In the summer of 2011, eight tanned and smiling twentysomething cast members boarded the superyacht Honor for a six-week charter around the Caribbean. Accompanied by Captain Lee Rosbach and a camera crew, the cast welcomed uber-rich guests for day trips around the scenic islands, while rushing to cater to the guests’ every whim, forging on-board romances and descending into drunken feuds. The results were aired in July 2013, on US network Bravo, as the reality series Below Deck. Seven years and seven seasons later – plus two spinoffs – the series has reached British shores, where it has proved a hit on Hayu and Netflix.
Combining the lives of the wealthy and the fame-hungry with a low-budget immediacy that gives early seasons the feel of having been filmed in the early 2000s, rather than the early 2010s, Below Deck has become the surprising reality success of lockdown.
Rosbach isn’t surprised by this second wind. “It’s Downton Abbey on the water,” he says of the show’s appeal. “A lot of people thought this would be the death of the yachting industry, but that hasn’t happened . I’ve had very little backlash.”
Initially tasked with delivering the first season’s yacht to the port where it was then to be captained by another cast member, Rosbach soon found himself onscreen after the original captain dropped out. “I didn’t know what to expect, since all of my experience had just been on large charter boats,” he says. “But other than the cameras, it really didn’t differ from a normal charter: I’m the captain, I have my crew. We just happened to be getting filmed while we were doing it. There were no scripts involved, we just did what the guests wanted.”
Season one’s chief steward, Adrienne Gang, had been in the yachting industry for eight years as a chef when she was approached to take part in the early stages of the show’s development. “I thought it would be interesting to get involved as there are always fascinating people on board and conflict among the crew,” she says. Yet, as the cameras started to roll, her experience swiftly changed. “It was a certified nightmare. The production team didn’t really know what they were doing and I had never worked in TV before, either. It was a giant clusterfuck: they didn’t have a big enough camera crew in the first season to capture everything that happened, and they couldn’t really get the guests to relax.”
Those guests included a photographer – Johnny Eyelash – and his entourage being kicked off the boat after the discovery of a “mystery white powder” in a guest bathroom, as well as drunken bachelors and a rowdy girls’ trip. “There were absolutely no free trips, all the guests were paying a somewhat discounted rate,” Gang says. “I’m perpetually flabbergasted that they acted the way that they did knowing there were cameras around. Some of them really were that crazy.”
Rosbach recounts one group with particular horror. “The least favourite guests I had were an extremely dysfunctional family in season one,” he says. “It was a mother and a father who were no longer married and brought their respective new husbands and wives with them, along with their daughter. Both of the parents were vegans and were trying to coerce the daughter into becoming vegan, too, and one morning a huge family row erupted over her having an egg for breakfast. It all went downhill from there.”
While Below Deck makes for entertaining, throwaway television, the experience has had longer lasting consequences for the cast. “I was more personally invested in the outcome than the rest of the crew who had just signed on a couple weeks beforehand,” Gang says. “I wanted to make sure that the first representation my friends and family saw of my career on television wasn’t a drunken monkey show. That made me more stressed out than anybody else and that definitely comes across.”
Characterised as the stern, unfriendly boss of the yacht’s interior crew, Gang’s one-season appearance is memorable for how universally disliked she is by her fellow cast members. “It was the most stressful situation I’ve ever been in. I don’t feel like I was supported,” she says. “[The producers] knew from the beginning that they wanted to make me the bitch everybody loved to hate. They did some really tricky, manipulative things to make sure that there was opposition, like amping us up on purpose before we would go into our one-on-one interviews by saying: ‘Oh, you would not believe what Kat said about you,’ and she had never said it.”
For chef Ben Robinson, who applied to be on the show on a whim while drunk, the experience was fraught, but perhaps more enjoyable. “I’d never watched reality TV, so I didn’t understand the process,” he says. “It was definitely stressful. Apparently, I didn’t talk very much for the first couple of weeks. Most charter guests get on the boat and they love the crew, but some of these numbskulls come on as our enemy because they realise that it’s a good storyline that will give them more screen time.”
Memorable for his stiff, Gary Rhodes-referencing hair and chipper presence in the yacht galley, often playing up to his British heritage by calling everyone onboard “luv”, Robinson epitomises the lighter side of the show. “There were drunken moments when I probably didn’t say or do the right thing,” he says with a signature cackle. “Drinking during a reality TV show isn’t the best decision, but it also provides a nice outlet. I try not to live in regret, but I did take my pants down once with my brother and we walked along the dock together. Thank God, I’ve got probably one of the nicest asses in the free world.”
While Rosbach says he experienced few repercussions from being on the show, the captain on the spinoff series Below Deck Mediterranean, Sandy Yawn, had a rather more mixed reaction. “After my first season, I wasn’t sure if I would do the show again because it was so stressful,” she says. “People in my industry were judging me for doing it. As a female captain, you’re pretty popular and I used to do a lot of public speaking on women in yachting, but after the show I wasn’t really invited to speak any more.”
Yawn believes the industry has since changed its attitude and she now sees it as a positive for yachting by advertising it to attract talent and for showing owners the work of their staff. “I can no longer walk through an airport in peace. I get stopped constantly,” she says. “The money is not even close to what I made as a superyacht captain, but I’m helping people to realise that there are jobs out there and it fuels me to go back for another season. I feel like God gave me a platform for a reason and I get thousands of messages on how I help people. I’m an inspiration.” She has also since been invited to speak publicly again.
“The maritime industry loves to hate the show, but they still watch it,” Robinson says. “It’s done wonders for the charter business because it has put it on people’s radars. It’s been this unveiling of the secret society on the water.” Business is currently booming. Robinson still works as a private chef, while Gang has seen her career continue steadily, despite her experiences on the show.
“I feel like I didn’t get the chance to bond with most of my crew because a lot of them knew I had something to do with putting the show together, so that created division,” she says. “Still, once the show came out, I realised that it wasn’t that bad. It never really affected my career. There are people who are negative, but I still work. In fact, I’m jumping on another boat for a month to go and chef now.”
“In terms of the cast, you get a feel for people who are looking to further their career in the industry or if they have a separate agenda,” Rosbach says. “Usually the ones who have a separate agenda don’t fare too well. But I’m going to stay on the show for as long as they will have me.”
With an eighth season of Below Deck slated for release, as well as a sixth season of Below Deck Mediterranean and a potential second season of Below Deck Sailing Yacht, the franchise shows no signs of slowing down.
“It would cost you about a quarter of a million bucks to even step foot on that boat and watching it is basically free,” Robinson says. “It is the ultimate reality show.”
Below Deck is streaming on Hayu and Netflix. Season 8 begins on Hayu on 3 November