Anchorage Daily News by Sarah Hennings…
Photo courtesy of Discovery Channel
Captain Phil Harris lost a crew member overboard. He broke his back (twice), all his fingers, both shoulders, an ankle and a wrist. Many of the guys he started fishing with were killed on the job. Both his wives left him.
Crab fishing’s been better to him than most.
For starters, he’s 50 and still alive.
The Seattle-based captain of the Cornelia Marie has never returned to land broke. His record annual haul: $500,000.
The combination of jackpot earnings, dogged crab fishermen and life-threatening weather has made the reality TV series “Deadliest Catch” the top-rated show on the Discovery Channel, with about 6 million viewers per week.
The show has turned craggy boat captains like Harris into unlikely reality TV stars, who now receive crab pots full of fan mail and romantic proposals.
In the third season, which debuts April 3, cameras roll as crabbing crews leave Dutch Harbor seeking a windfall on the Bering Sea.
The first episode ends in the middle of a Coast Guard search, with the ominous image of a yellow survival suit floating empty on the waves.
“This ain’t a hamburger stand out here,” Harris says to the TV camera as he listens to the rescue operation on his radio. “This is the real deal, and people really die.”
‘DEAR GOD, SHOOT ME NOW’
Harris’ perilous career started with run-of-the-mill car envy.
When Harris was in high school, he drove a Volkswagen. His buddy, whose dad owned a crab boat, drove a Chevelle.
He thought “something’s wrong here.” At 17, he volunteered to work for a crab fisherman for free until he could prove himself.
His first day on a crab boat, the Bering Sea lay still. He sat up on the stack, drinking beer and daydreaming about the millions he’d make crabbing.
The next day, giant waves of frigid water flew over the boat. “I was so sick, I was literally lying in the bait pan, hating life, throwing up,” Harris said in his sandpapery voice. “I walked up to the galley table holding on for dear life, thinking ‘Dear God, shoot me now.’ The captain chuckled at me, said ‘I didn’t think you’d make it.’ “
“And I thought ‘(Expletive) him’ and I got back up.”
Today, Harris has 30 years of crab fishing under his rain gear.
He only remembers being scared a few times, including a day nearly 20 years ago he calls Black Monday. That day, a furious storm stirred up waves more than 50 feet high and sank six crab boats in less than four hours, according to news reports.
“There were constant Maydays coming over the radio,” he said. “In the moment, you’re mostly just anxious because you’re just working so hard to stay upright and on the boat, but when it’s all done with and you have time to reflect on it, holy moley.”
Harris said obviously, he’s a thrill seeker. But equally he’s motivated by the big pay-less hours lifestyle. By fishing just a few months a year, he had plenty of time to help raise his two sons, Josh and Jake, and savor his hobbies: riding his Harley and making custom birdfeeders.
Last season, Jake joined his dad’s crew as a greenhorn. This season, Josh became part of the crew, too. Both are in their early 20s. Harris said some parents might criticize him for bringing his kids into such a menacing workplace. But he’s convinced they’re going to fish with or without him, so he’d rather they learn from his trusted crew. “Plus, if something were to ever happen to either of them, I’d want to be there,” he said.
“Deadliest Catch” cameras have caught some intense scraps as father and sons butt heads.
Harris said the show doesn’t exaggerate or twist anything that happens on his boat. “I have enough integrity, for all the people who taught me and people who know me. I wouldn’t do this show if they told me one thing to say or one thing to act.”
Compare guys like Harris to stars on other “tough guy” reality TV shows such as “Survivor,” and it’s like comparing wolves and poodles.
Crab boats are Indiana Jones-worthy obstacle courses, with all sorts of ropes, chains, winches and 1,000-pound steel crab pots. Temperamental waters can send the whole works hurtling across the deck. Add long hours, mental fatigue, backbreaking physical labor and the risk of falling into near-freezing water, and you’ve got TV executives salivating.
