Kate Lardy finds out how the hit reality TV show about yacht crew drama went from hard sell to selling charters.
Rebecca Taylor Henning was on holiday in St Martin and having dinner with her family when she began eavesdropping on the table of yacht crew next to her, hearing the angst of a stewardess who was falling in love with the mate and deliberating whether to tell the captain.
“It was Below Deck unfolding before my eyes,” says Taylor Henning, who worked on yachts as a second stewardess and mate before making a career in television. Befriending that crew was the impetus she needed to pitch a reality TV show centred around superyacht crew. It was an opportunity that US production company 51 Minds couldn’t pass up. And just like that, the carefully constructed veil of privacy that surrounds superyachts was breached.
Many in the close-knit yachting world were none too happy about it. “When we started making cold calls, we were shut right down,” says Taylor Henning, who was co-executive producer for season one of the show.
“People told me that my little TV show would be the downfall of the multibillion-dollar yachting industry,” says yacht chef Adrienne Gang, who worked with 51 Minds on the sizzle reel that sold the show to American TV network Bravo and appeared on the first season as chief stewardess. “After the show aired, I was terrified to go to the Fort Lauderdale Boat Show. There was such an uproar about it!”
Eight years later, the superyacht industry is still ticking along, as is Below Deck, which raked in 1.13 million viewers in June 2021 when the latest season ofBelow Deck Mediterranean aired. The series has also celebrated the launch of other spin-offs including Below Deck Sailing Yacht which premiered in early 2020, and an Australian and adventure charter series both set to debut and 2022.
Filmed over a period of six weeks, the show brings on a new set of guests every few days. The producers never tell the cast what to say or do, but crew nights out between charters, where alcohol flows copiously, are mandatory. It’s a high-pressure environment bound to unleash the drama that is the backbone of any successful reality show.
How real is this reality? Very, say crew members who’ve been involved with the show. “Anybody who tells you none of those things happen on yachts is lying,” says Gang. “There are always love triangles, insubordination, people getting too drunk, people not doing what they’re supposed to be doing, crazy charter guests – all of those things are real… Just not all on the same boat in the same six-week period.”
Ross Inia had plenty of experience working on charter yachts when he agreed to be part of season six. The New Zealand native had not been home in four years and the show’s filming location in Tahiti was the selling point. “My [thinking] was to go on there, do the job, make some money and go back to New Zealand,” he says.
He found the experience true to life – and a lot of fun. “I’ve been in the industry and what you see on television is happening in real life,” he says, although he acknowledges that personalities clash a bit more on television than they do on boats.
Whereas captains hire crew members who focus on synergy, the show hires an ensemble cast with a wide range of personalities and backgrounds, says Shari Levine, Bravo’s executive vice-president of current production. “Some may be more assertive than others or have a specific way they like to lead or be led, and we see that all play out on the show.”
All of which concerned Kim Vibe-Petersen before his 54-metre Perini Navi Parsifal III became the star of the first season of Below Deck Sailing. “At first, we didn’t want to do it,” he says. “We thought maybe this was the wrong signal to send out to the market and that it could disturb the very good reputation that Parsifal III has.” But persistence won out. “They kept on asking and asking and we came to an agreement.”
He considered changing the yacht’s name for the show, but later changed his mind, acknowledging that name recognition might be good for a charter yacht, even one as successful as Parsifal III. “We were a little nervous that the series would be too extreme, but it turned out to be pretty good. You have to understand it gives a different image to your boat, but, of course, they cannot film all 18 episodes and just have quiet charters. Something has to happen.”
Below Deck Sailing featured Vibe-Petersen’s captain of 13 years, Glenn Shephard, and some of his crew instead of an entire cast of talented actors. Two of the yacht’s guest cabins were converted into studios for the film crew. Shephard says he found the cameras “weird” at first, but got used to them after a couple of days and got on with running the boat just like he would in any other charter season. “It’s not totally like it is in reality,” says Vibe-Petersen. “The crew is jumping around in our Jacuzzi and all over the boat. That part of it is maybe a little overdone.”
Bobby Genovese, owner of 46-metre Feadship BG, says he’d rather not know what goes on. His boat has been on three seasons of Below Deck, but Genovese says he’s never seen an episode, and when someone tries to start a conversation about something that happened on the show, he shuts it down. When 51 Minds approached him with the idea, what convinced him was that filming fell during ski season.
