Below Deck's captain Lee Rosbach
Below Deck Mediterranean
Below Deck Down Under's Tumi Mhlongo
Below Deck Sailing Yacht
Since 2013, Below Deck has been inviting viewers to climb aboard luxury superyachts with the young crews that live, work and let loose on them, as well as the guests they serve. But the series, now launching its tenth season, has given rise to a robust Bravo and Peacock franchise — five shows, with twenty-two seasons and counting.
Below Deck, Below Deck Mediterranean, Below Deck Sailing Yacht, Below Deck Down Under and Below Deck Adventure each have their own flavor, but the hard work and play of the young "yachties" are at the center of the drama — and that drama comes in many forms. Cliffhangers range from interpersonal showdowns, hookups and leadership fails to potentially disastrous yacht mishaps, like a defective stabilizer or a dragging anchor.
The unscripted upstairs/downstairs look at life on the high seas is a home-workplace-travel-cooking-lifestyle-docusoap all on one boat. And if a guest asks, it's also a talent show.
"The magic of Below Deck is there's something relatable for everyone," says Noah Samton, senior vice-president of current production, entertainment content, at NBCUniversal Television and Streaming. "You have the hard-working, young, attractive crew — who genuinely work in the industry and are doing a real job. And then with these wealthy guests and this extravagant backdrop of mega-yachts and beautiful locations, you also have the aspirational, luxurious element that makes The Real Housewives franchise so appealing."
There's obvious allure to the notion of being young and unmoored from responsibility in a gorgeous place with other gorgeous twentysomethings, and popular crewmembers gain a bit of celebrity — they may even land on Bravo's Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen. But there's also fun to be had in cringing over the worst crew leaders and most abusive charter guests.
"All of us have bosses and coworkers that drive us crazy, and it's an amazing opportunity to see the camaraderie as the yachties vent and talk smack about these big dogs they're waiting on," says Courtland Cox, executive producer of Below Deck and Below Deck Sailing Yacht.
When Below Deck coexecutive producer and former steward Rebecca Taylor Henning first mentioned the idea, Cox knew it had sea legs, and he was right.
Of course, that doesn't mean hitting the water was — or is — easy! While Christian Sarabia, president of production company 51 Minds Entertainment, insists he can't share the "secret sauce" his team has perfected over the seasons, let's consider some of the key ingredients....
Each Below Deck season entails a host of logistics, starting with securing a luxury yacht and ateam of yachties who will work under one of the captains: Below Deck's Lee Rosbach, Med's Sandy Yawn, Sailing's Glenn Shephard, Down Under's Jason Chambers or Adventure's Kerry Titheradge.
As on any yacht, the captain has final decision on the crew. If there's been a good fit or story in previous seasons, familiar faces return in key positions like chief steward and bosun (aka deck boss). For the junior stewards and deckhands, producers like to bring in fresh energy — but that doesn't mean unqualified candidates are invited just to create drama.
"This is not a fake reality," Sarabia explains. "These are real, high-stakes jobs with a real captain and real guests on a massive boat. They're dealing with their own safety and guests' safety, and there's no escaping. It's a pressure cooker!"
That pressure is often stoked by the chefs, whose artistic temperaments and big personalities yield gorgeous, over-the-top meals — with a side of tension. While captains maintain order, chefs can be a wild card.
"Food is one of the biggest parts of the guest experience," Cox points out. "If chefs go rogue in the middle of a charter, the captain's in trouble. They are the central hub, so finding the right chef is paramount to every dynamic on the yacht."
Meanwhile, the yachties stay focused on their heavy workloads and scuttlebutt over who's not pulling their weight and who's eyeing whom; they seem to completely forget cameras are on them twenty-four/seven.
"Sitting in the control room, I am constantly shocked at the crazy things that happen," marvels Cox, who spends twelve-hour days in front of live feeds in a dark room deep below the actual deck. "It's like I'm watching a compelling soap opera. It's serious and dramatic, but also lighthearted and funny. We really lean into the ridiculous, absurd little moments."
With a strict rule against breaking the fourth wall or interfering with yacht business, the franchise keeps its series as real as possible — in every way but one.
"Historically, yachties tended to be a very homogenous, mostly white, cisgendered, heterosexual group," Cox says. "From the get-go, this was an exciting opportunity to hopefully change what the yachting landscape looked like by having representation. After seeing female captains, people of color and LGBTQ+ people working on these boats, people who might never think of yachting as a career might think differently."
