Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Deadliest Catch

For those unfamiliar with it, The Deadliest Catch is a show on Discovery that documents the Alaskan King Crab and Opelio Crab fleet's adventures. It's astonishing to watch what these fuckers go through. The job is called the most dangerous in the world, and it's an unusual season when no lives are lost.

The fleet is based for the most part in Dutch Harbor, Alaska and the show centers around maybe 8 or 10 of the individual boats, depending on the season. The personalities are colorful to say the least.

Became addicted to this damned show the first time I watched it, and now it's gotten to the extent that I know the names of the boats, the deckhands, the greenhorns (noobs) and the captains.

There's a 140 foot ship called the Northwestern that's skippered by a Norwegian guy named Sig Hansen, Sig's my favorite. His brother Edgar is the real shit too.

Edgar is like MacGyver. There was one episode where, in the middle of a raging storm on the Bering Sea, the Northwestern's boom snapped. A big swing-arm thing that holds the pulley they use to hoist the crab pots out of the water. Now these pots weigh upwards of a thousand pounds when empty, and maybe half again as much when full of crab. A critical piece of equipment, and one of the linkage arms broke.

As the ship was rolling in 30 foot seas, with waves crashing over the bow, Edgar Hansen climbed up onto the boom with an arc welder and did a temporary repair. Hanging on for dear life with one arm, and welding with the other, Edgar saved the day and a few hundred thousand dollars worth of crab that would have been lost had the Northwestern been unable to hoist these fucking pots up from the depths.

Edgar climbed down, smiled at the camera, shrugged his shoulders like it was no big fuckin' deal, and lit a smoke.

They argue like crazy, all of them, mainly because they're under incredible stress, and they chain-smoke like motherfuckers. In one episode last season, they featured Captain Sig's attempt to quit smoking. From my estimate, he appears to be something like a 3 or 4 pack a day smoker. Constantly smoking. Constantly. As a smoker myself, and one who is trying to quit, I watched that one with great interest. At first, Sig was okay. He had the gum, the patches, and plenty of resolve. Then came the -20 temps, the 28 foot swells, and the half-million buck haul that he was gunning for.

Sig's smoke-out lasted for 3 hours.

There is enormous competition in the fleet because huge sums of money are on the line. A recently applied quota system has leveled the field a bit but they still see each other as competition. They all know each other intimately, and have for years. It's friendly rivalry, but it's rivalry to be sure. Once the season is over, they're having drinks together. But when the fishing is on, it's game on. They have rules, and rules are not broken. You don't plop your crab pots on top of another boat's pots. Go someplace else to fish asshole, I was here first.

There was an episode that featured a captain named Keith Colburn, and his boat The Wizard. Capt. Keith made the mistake of putting a few of his string of pots on top of those dropped by Capt. Phil Harris' and the crew of the Cornelia Marie. While filming, they went inside the pilot house with Phil Harris and that dude was beyond fucking pissed. I thought his eyeballs were going to explode.

He looked at the camera and said "Ahhh that bleeping Keith. What a bleeping bleep hole. Can't fish for bleep, so he follows me around. Well, any semblance of a friendship we might have had is gone. That bleeping bleephole!"

Then they cut to a camera aboard the Wizard, and there's Keith telling the audience, "Yeah right, I'll bet Phil's over there right now calling me a bleeping bleephole because I dropped two pots on top of his. Look here at the GPS. That's his string, and this is mine. As soon as I saw his pots, I swung due west. There's no money for either of us if we drop our pots on top of each other! Gimme a bleeping break Phil!"

At the end of the season, Discovery did a year end wrap-up which featured a handful of the captains sitting around a big table having drinks and talking about the season. Phil Harris apologized to Keith Colburn, which you could just tell was not an easy thing for Captain Phil to do.

The Hillstrand brothers were there, Jonathan and Andy, the Hansen brothers, Sig and Edgar, the Harris family, Phil and his sons Jake and Josh, and a couple of others.

It's a family thing; the crab fishing business. The Hansens are 2nd generation, so are the Hillstrands, and Phil Harris is breaking his sons into the game now. And besides the actual family ties, there's a bond shared by everyone in the fleet. It's the same old bond that's been shared by sailors since there have been sailors.

Several episodes of the show have followed the trials of sinking ships or men overboard. They're all in communication with each other, and with the Coast Guard. These maniacs can have 100 crab pots soaking on the bottom, picking up hundreds of crab in each pot, worth thousands and thousands of dollars...and yet, when the call goes over the radio that a ship has triggered the emergency beacon, or a ship is reporting a man overboard, these assholes drop everything and steam full speed to try and help. If they're close enough, that is. Fuck the money, that could be us going down in 31 degree water.

