It was supposed to be a simple delivery job from Fort Lauderdale to St Maarten. But when the first captain lined up to take the helm of Bravo’s hit new series dropped out, it was captain Lee Rosbach who became the unlikely star. Holly Overton catches up with Below Deck’s beloved captain…
Captain Lee or ‘Stud of the Sea’, as he’s known among fans, is the frontman of superyacht reality series Below Deck. Famed for his no-nonsense attitude and sharp one-liners, Captain Lee is the longest-serving captain on the show and has been a staple cast member since the first season began filming in 2011. But it was only by complete accident that he first landed the role.
“I didn’t apply for the job. I didn't even audition,” Captain Lee explains. At the time, he was the captain of the 50 metre Benetti motor yacht Cuor di Lione when he received a phone call from the owner. “He said there’s a TV network that wants to charter the boat for eight weeks (…) they've got their own captain and crew and all you need to do is drop the boat off in St. Maarten.”
But when Captain Lee arrived in St. Maarten, the captain Bravo had originally lined up to front the first series had pulled at the last minute. “Somebody said, ’why don't we use the old guy’,” Captain Lee explains. As a result, he was slingshotted into the spotlight – and almost a decade later he’s still at the helm. “We didn't know whether the show was going to be a hit or be a one and done. We had no clue. But after that first season it just took off like a rocket.”
Below Deck follows the lives of a yacht crew over an intense eight-week charter season. Captain Lee himself once described it as “Downton Abbey on the water” for the way it lays bare the upstairs-downstairs culture of yachting. The series’ winning formula of badly behaved guests, crew love triangles and Verve Cliquot-fuelled feuds has continued to pull in millions of views, transforming it into one of Bravo’s flagship shows. Despite his newfound fame, Captain Lee is reluctant to call himself a celebrity. “I'm just a captain doing his job,” he says. “I run the boat the way I've always run a boat. I just happened to have cameras that follow me around watching me while I do it.”
Of course, this wasn’t captain Lee’s first gig. “I'd been a captain for 25 years at that point,” he explains. “Like everybody else I started out with smaller boats 70- or 80-footers, then gradually you work your way up as you increase the scope of your license and eventually, I got into superyachts.” Over his career, he’s built up a hefty portfolio of yachts, including the 46 metre Burger flagship Sycara IV (now Nadan) and the 50 metre Cuor di Leone (now Barents), which was chartered for season one under the pseudonym Honor.
While most reality TV series have scenes that are manufactured or re-shot in the name of entertainment, Below Deck is completely unscripted with cameras rolling 24/7. The yacht is rigged with cameras with up to 15 additional camera, light and sound crew on board at any one time – including the show’s producers who eavesdrop from one of the cabins on board. Bravo has to charter a second boat to accommodate them all. The team ends up filming some 45,000 hours of film which gets condensed into around 15 forty-minute episodes in post-production per season.
As a veteran captain, Captain Lee is no stranger to onboard drama. But the guests in front of a camera and it's a whole different ball game. “When the cameras start rolling, it’s like someone flips a switch,” says Captain Lee. Crazy guest requests are not uncommon in yachting; from sundeck foam parties to phallic cakes nothing is off limits. “It always seems to revolve around food, for some reason,” says Captain Lee. He recalls a time an owner demanded a particular suckling pig be flown into Baltimore from New Zealand for New Year’s Eve with just four days’ notice. “By the time you calculate the bills of lading and air freight, and of course we had to grease customs a little, it was probably a $10,000 pig.”
Despite the perks and pitfalls of fronting Below Deck, Captain Lee insists it’s a great opportunity for budding crew looking to take their first steps into the yachting industry. “There are a lot of perks that go along with it,” he says. “The money is pretty good and almost all of it is disposable income.” It’s true – everything is paid for when you’re on board from your socks down to your toothbrush. “That's the best way to go boating I think,” he laughs, “on somebody else's boat.”