Below Deck - The Reality Show vs The Reality
We go below deck on the hit super-yacht reality TV series and speak to someone with first-hand experience of working on a luxury liner...
With over 20 seasons and four unique spin-offs, the reality show Below Deck has proved a global hit for the Bravo TV network.
The series follows the exploits and adventures of workers on luxury yacht liners and the super-rich (often super-entitled) guests upon whom they attend.
Its behind-the-curtain reveal of the lifestyles of the rich and the famous tapped in to a genre that has gained increasingly in popularity recently through other reality shows such as Keeping up with the Kardashians as well as through more satirical takes on the topic such as the drama series Succession.
As with KUWTK, Below Deck's real strength lies in combining this voyeuristic insight into luxury living with a docudrama-style coverage of the lives, loves and (inevitable) confrontations of the people working on board.
The official trailer for Season 7 of Below Deck.
The show has made stars of its main characters such as Captain Lee Rosbach and Chief Stewardess Kate Chastain, but how much of what the show portrays can be regarded as an accurate depiction of life working in the luxury cruise industry?
As a hospitality school with many students who go on to work in travel and tourism, we decided to try and get a better first hand-insight... So, who better to speak with than someone with seven years of living and working on luxury yachts.
Back in 2013, Lily Boner was completing her apprenticeship in a restaurant and trying to figure out what to do next with her life when she had a chance encounter with a customer that set her on course for a career at sea.
The Scottish lady she was serving mentioned that she had just finished working in the yacht industry and, after hearing about the lifestyle, Lily was inspired to give it a go herself.
A year later, and now located in the South of France, Lily landed her first job through a combination of her hospitality background and a lot of networking (or dock-walking as she explains it - literally, walking the docks and handing out CVs).
The first difference she notes between what is shown on the TV series and the reality of getting started on boats, is the need for various trainings and certifications.
"First, I had to do some courses," she explains.
"One, which I did in Florida, was called the STCW and covers basic safety and things like firefighting which are obviously important if you want to work on yachts."
As well as the training preparation, there are also certain checks that need to be made before someone can set out to sea as a worker.
"I had to do something called the ENG1 medical check," Lily explains.
"This checks for things like whether someone is colour blind or how their hearing is and is obviously important for anyone who might be navigating on a boat but is still necessary for other crew on board as well."
Very much like taking an internship at a boutique Swiss hotel, Lily spent her first year working on a smaller boat where she was expected to be very hands on and help out in lots of different areas.
She later moved on to bigger boats with a more hierarchical staffing structure, starting off in Stewardess positions before moving up to a Second Stewardess role.
One common misconception of working on yachts that she points to, is that most of the time is spent sailing out at sea.
"The longest single spell at sea I ever did was maybe 10-14 days on an Atlantic crossing," she says.
"But actually only about 10% of your working time is spent out at sea, you are mostly at the mariners preparing the boats between one set of guests and another."
Life on the great blue sea.
One of the key elements of the Below Deck series is the camaraderie (or lack of it) between the crew members on board.
As with any work environment, interpersonal skills and communication abilities can prove crucial to the smooth and harmonious running of the day-to-day operations.
"If you are on an 80 metre yacht, you might have 20-30 crew," explains Lily.
"With that amount of people, there are probably going to be some that you don't like or you don't get along with as well.
"But I have to say, on my longest time on a yacht, which was 18 months, I had an amazing crew.
"We went out together, we did weekend trips together, it was very much like a family - but obviously it can't always be 100% like that unfortunately," she laughs.
These inter-crew disagreements and fall outs clearly seem exaggerated on Below Deck, where certain crew (or perhaps more accurately "characters") are introduced with the sole purpose of creating drama and discord.
However, one similarity that does exist between the show and Lily's experience of working on boats is the chain of command.
Sitting at the top of the tree is the Captain who carries the overall responsibility for the safe and successful running of the ship.
Below the Captain are the Chef Officer, responsible for the technical running of the boat, and the Chief Steward or Stewardess, who manages the hospitality and guest relations.
