Below Deck is back where it belongs, on our TV screens -- and in the Caribbean, the sea where the series got its start seven years ago. Along with a return to its original locale, Below Deck also welcomes back Eddie Lucas, a deckhand on season 1, now the Bosun under Captain Lee Rosbach; but those are pretty much the only familiar elements on season 8, the first since season 1 not to feature Kate Chastain as chief stewardess. She announced her departure from yacht life in February, as season 7 came to a close.
"We've gone through a morph, to say the least," Captain Lee muses to ET over video chat. "There is a definite learning curve for a lot of people. It was good to have Eddie back. I was sad to see Kate go, and I didn't know how the chemistry would work between my new chief stew and myself, or between my new chief stew and everyone else because, you know, when you work with somebody as long as I worked with Kate, you can you get a sense for how she's going to interact with certain people in certain personalities. And so, you get a feel for how things are going to transpire or not during the course of the season."
Kate was Lee's righthand man for the last six years, their bond growing to be more like family than co-workers over the years. He confesses he was "caught off guard" by her decision to part ways with the show.
"I just never, ever saw it coming," he shares. "I was totally unprepared. I was like, OK… and it was a long conversation. I mean, this went on for, you know, better than an hour or so, and I was just flabbergasted, for lack of a better term, it just hit me hard. And then I started to think about the ramifications of it, you know, because they were huge. … It's kind of like, OK, she's gone. So where does all this weight fall now? Am I ready for this?"
While built around an ensemble cast, Kate was arguably the star of Below Deck, the Greek chorus, comic relief, protagonist (and sometimes antagonist), all rolled into one. Without her, the tone and focus of season 8 and beyond is a bit of a question mark. So much of the show was Kate, putting immense pressure on her replacement, new chief screw Francesca Rubi, who tells ET she understands whose shoes she's stepping into.
"First of all, she probably has smaller feet than I do because I'm taller than her," Francesca quips in a separate video chat with ET. "From what I've seen Kate do on the show, and how she works, she's a fantastic chief stew, [but] I don't think you can compare the two of us. I think we both have different work experience backgrounds, on yachts and off yachts."
"We're totally different people," she adds. "We've also grown up in different worlds. You know, she's from the U.S., I'm from Australia. We operate differently. We've grown up differently. I think the thing that we do have in common is working really hard, and earning respect from our peers and captain, and that takes time and she has had a lot of time."
“I have such empathy for Francesca, because … she’s coming and she's worried about how she's going to get along with a new captain, you know, am I going to live up to his standards?" Lee notes. "She's obviously going to try extremely hard and work extremely hard, because she is a consummate professional. And then she's got the fan base to deal with: How are they going to take to me? Are they going to like me?"
Lee cautions fans from comparing Francesca to Kate too much, stressing that she is her own person and brings a different personality to the show.
"Francesca is going to do just fine," he promises. "People are different. Give them the chance to prove themselves. Give them a chance to show you what they can do, and don't come into the season prejudging. I think that would be a mistake on everyone's part -- and that's one of the things I had to look at in the mirror and go, OK. There we go. New season, new crew. Suck it up and you ... really can't measure somebody by the vacancy left by somebody else, that's totally unfair to do that."
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As for whether Lee sees Kate returning to the world of Below Deck in the future, he just laughs.
"I wouldn’t even attempt it," he jokes, before adding that he could see her popping up as a charter guest in the future. "I've always thought Kate looked a hell of a lot more like a charter guest than she ever looked like a chief stew. Remember that episode where she and I were role-playing charter guests? Yep, rest my case."
Kate and Lee pretended to be demanding charter guests back in season 5 during a training session for their relatively green second and third stewardesses. Season 8 brings around another fairly inexperienced crew, save for Francesca and Eddie, and some of the most intense charter guests the series has ever seen. So intense, one leads to a Below Deck -- and career -- first for Captain Lee: he ends a charter early over bad behavior.
"It's something I've never done in my 36 years in yachting, ever before," Lee admits. "I have never, ever lost it to that degree with anyone, whether it's a crew member or a charter guest."
It seems safe to assume viewers will also see Lee have some tense moments with his crew in season 8, hinting he once again makes good on his yearly promise to buy someone a plane ticket home if they’re not up to snuff.
"There are some times, in seasons past, where I have let people go that I've been very reluctant to do so, not because their heart wasn't in the right place, not because they really didn't work there," he shares, "I had to cut [them] loose for the good of the crew, and the good of the season. There's a fine line there."
"I don't think anyone really disappointed me," he adds of his season 8 crew, though. "Would I liked to have seen some people progress quicker, or maybe have a better grasp of what the job is all about, as opposed to what they may have perceived it to be? Yeah, that may have been true. But I don't think -- I can't actually say there was anyone that I was really disappointed in this year. I consider that a major milestone."
Another major milestone for the season is that it intersected with the start of the coronavirus pandemic, though fans will likely be happy to hear that COVID-19 didn’t shake up how the show was made (except for maybe canceling a final charter).
"When you're out in the middle of the ocean … we really don't want to be connected to the outside world all that much, because we've got jobs to do," Lee says. "We're isolated, we're in a bubble. We're still jet skiing. We're still fishing. We're still, you know, sun and fun, and the rest of the world is -- I think I used this in the trailer -- going to hell in a handbasket, and you go like, OK, well, let’s stay focused, everybody. Because this is what we have to do, and this is what we have to get done. We still have our jobs to do. You know, everybody's worried about your people back home, but there's nothing that you can do from where you're at now."
In what's likely more good news for fans of the franchise, Lee says the charter business has "exploded" amid the pandemic, because it’s a relatively safe way to enjoy a vacation during this time. Once you're tested and out to sea, he says you're in a safe zone until you return to shore. But before Lee gets back on deck for season 9, season 8 has to play out on TV.
"It's still fun, and why I still want to do it," he says of the series. "When it stops being fun, that's when you won't see me anymore. … I don't think there's been a season where I haven't closed out the season without saying, ‘I have the best goddamn job in the world,’ and I don't get a lot of arguments about that."
For Lee, there's no difference between captain life and reality TV captain life. It’s all one job to him.
"I don't consider myself a celebrity," he says. "I consider myself a captain that just gets filmed doing his job, and it's like I tell the crew every year, do your job. Everything else is going to take care of itself. Just do your job, keep your head down and do what you're supposed to do and it'll work out."
Below Deck airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Bravo starting Nov. 2.