Below Deck – A Luxurious Life At Sea Or A Glimpse In To A Toxic World?

White and black ship on sea under blue sky during daytime
Photo by redcharlie | @redcharlie1 on Unsplash

The reality TV show, Below Deck, depicts the lives of crew members working on luxury charter yachts in locations such as the Caribbean and Mediterranean.  It entered the spotlight last week following the firing of two staff from the show’s Australian spinoff over sexual harassment allegations. The recent scandal has caught the media’s attention, with outlets questioning if a more sinister side exists to an otherwise idyllic industry. I would argue however, that Below Deck has never served as an advert for the yachting industry. 

With episodes honing in on alcohol abuse; a culture of sexism and misogyny, exploitative hours, hierarchical work practices and workplace bullying, Below Deck depicts an employment sector in desperate need of regulation and more stringent protection of workers’ rights and safety. A former yacht crew employee, often known as “yachties”, spoke to me about their experience of what real life is like “below deck”, and their perspective further confirmed that the yachting industry is not quite as it seems.

Reality Show Meets Fly On The Wall

For those unfamiliar with the show, Below Deck can best be described as a cross between a reality TV show, similar to that of The Real Housewives or Made in Chelsea, and a fly-on-the-wall documentary. It follows the lives of the crew on luxury charter yachts and whilst somewhat embarrassing to admit, for years I have been a religious follower of the show and its various spinoffs. The frequent cast drama typical of reality shows, combined with the stunning scenery makes for some entertaining TV. Despite this, watching Below Deck has never had me reaching for the application to become a ‘yachtie’.

Each series depicts a workplace environment that to me seems hugely unappealing.  I’m not sure I want to work in a toxic work culture that includes male deckhands undermining their female bosses (Bosuns), male chefs patronising female stewards; bullying from heads of departments, overworked and exhausted staff and captains dismissing the mental health concerns of their crew.

The Stark Reality

The nature of Below Deck as a reality TV show makes it difficult to determine what is real and what is curated for the purposes of entertainment. Speaking to a former yacht employee however, it seems the workplace culture depicted in the show is not far off the reality. During an interview the former ‘yachtie’ told me: 

“In terms of the culture it really really depends on the boat, and the other crew. Some boats have an amazing culture and everyone gets on great and it’s genuinely a great place to work but some are awful, either because your Head of Department (HoD) is awful or the captain is lazy.

“There really is no defined way to report toxic behaviour and the only way to fix it is if you’re close to your HoD or captain or to quit and find a new boat. Loyalty however,  is greatly valued – it raises questions if you have left lots of boats in a short amount of time”.

“In terms of pay, the issue is there are so many boats at sea and no way to monitor them all. You have a spreadsheet in which you input all the hours you work, to send to your captain who signs it and sends it to the boat management. The problem is you are encouraged to lie on it to make sure you are not going over your maximum number of hours, so you are being overworked. 

“It’s standard practice to lie about It – everyone does it, especially during the season (when guests are on board). You get paid well (the lowest salary tends to be between 2500-3000€ with no outgoings), but if you were to divide it by the hours, often 16 hours a day 7 days a week, it works out to about 3€ an hour or something.

“Some boats will also pay less because there are so many greenies (people who haven’t worked on a yacht before) who are desperate and will take anything for their first job – it’s easy to be taken advantage of and you have to be very careful – especially getting your first job.”

Unregulated Waters

With a culture that would be deemed unacceptable in any other sector, the question is raised as to why this toxic and exploitative culture is so rife within the yachting industry and why there is a lack of regulation and worker protection. At present, it seems the limited regulations that do exist, are not enforced and are frequently bypassed or ignored.

The Maritime Labour Convention (MLC), that applies to all ships with an employed crew, in theory, sets a minimum standard of rights for workers at sea. This includes regulations for the conditions of employment, accommodation, recreational facilities, food and catering, health protection and welfare. As the former yacht employee told me however, these laws often fall short of protecting staff.

“The minimum working standards apply to all the flag states (so that’s the big flag on the back of the boat which indicates where the boat is registered), however, the flag state can then dictate more stringent rules, e.g. the GB flag state has extra workers’ rights, but is more expensive to register and therefore boat owners tend to choose the flags with the least amount of workers’ rights and the lowest registration fees (e.g. Malta, Cayman Islands etc).”

In light of the recent events on Below Deck Australia, a former star of the show, Conrad Empson, revealed to the BBC that many vessels are owned by rich individuals and thus everything is kept very private.  There are also few, if any, background checks carried out on crew members, so captains have no idea who they’re putting on board.

Luxury Toxicity At A Price

The recent sexual harassment scandal seen on Below Deck constitutes just one part of the yachting industry’s worrying culture and I just wonder what else needs to be done to protect the young people working on these vessels.  So many of these issues seem to be masked by the sun-filled scenery and editing which adds a feeling of glamour to the industry; but we need to remember that by the very nature of reality TV, what we’re watching is the reality for many ‘yachties’ on board.  Below Deck has never served as an advert for the yachting industry but sadly it depicts the true toxicity of a sector in a very accurate way.

Words by Lucy Frewin

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