Yachties have been quiet about the new reality TV show about our industry, Below Deck. They don’t want to think about it, but they do. They don’t want to watch, but they do.
And they especially don’t want to recognize what goes on in the show, but they do admit that much of it is, at least, plausible.
“All that stuff really happens on board, to some extent, but I don’t like it,” said Capt. Randy Steegstra of M/Y Tsalta. “The less the public knows about what I do, the better.”
Personalities clash onboard, romances flourish, crew drink too much, and the toys get played with. But they rarely all happen in the first week.
Take the first episode, for example. A few minutes into the show, the two stews are talking about penises. The cabins are a mess; the deckhand takes five minutes to wash one window.
“It’s already bothering me,” said Bosun Ian Ross, who was watching the premiere with friends in Ft. Lauderdale. “We have cabin inspections twice a week. It’s always super tidy.
“I’d fire those guys,” he said. “I can’t believe any of this is real. … It makes me mad. I want to see it but I don’t want to want to see it.”
“I’d like to show my mom the work I do, but I’d like to edit it first,” said Rachel Axcell, a stew/deck from the UK also watching the premiere.
The big news of the first episode is that the three-day charter is cut short when Kat, the second stew, finds “a white powder” and other evidence of cocaine in a stateroom head. So once the guests are put ashore, the crew feasts on the leftover provisions, at least 10 of them around the aft deck dining table.
For Mike and Claire French, former yacht crew who now own and run International Crew Training in Ft. Lauderdale, that scene was too much.
“The worst part was the crew sitting on the aft deck using the owner’s crockery,” said Mike French, who spent 10 years as a captain on yachts as large as 60m. “Not only does this not go on, but the crew watching were disgusted.”
But crew would have a nice meal with the remaining food, though, right?
“Sure, we would have, but not with the owner’s napkins,” he said with a laugh. “We feasted, but in the crew mess.”
Even on smaller yachts, where the crew might indeed gather on the aft deck because the crew mess is too small or non-existent, no chief stew would allow the crew to use the owner’s china and linens, he said.
The scene of the crew taking the tender ashore for some down time is also plausible. While some yachts don’t allow the crew to use the toys, many do.
“If only charter guests used the toys, they would not be working,” French said. “We’d offer to the crew, ‘who wants to take the jet skis out for an hour?’ The newbies always threw their hands up. Then they’d come back in a half hour and we’d have to tell them, ‘no, no, you have to keep going.’ It gets old pretty quick.”
Sometimes, it’s hard to remember that the characters on TV are real people and not just characters designed to make us nuts.
“I love all the group, except Sam,” said Kristen Cavallini-Soothill, owner of American Yacht Institute in Ft. Lauderdale, a yacht school that specializes in interior training. “She personifies what we’re trying to eradicate in yachting, that arrogant, entitled kid who rolls her eyes and doesn’t take direction. If I was the chief stew, I would have fired her.”
The weekly hour-long show began July 1, and much of the drama in the first few episodes stems from friction between Sam, the third stew with no yachting experience, and Chief Stew Adrienne, whose previous yachting experience was as a chef.
“I’ve never experienced crew like that,” French said. “Adrienne should have fired her from the beginning. It’s a tough business to be in, but the idea of mouthing off to your superiors? Anyone who answered back would have been fired. You can’t let that culture pervade.”
“It’s a really good training tool from both sides,” Cavallini-Soothill said. “I’d like Sam to shape up and I’d like Adrienne to get some confidence.”
Despite the criticisms, each episode is believed to have reached more than 1 million viewers. If that’s the case, perhaps there will be a new crop of Americans looking to find out more about professional yachting.
“I hope it will expose the industry to kids, but I’m worried they’ll take the wrong side,” Cavallini-Soothill said. “I’ve heard kids say ‘I like Sam; what’s with Adrienne?’”
“If we get an onslaught of nutjobs who think this is what yachting is all about, it’s our job to weed them out,” said Ami Ira, owner of Crew Unlimited in Ft. Lauderdale.
The industry needs more American crew, she said, and the bottom line is that the show is giving the industry a huge burst of exposure.
“There’s no way any of our companies can afford the promotion and advertising that this show has afforded us,” she said. “Now we just need to prepare ourselves.”
Crew placement agencies such as Crew Unlimited and schools such as ICT and Maritime Professional Training, also in Ft. Lauderdale, are often the first points of contact with new crew. They more than anyone are expected to benefit from any impact the show may have.
“So what do we focus on?” French said. “Yachting is great fun, but it’s also dangerous, and you’ve got to be trained.”
Lucy Chabot Reed is editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.