not at the bar getting drunk. It doesn’t happen. This is not reality.”
Nor is it really meant to be. It is television, after all.
“I didn’t get a sense that they were out to make yachting look bad,” Rosbach said. “It was TV for entertainment purposes. It was like a soap opera.”
“I worked on yachts for three years; I know exactly what happens on yachts,” Taylor said. “We wanted the show to be the most authentic it could be. The negative reaction is that we’re going to expose that unprofessional side of yachting. Hopefully that’s not the case, but if it is, it’s still authentic. That does happen in yachting.”
An authentic show might include hours of ironing and changing oil filters, but that wouldn’t make interesting television. At the end of the day, Taylor said she was trying to show the two worlds yacht crew live: the life above deck that is composed and professional, and a completely different world two stories below.
“TV is TV,” Rosbach said. “The ‘reality’ in reality TV is a relative term and should be loosely interpreted.”
But no one has watched the show yet, not even Taylor. She has the episodes; she just hasn’t sat down to watch them.
“It’s like giving your kid up for adoption,” she said. “You get pictures but you can’t say anything now about what he’s wearing or how his hair is cut. It’s not your child anymore.”
A charter to remember
For Rosbach, it was a memorable charter. He learned a lot about how television works, and found another industry where money is often no object.
After the second episode, an executive from Bravo came to see the set. Then the budget increased. The set designer built a golf green. They added a remote helicopter with cameras and hired drone guys to fly them.
“I though we spent a lot of money on yachts,” he said. “They rival that. But it was interesting to see the whole process and how intricate and complicated it is. It was an experience and 90 percent of it was good. The camera/sound guys are great. I really enjoyed the crew.
“Anybody who thinks that this really is going to have an impact on the yachting industry is overreacting,” he said. “I have a hard time believing billionaires sit around watching Bravo reality TV.”
Taylor, too, wants yachties to give the show a chance.
“The most important thing for yachties to understand is that the show came from a really good, authentic place,” she said. “I want this to be a proper telling of what really happens. That said, you know it’s a television show.
“I want yachties to give it a chance and appreciate it for what it is.”
I was skeptical when I heard about the show, but after talking to Rosbach and Taylor, I feel a little better.
Hopefully, some fresh-faced kids in middle America will see the show and be introduced to the yachting industry. If that happens, it’ll all be worth it, the good, the bad and the ugly.
Click this link for promo video for ‘Below Deck’.
Lucy Chabot Reed is editor of The Triton. Comments on this column are welcome below.