By Peter Johnson, USA TODAY
Maybe it’s the obvious danger in completing the task at hand and the risk of not making it back to shore alive. Maybe the allure is simply watching tough guys tackling one of the last frontiers — and making big money.
This much is true: Watch any episodes of Discovery Channel’s biggest hit, Deadliest Catch, which returns for its third season tonight at 9 ET/PT, and you’ll probably have a new appreciation for what it takes to put Alaskan king crab on a table.
“I get thousands of e-mails from guys saying they’ll never complain about the price of crab or fish after they see what it takes to put it on their plate,” says Sig Hansen, skipper of the Northwestern.
His boat is one of eight that Discovery follows this year as crews fight subzero weather, 60-mph winds and seas the size of four-story buildings to bring crab, caught in 700-pound pots, to America’s tables. A good catch can fetch several hundred thousand dollars.
But in heavy seas, a thousand gallons of water can crash onto the deck every 30 seconds, freezing when hitting the boat. To prevent the boat from becoming too top-heavy and capsizing, deckhands must stop fishing and spend hours clearing the ice with sledgehammers — in 20-degree weather.
It’s common for deckhands to experience Stage 1 hypothermia, symptoms of which include shivering, poor coordination, slurred speech and poor judgment — all factors that contribute to the danger associated with crab fishing on the Bering Sea.
In tonight’s opener, the Coast Guard rescues two deckhands, but only one of them makes it out of the frigid waters alive.
Hansen, 40, who has been fishing since he was 14, says Catch‘s 3 million primarily male fans are drawn to the series much as they are to Westerns.
“We’re the last of the cowboys,” he says. “You get to do your own thing, make your own decisions, go where you want to go and do what you want to do.”
That appeal was not immediately apparent when Catch premiered, says Discovery president Jane Root.
“We had no idea that it would have this kind of resonance,” she says. “But it taps into something really deep: tough guys who go out and earn a living, protect their friends, fight against the elements. Can they survive this fantastically tough environment?”
Producer Thom Beers pitched the series to Discovery after filming crab fishermen nine years ago in 70-mph winds and 40-foot seas.
“When I came off the boat after 11 days, I felt like I had spit in the eye of the devil and walked away from it,” he says. “I thought, ‘Now this is good TV.’ “