“I don’t use the boat those six weeks. They paid me a million dollars, they fixed the damage that [they caused], my crew got the opportunity to have time off, and it made sense for me.” In the end, “the overall feeling was it was good for the boat, and everybody had an enjoyable experience”. BG, however, had the stage name Valor as Genovese didn’t want his boat associated with the show.
The owner of Ohana (now Rhino), Jim Glidewell, had no such qualms. The 46-metre Admiral Marine appeared under her own name, and the exposure even attracted a buyer. He has nothing but good things to say about the experience. “Bravo has this down to a science. It doesn’t go rough at all. It’s very well done. [TV] Captain Lee handled it great, but I had a first mate and an engineer on board for backup [who were not shown on television].” He’s hoping to repeat the experience with one of his two current superyachts in a future season. “I think if people don’t take that charter money, they’re wrong.”
Glidewell has seen some of the shows and, like Vibe-Petersen, says the charterers are not like his yacht’s typical guests – he calls them “adult spring breakers”. Guests pay to be there like any other charter, says Bravo’s Levine. “How they choose to interact with the crew is up to them, and while some charter guests are wonderful and gracious, some are not.”
Yacht broker Shannon McCoy, of Worth Avenue Yachts, was one of the gracious ones. Invited by her clients, she’s appeared in two episodes. “Even though there are cameras everywhere and you’re being mic’ed, it is very much like a real charter,” she says. “Everybody treats you based on your preference sheets. Nothing is scripted for the guests.”
Her second time on the show, in Tahiti, was her favourite. “The weather was perfect, the group of people we had was great, and we did every water sport and activity that we could that was offered by My Seanna (now Starship). You don’t ever see any of the drama that happens below deck.” So, while the bosun was struggling to communicate with his deck team and the third stewardess was feeling ostracised by the chief and second stews, “we had zero idea”, says McCoy.
Jerry Purcell, a guest with McCoy in Tahiti, says some in their group were bothered by the microphones and cameras, but he quickly forgot about them. “They kind of just go away in the background,” says Purcell, who owns a 21-metre yacht that occasionally charters. He came on the show to see how a large yacht charter unfolds and as a fan.
The franchise seems to have found particular appeal with the charter crowd. “I have a lot of charter clients that watch the show and take it for what it is, and they’ve become big fans – huge,” says Jennifer Saia, president of B&B Yacht Charters.
“Our guests are Below Deck crazy,” says Victoria Allman, chef on a 50-metre motor yacht. “The stews have overheard their comments at the table: ‘Don’t do this, or do it this way; the crew on Below Deck hate it when…’ In a weird way it has helped us,” she says. “One guest even brought their own steamer because the girls on the show hate being stuck in the laundry.”
As a treat for the guests, Allman once orchestrated a surprise visit from Kate Chastain, the chief stewardess who rose to fame over six seasons. “The stories she told about how hard they work during the shoot amazed me. They still have to turn the boat around, do the laundry, provision, etc, as well as sitting for interviews and dodging camera crews,” she says. “There is no ‘extra’ stew making sure all the grunt work gets done while the stars are being filmed. If I work 16 hours a day, they must be doing so much more than that. We as a crew should have a lot more respect for how hard they are working.”
There is still some stigma around the show, but the tide is turning. “It has become a talking point for people in the industry instead of ‘We don’t want to acknowledge it exists,’” says Gang.
It helps that the show has enticed new charterers instead of turning them off. “I know it has had a good effect on the charter market,” says McCoy. “I personally have booked charters from being on the show.”
It has also attracted new crew. “There’s definitely been an uptick in crew applications. It has brought more American crew into yachting; some are doing very well,” says Joanne Damgaard, crew placement agent at Bluewater.
The prevailing sentiment in the early years was that anyone who appeared on the show would never work in yachting again. Thankfully that has been proven wrong, with many cast members returning to charter work. Gang says there may have been a handful of yachts that turned her down because they recognised her from the show, but she’s had no trouble finding work among her extensive network. And speaking to BOAT International from his job as mate on a 35 metre, Inia says his Below Deck stint hasn’t affected his career at all.
So, while some in the industry – like the captain of a superyacht who binge-watched the entire franchise during Covid-19 lockdown – will never accept the show as a representation of yachting, that might be beside the point. “It’s supposed to be entertainment, take your mind off the trials and tribulations of your day and show you some place maybe you haven’t been before,” says Captain Lee, the show’s most famous face.“It’s also brought awareness to a lot of people who have money and never knew you could charter a yacht like that. It’s a whole new world for them.”