There is no denying that Below Deck has been a release for many over the last few years, giving us some much-needed travel inspiration when we couldn’t leave the house – and a helping of good old-fashioned dose of drama.
If you sailed through the original series, and the Mediterranean and Sailing Yacht spin-offs, at an alarming speed to see what boatmance was causing chaos, Kate Chastain’s unique towel art, or which dish got sent back to the galley, you weren’t the only one as most of us can now recite maritime law by memory.
The boat-based reality series now has another bow to add to its many strings, as it has been nominated for two Emmys at this year’s TV awards, taking place this month.
Ahead of the ceremony, producer and show-creator Mark Cronin spoke to Metro.co.uk about all things Below Deck, how Captain Lee ended up on the series, and whether there is anything we don’t get to see on board.
Lifting the lid on just how Below Deck first docked onto our screens in 2013, he revealed that colleague Rebecca Henning first approached him to delve into the world of yachties, selling him on the idea of young people who leave land behind to work on boats, merging luxury clients, incredible locations and high-pressure service.
‘It sounded amazing to me,’ he said of the premise. ‘What other workplace has you living in cramped conditions like that? This was a luxury experience and beautiful destination resorts all over the world.
‘We went down to Fort Lauderdale, which is the capital of yachting in the US, and we just interviewed a bunch of yachties that were walking down the docks. We just pulled them aside [with] a camera, and asked them questions about what their life is like, and the craziest things that have happened to them. The stories they told were unbelievable and we just realised we were onto something there.’
Even with an untapped goldmine of stories, they had to make a pilot for what would eventually become Below Deck, and actually got a former star of the series on the team, with Mark explaining that original chief stewardess Adrienne Gang helped serve as ‘an entrée into the yachting world’.
But, with one hurdle cleared and a cast finally assembled, producers had an even bigger problem on their hands when it came to the boat itself. In fact, while Captain Lee has well and truly become the face of the franchise, and a firm favourite with fans around the world, he wasn’t originally meant to be on the show.
Yes, seriously – Could you imagine the series without the original stud of the sea?
Spilling the beans on how he made his way onto our screens, Mark confessed that Lee actually came with Cuor di Leone, the first boat on the show, but Aleks Taldykin – who fans will know from series one – was meant to be the original focus.
‘Aleks had the right licence for that size boat and we thought that was enough. I thought, “Oh he’s got a licence, that’s good, he can be the captain,’ he said. ‘We’ll get the old guy off and we’ll put the young guy on, and we’re in business.”
‘We got down there and Lee let us know that that was not the way it works in yachting … You need real experience, you need real time on the boat, and usually the way that works is you move up from boson to first mate. Aleks didn’t have any of that, he just had the licence.’
Lee initially suggested that he could captain the boat and just keep Aleks there in front of the cameras, something that wouldn’t realistically work for a reality show about the inner workings of a superyacht, and would cause more confusion.
Eventually, Mark recalled, they just had to ask if Captain Lee wanted to join the series – and then had to win the network around as well, who weren’t quite sold on having an older person front the series.
‘But he did it, he pulled it off, he was fantastic. He is the real captain, that’s really the way he is, that’s really the way he runs his boats,’ he said. ‘It’s almost like a father figure. It gave the kids of crew something to push against. If the captain had been Aleks, the young, single attractive guy, maybe it wouldn’t have been as interesting? It would have been just a bunch of kids running a boat.’
Mark also wanted to clear up speculation of secret cast members behind-the-scenes, after it was claimed that there is a whole crew who put in the hard work, while the yachties on the screen just pretend.
Former stars Hannah Ferrier and Caroline Bedol alleged there were people we don’t normally see on board, but the creator poured ice cold water on their words, insisting that there are no cast members that viewers don’t see – as they make a point of introducing us all to the first mate and first engineer, who are kept around for safety reasons, in the first episode of every series.
Making a fair point, he joked that it would be ‘boring’ for viewers to see the captains buried in paperwork, sorting out docking placements and passport details for every journey that occurs.
The camera crew take huge measures not to get in the way of the action while shooting and usually try to keep out of every shot – with one notable exception being when a member of the camera crew leapt into action to save Ashton Pienaar in the terrifying moment that he had been dragged into the water by the boat lines.