It’s one of the most hostile environments for the Discovery Channel, which has shot everything from camels in the Gobi Desert to ocean-bottom shipwrecks, according to Jeff Conroy, co-executive producer of “Deadliest Catch.”
Just transporting the L.A.-based production crew and its 5,000 pounds of equipment to Dutch Harbor is a financial and logistical nightmare. “I avoid looking at our shipping bills,” Conroy laughed.
Each boat has three fixed cameras and two cameras operated by hand, all of which need to be waterproofed and ice-proofed and pot-falling-on-them proofed. Every season, 60 cameras go out on the boats; only about a third make it back in working order.
Camera operators go through safety training: If they can’t get a survival suit on in 60 seconds, they don’t get on the boat.
Conroy, who has shot some footage on Harris’ boat, said he has a “no convince” policy when it comes to hiring photographers for “Deadliest Catch.” “It’s just too dangerous and too many things could happen. If someone says they’re not sure, I just move on,” he said. “But there are guys, they want to do this as their vacation and adventure, or for a sense of achievement. I think a lot of the fisherman respect them, working the same hours, having to be a step ahead.”
FISHING FOR BODIES
The Cornelia Marie wasn’t initially scheduled to be on “Deadliest Catch.” Harris appeared on the first season when he answered a friend’s distress call. The Big Valley made headlines when it sank and five crewmen died.
“We’re looking for bodies until 2 p.m., then an hour later I gotta think about crabbing,” Harris said. “I don’t let the guys on deck know, but I’m up there shaking like a leaf. It affects you, but you can’t let it affect your job, because then it’s going to be someone on your boat getting hurt.”
A similarly harrowing accident starts out Season 3 of “Deadliest Catch.” When the Ocean Challenger sank in October 2006, just one of four crew members survived. Cameras catch the lone survivor’s shock as the bodies of his dead co-workers are pulled up into the Coast Guard helicopter with him.
TV producer Conroy said fans are drawn to the show because, as with NASCAR, there are larger-than-life personalities and constant anticipation of a crash.
Besides the added stress of having two extra people on his boat, Harris said the TV show hasn’t changed how he runs his boat. His personal life has been forever altered, though, mostly by the unexpected deluge of female fans.
“I think they’re home and look at their situation, probably been married 15 years or 20 years, their husband’s got a beer belly, and then here we are, just a different breed of cat,” Harris said. “They don’t see the downside of it. They don’t see all the nights my wife sat up and bawled her head off because she wasn’t sure I’d be coming home.”
Harris’ favorite fans are people he respects — firefighters, police officers — who also admire what he does.
But Harris doesn’t believe he’s any sort of hero. In fact, he said he isn’t even that great of a fisherman. He owes a lot to luck, and to his crew.
Harris said he will fish for crab at least a couple more years to recover financially from his most recent divorce. Then he’ll turn the controls over, he hopes to his sons.
“I keep doing this and doing this and my number’s going to come up,” Harris said. “I’d just as soon quit in one piece.”
SEASON 3 OF “DEADLIEST CATCH” debuts on the Discovery Channel (cable Channel 56) at 8 p.m. April 3.
For a two-hour recap of Season 2, watch at 8 p.m. Tuesday or 6 p.m. April 3. ?WATCH: To see sneak peek video of “Deadliest Catch” Season 3 or download a behind-the-scenes podcast, visit:
DEADLIEST CATCH BY THE NUMBERS
5,000 — The pounds of equipment the production team ships from Los Angeles to Dutch Harbor.
60 — The number of cameras the film crews leave Dutch Harbor with each season. Due to saltwater and frigid temps, only a third of those make it back to land in working order.
8,000 — The hours of footage that are shot by 18 cameramen over the course of king and opilio crab seasons. This footage is edited down to 12 hourlong episodes.
36 — The average number of days a cameraman will spend at sea per TV season.
60 — The number of seconds under which each cameraman must be able to put on his survival suit before he is allowed to go out to sea.