“Many things you see happen on the show are actually similar to real life.”
van Rakulič is the captain and proprietor of Freedom, an exquisite superyacht found in-season hopping between the Dalmation Islands off of mainland Croatia. It’s one of three yachts like it in the world and is often rented by celebrities, CEOs, and other deep-pocketed business people. His vessel costs over $100,000 a week to charter, an eye-popping figure for sure, but if you go in on it with 10 other couples, the cost can be rationalized by knowing that, for each pair, it’s less than a week on a luxury brand name cruise ship. For that sum, you have the run of a marvelous yacht, complete with a hot tub jacuzzi, sauna, pool, media room, gym, spa, a 5-star quality restaurant that can serve you anything and everything you desire, enough cabins to comfortably accommodate up to 20 of your nearest and dearest, and enough water toys to make you feel like you are in an episode the old TV show Lifestyle of the Rich and Famous.
Here’s what this kind of luxury on the Adriatic Sea is actually like. Fair warning though, this experience will likely ruin traveling for you. It was a modern TV show though that made me want to speak with Rakulič this fall, to ask him about the runaway Bravo hit show Below Deck, discover how he and his staff perceive the reality show, find out if Below Deck is anything like real life, and learn if the show is actually helping with bookings (which are handled exclusively through Goolets).
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Because Croatia was used as a Below Deck Med filming location in Season 2 and then again in Season 6, Rakulič says that the show has helped keep his, and other chartered yachts, extremely busy. He remarked how many of his guests “heard of the country of Croatia for the first time” while sitting on their sofas at home in America. The show has helped the whole country as a destination a lot, he noted.
Even those lucky enough to be on a yacht like Rakulič’s don’t get to see how the crew lives and will never fully understand their experiences onboard, even though this is their home for as long as six-months at a time. Instead, guests experience the hot tubs, SEABOB, jet skis, floats, and other water toys, and the over-the-top cuisine magically being produced in a kitchen no bigger than a walk-in closet. But he says that Below Deck does a really good job showing what it’s actually like being a member of a yacht crew by airing what they eat, how big the mess area is, what it looks like inside their cabins, and such small details most guests will never know about otherwise.
“When I was preparing myself for this new business, turning Freedom into a super yacht, I watched all the shows,” says Rakulič, adding, “While I know it is not 100% true—some of the scenes must have been scripted and acted—it helped prepare me for being the captain of Freedom.” Ivan Rakulič goes on to point out what many people who have grown up in the age of dubious “reality” TV, myself included, may be surprised to learn: “Many things you see happen on the show are actually similar to real life.”
That’s right, crazy and outrageous things do actually happen on yacht charters. Rakulič says that his guests over the past year were “calm and pretty good,” for the most part, but he did go on to dish on a group of younger Russians who “were drunk all the time, and who made a habit of jumping off the [back of the] ship while the propeller was in full use!”
Captain Ivan says that he “had to show my authority that week, raising my voice to guests for the first time ever,” adding that it was essential to not only keep them in check but keep them safe. He noted that after he put his foot down, things got, not 100% better, but roughly 80% okay, but that that was good enough to continue with the week cruising on the Adriatic Sea, and not cancel the charter–which he admits did cross his mind.
Rakulič made a reasonable request to that group of guests to chill out, but not all guest requests are, shall we say, above board. Many are truly below deck, including one set of Freedom’s guests who asked to bring sex workers on board the ship. In the end, the guests decided they, um, did not need the service, so a potentially complicated legal issue was avoided while in Croatia that week. Thankfully, Rakulič says not one of his guests has ever had to be kicked off Freedom or arrested. He does know that other ships have had guests asking the crew to buy cocaine and other drugs for them, and getting angry when told no. Not only would guests be in hot water with the police, but the ship’s captain could also face legal trouble should a guest be found to have illegal substances on board.
Requests to the chef are more common and usually, thoroughly ordinary, although over-the-top asks are something Rakulič and his team know all about. There was one demanding guest in particular that he was happy to discuss, a woman who Rakulič says wanted to eat eggs, which sounds like a totally normal enough thing, but the stipulation this rich passenger put on her meal was that the eggs had to come from a chicken that ate nothing but worms, thus ensuring that her omelet at breakfast would be chock-full of protein. Remarkably, the chef was able to arrange for this and prepare the protein-rich eggs!
When it comes to shocking sights on board, eggs from a worm-fed chicken don’t even come close. Captain Rakulič starts to laugh when he recalls one particular week when his yacht was occupied by a half dozen couples. He remembers how everything and everyone was totally normal in the beginning but, “By the end of charter, they started switching cabins, if you know what I mean, and liked to explore, um, new things with each other—but that’s all that I can say!”
Rakulič can’t stress enough how thankful he is for Below Deck. The TV show has been a huge help for the industry in Croatia and Europe, as a whole, because people who never in a million years thought to charter a yacht for a vacation suddenly knew that this was an option and that the country of Croatia was one of the most stunning places where it is possible.