Letting us in on how they manage it, the producer shared: ‘We take over one of the little state rooms, we take the bed out and we build our little control room in there, with screens, some chairs, a couple of tables and some snacks.
‘Every morning we get aboard the boat and sneak into the room, and just stay there. We have another boat that follows the yacht that feeds us, it’s basically a floating galley. It makes lunch for everybody, because you can’t ask the chef of the boat to cook for the TV crew.
‘Sometimes if you’re a cameraman, you’re probably going to be able to jump on a tender and run over to the other boat for lunch, and then go snorkelling.’
Just like the production crew make sure to stay out of the drama themselves, Mark confessed that there may be times they have the odd word with the cast in certain situations, to make sure that things are kept fair, interesting and fun on camera.
However, he vowed that they would never interfere with the way conversations are had or direct them in an inauthentic way, as the cast ‘aren’t puppets’.
‘The captain usually doesn’t know what’s going on because they’re up in the wheelhouse most of the time, so a lot of stuff goes on that they don’t know anything about, and we can’t tell them because that doesn’t make sense that they have God knowledge,’ he insisted. ‘We know what’s going on, we see it on our cameras, we can’t tell the captain what’s going on.
‘But we will say to the captain occasionally, “If someone comes to you and complains about somebody, make sure you get both sides of the story.” That’s the most common thing I will say to a captain, don’t make a snap judgement. If it sounds like you should fire somebody immediately, take one beat and get both sides of the story. I’m saying that mostly because I want, on television, to hear both sides of the story.
‘But we are not in any way telling anybody what to do. We don’t say, “Hey, complain about so and so”. We don’t do that at all. It’s better when you don’t, it’s better when people just give their real, honest opinions, it’s much more interesting than anything I could make up.
‘We want them to know that this is their real lives, there are real consequences to their actions with each other. They’re not puppets to us and we want them to know that. We want them not to feel like we’re telling them what to do or say or how to feel, because then that just becomes fake.’
Most seasons of Below Deck and the spin-offs follow similar strands – there are rows between the crews, the odd boatmance or two, tears, tantrums and someone who really can’t get to grips with their radio. And if you can read that without hearing ‘June, June, Hannah’ ringing in your head, you haven’t watched the series enough.
But Mark confessed that a lot of the romance scenes don’t often make it to air, as there is a lot more sex that is left on the cutting room floor.
‘There is stuff that happens that’s too wild for television, usually sexually,’ he teased. ‘We always actually stop the cameras for a moment and say to both parties who might be about to engage in sexual activity, “Are you both okay with this?”
‘We ask separately, and we make sure that there’s not some bad thing going on from that standpoint. Once we’re satisfied that this is mutually consensual, then we’ll pull out the cameras and off they go.’
While the programme has had largely had the same premise over the years, Mark explained that there was something major that has changed – the attitudes of the cast taking part.
Originally, he claimed they were ‘really trying to hide the truth’ from the camera crew, and just wanted to be seen as people doing their daily jobs. They didn’t want to be seen as people having animosity or falling in love with each other.
‘There was a lot of secrecy, they would try to hide what was happening, and we were trying, sleuth like, to figure out what was really happening,’ he added. ‘In those early seasons there was a lot of sneakiness going on.
‘That has gone away. The people who come on Below Deck now understand what the show is about. They know that the cameras are everywhere and they’re just honest about who they are and what’s going on.
‘It’s not 100% because they text each other, and that’s a problem for us. Usually because they’ll say, “Let’s not talk about this in front of the cameras” or “Let’s work it out separately”. And that’s a shame when they do that because it just gives us less to make the show about.
‘But in general, this problem has really subsided, and people just come on and they just live their lives on the boat, do their jobs, say what they say, and do what they do.’
Thankfully, we have a lot more on the way as Below Deck Sailing Yacht season three has just wrapped in Menorca, with Below Deck Adventure currently filming in Norway, and Below Deck Down Under is well and truly on the way.
With Below Deck Med currently airing, season nine of the original show setting sail next month and Emmy nominations in the bag, we think that’ll just about tide us over. Maybe…
Below Deck is available to stream on hayu now.
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