As for the wealthy guests — who are often booked through charter brokers and receive discounts on fares that start at $230,000 a week — they are often caught going overboard, literally and figuratively. Surprisingly, they rarely complain.
"A small handful seem upset by what they see [in the show]," Cox says. "But they go away with their tails between their legs, because they know we haven't manipulated anything."
While the yachts are equipped with surveillance cameras, much of what it takes to create the show is hidden from viewers. That includes production crew in three locations: on the yacht, on a separate follow boat with its own crew, and on shore in a hotel that serves as production's sleeping quarters and base of operations.
In addition to procuring these facilities, production must adhere to shifting maritime laws, acquire certifications and visas and, lately, deal with Covid protocols. Beyond that, there are countless daily tasks — like preparing and serving sixty-five-plus production meals a day for two ten-hour shifts.
"When a camera operator on the yacht gets their lunch break, they set down their gear, get on a tiny dinghy and have forty-five minutes of bliss on the follow boat," Cox explains. "But those of us in the control room never leave. For six weeks, breakfast, lunch and usually dinner are brought to me in cardboard boxes that have been ferried over, so often they've been flipped or spilled. Very glamorous."
Then, of course, there's the challenge of actually shooting the series, which takes place on metal vessels that dock in busy marinas (full of radio interference) and become moving location shoots. Instead of commuting to set in rush-hour traffic, Below Deck crews might spend an hour on a water taxi. Sometimes, nature plays a hand in the middle of the night and the yacht is not where it's supposed to be.
Once the camera operators, sound personnel, director and full team are aboard, it's all about getting the shot — without getting in the shot. "We usually have around seventeen production bodies, and there's not a lot of places to hide on a moving boat," Cox says.
"Season one was a huge learning curve for us, and we're always figuring out how to overcome little challenges that have existed since the beginning," he continues. "To shoot five minutes of great content on Below Deck, it takes fifteen people figuring out 135 different problems in the moment!"
For Shed Media, which produces Below Deck Adventure, that first-season learning curve is a bit fresher, but Bravo team members shared all the tips and tricks learned so far. "It was lots of late-night calls — and more than one tear was shed — but the show turned out really well," Samton says of Adventure, which debuted November 1.
Below Deck may be one of the toughest gigs in the business, but Cox is not looking to trade his tiny stateroom for a standard production booth.
"It would be easy for me to be jaded, but I love this show," he says. "Sitting in that control room, watching what's happening, is my favorite part. The level of complication is insane on Below Deck. But when people watch, they don't realize how difficult it is. That's a great testament."
All Below Deck series air on Bravo and stream on Peacock. Season ten of the flagship series, Below Deck, premieres November 21 and the others return next year.
Chart Your Course
No matter which Below Deck you're watching, expect consistency in the way the franchise mixes multicamera and surveillance footage to build story, and in how it sets the tone with sexy establishing shots of anchors rising, wakes bubbling and crewmembers at work, sleep and play. With iterations in production year-round, executive producer Courtland Cox reveals what makes each show unique.
Below Deck (2013–)
"In the winter, boats charter in the Caribbean because it's not hurricane season. We're shooting the British Virgin Islands and the Bahamas — glamorous, amazing places. But it's casual, with themed parties and dancing around on the swim platform in goofy costumes."
Below Deck Mediterranean (2016–)
"In the summer, the big boats go to Cannes, Nice and the Amalfi Coast, and it's a luxurious, more refined experience. It's about having a beautiful, seated lunch while looking out at the cliffs of Sorrento — or if you're in Cannes, at the forty-five other giant yachts around you."
Below Deck Sailing Yacht (2020–)
"These guests don't want to just sit around and drink cocktails. They want to be heeled [tipped] over twenty-five degrees, with the wind in their hair. There's something magical about being on a 180-foot luxury yacht in the middle of the ocean and being propelled by nothing but the wind."
Below Deck Down Under (2022–)
"Peacock likes to say the 'Down Under' part is twofold. It's Australia, and it's also underwater. It's for slightly more adventurous groups who want to dive, snorkel and take advantage of the beauty of the Great Barrier Reef and the Whitsunday Islands."
Below Deck Adventure (2022–)
"Adventure's right in the name! It's as much about the off-yacht activities — like tracking wildlife, paragliding and exploring caves [in Norway] — as it is about what happens on the yacht." —D.B.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #12, 2022, under the title, "Hot Yachts."