Under these two managerial positions can sit a large number (depending on the size of the vessel) of Second Officers, Officers, Second Stewards and Stewardesses who are assigned various daily tasks by their line manager all aimed at keeping the boat afloat and the guests happy.
It takes a team effort to run a super yacht.
Like other work environments, disputes or issues between crew members are the responsibility of their superiors to try and resolve.
But, as Lily recalls, you did not want to end up in front of the Captain...
"That's really the very last thing you want," she says.
"If someone has a problem they would come to me as a Second Stewardess first and then, if I can't work it out, it would get passed upwards to the Chief Officer or Chief Stewardess but, luckily, I never really experienced anything that needed to go that far."
A lot of the disputes that we see on the show are as a result of the party lifestyles led by the crew members, often resulting in wild behaviour and regrettable decisions. This is an aspect of the working experience that Lily feels is definitely exaggerated from the reality.
"One example that springs to mind, and I can't remember exactly what season it was on," she says.
"A member of the crew took some random girls on to the boat to have a party with the crew.
"That never happens - there is no way you are taking any party that is not an official one for the guests back onto the boat."
Another potential HR disaster witnessed on the show was when one of the Chief Stewardesses got into a relationship with one of the yacht's guests.
Again, this is something that doesn't ring true from Lily's time on boats.
"I've heard of it happening back in the day but never actually witnessed it," she explains.
"Nowadays, it is much more regulated and would probably be a sackable offence were it to occur.
"Especially, if it was a Chief Stewardess who is meant to be responsible for making sure that sort of thing doesn't happen!"
Boat parties on the show can get wild.
While Lily recognises there is definitely a party culture among yacht crews in real life (unsurprisingly, given that a lot of them are young people experiencing travel and work for the first time) she explains that demands of the job mean you can't let this get out of hand.
"We are on stand by most of the time," she says.
"A lot of it is waiting for the guests to say - ok we're coming now - and, in that situation, you have to be ready and responsive and that doesn't work if you haven't slept or are too hungover."
Watching the show, it appears that there are a constant stream of guests. As soon as one group disembarks, the next set appear on board.
For Lily, this would not be sustainable in real life for either the crew or the guests.
"We would usually have at least three days to one week to turn the boat over and prepare it for the next set of guests," she explains.
"As a guest you want to come on board and see a ship that's clean and well prepared - that can't realistically happen in just a day."
Asked to speculate why the show might go for such quick turnovers, Lily points to the fact that, with a limited filming period, more guests means more content for the show.
With different characters introduced each time a new set of guests appears, the producers can set up various storylines and plot twists to keep the viewer engaged.
But perhaps the most fundamental issue Lily has with the show's concept is that, in reality, it would simply not exist.
"None of our guests would ever let a camera crew on board," she laughs.
"You book a yacht experience so that you can enjoy a bit of a luxury, but also a lot of privacy. The types of guests that I dealt with during my career would never want their holidays to be televised for the entertainment of others."
From her industry contacts, Lily has heard that the guests that appear on the show pay significantly less than a regular guest would and this, alongside a desire for some form of fame, would seem to be their motivation for allowing such public access to their holiday.
Working in paradise.
So, while Lily would rate the show's basis in reality at "about 50%", she has nothing but fond memories of the actual experience of working on yachts.
"You get to travel all over the world with amazing people from all over the world," she says.
"It's also a fantastic way to save money as you don't really have many expenses while working.
"I would definitely recommend it as a career path for anyone with an interest in travel and who is prepared to work hard. The reward is some unforgettable experiences that will stay with you a lifetime!"
A career on the high seas is not one that would suit everyone but, from Lily's fond memories, it seems a great way to combine some incredible travel experiences with a solid training in luxury hospitality.
For our young hospitality and tourism graduates, it could prove a great first step into exciting industry careers... just make sure there are no camera crews on board! 😄 😃
Find out more about IMI's hotel and tourism management degree here or contact us below.