It's an amazingly stressful way to earn a living. The deckhands can make 40-50 grand for 3 months of work, as long as they don't die.

And they all smoke, well almost all of them.

Phil Harris? From what I could tell, we're talking 5 packs a day or more. Voice like broken glass and gravel. Eyeballs sunken deep from lack of sleep. Puff puff puff. Once, Phil had an episode, caught on film, of coughing up blood. He insisted on finishing up the pull (bringing the pots in) before heading in to Dutch Harbor for a check-up at the Emergency Room. Diagnosis? A blood clot had traveled from his leg, through his heart, and into his lung.

Should have died in the pilot house.

But, while waiting for the doctor to tell him what they were going to do about the blood clot, Phil went outside in his paper hospital gown, with the Discovery Channel film crew, to have a smoke. Puff puff puff. Stressed out fucking guy who fought his stress by smoking.

Well, Captain Phil Harris had a massive stroke on January 29th, and passed away yesterday at the age of 53.

Major stress, bad eating, lousy sleep, and tons of cigarettes. Three years older than me.

I guess it shouldn't come as a big surprise that any of us who live like that can go at any time.

I'll bet Captain Sig is seriously thinking about quitting smoking again.

Rest in Peace Captain Phil. A true old-school original.


MichaelRyerson said...

My son introduced me (us) to this show a couple of years ago and we all watched it pretty religiously. It is one of those mesmerising 'reality' shows that really deserves the mantle 'reality'. I saw the death notice on Phil yesterday and called my kid at work. No surprise except maybe his age. 53. His kids are both smokers, too. Nicotine, Red Bull, sleep deprivation and stress. Nice. By the way, how's your...ah never mind.

Schmutzie said...

Said the same to the bro-in-law, another fan of the show last night re: Phil's age. Hard living. Saw the episode where the Cornelia broke a prop blade and had to wait in Dutch Harbor for the repair dude to arrive. Could actually feel Phil's stress through my TV set. You gotta know Jake & Josh are taking a long hard look at that career choice now. As for the cigs, I'm sure Sig, Edgar & a few others besides me are thinking hard about that career choice too.

Anonymous said...

Hesitated to say this, because there's nothing worse than an ex-smoker - but, do yourself a favor - quit the smokes. Heart pounding panic attacks visited me for a few years in the late 80's too (Weird to read your recent re - cap as I could relate although I never had any treatment. Just worked through it). I used to love to ride the stress train as well. And I smoked for over 25 years. Then, a blocked artery. I was real lucky to not have kicked it. Two stents and I was on my way - sans the smokes. Not so hard to quit then. Been 8 and a half years now. When you really make up your mind it's not that hard, Schmutz. It's just getting to where you really make up your mind.

- - Robert

DragonTat2 said...

Phil was quite the drinker, too.
RIP, Phil.

Kick the butt, Schmutz. You only have to want to.


Schmutzie said...

Hello to the both of you! For some damned reason Blogspot's email notification system has crapped out so I didn't know either of you had commented.

You're both exactly right of course, although Robert...I'd kinda prefer to take Susan's recommended path than to wait until a doctor tells me it's my only path if I want to keep breathing.

Kicking panic attacks without treatment? Whoa dude. I can't even imagine what that was like, but good on ya for having the strength.


(And don't you dare suggest I give up my vino Susan.[I know, you didn't]..Scientific studies prove that I'm doin' myself good with every glass!)

Anonymous said...


I did quit caffeine when delaing with the panic. And, even though a doctor tells you something, you still gotta make up your mind to do it.

- - Robert

Schmutzie said...

Keith Colburn (Capt of The Wizard) doesn't smoke, nor does Andy Hillstrand (Time Bandit.) Sig smokes, and Jonathan Hillstrand smokes.

If you tried to make a crab boat smoke-free, nobody would work for you (or they'd toss you overboard.)

Anonymous said...

Capt, Colburn is a child. The guy is in no way quaified to manage people. He is run by his emotions. Truly he is proof of the old proverb. "The race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong or riches to the wise but time and chance happen to them all". This guy should be mopping floors at a Waffle house.

Michael said...

When I saw Colburn grab the cameraman by the collar and slam him into the wall I thought "Cameraman should kick him in the nuts." Of course, Kieth would have probably had the guy arrested and charged with crimes on the high seas or something. Not a good captain at all.