‘Deadly’ job doesn’t scare fisherman

Saturday, May 12, 2007 9:07 PM PDT
Daily World / Kathy Quigg Jerry Tilley, a commercial fisherman based in Westport, sorts through spot prawn on his boat, The Watchman. He missed the recent fishing trip due to shoulder surgery, but his sling did not stop him from helping his crew prepare the prawns for delivery. Tilley and two of his children appear on the Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Catch,” which follows them on the hunt for crab in the Bering Sea.

There is no season finale on Jerry Tilley’s boats.Tilley captains the Aleutian Ballad — one of eight fishing vessels featured on the Discovery Channel show, “Deadliest Catch,” which follows the crews as they search for crab in the Bering Sea.The popular reality show, which is currently airing episodes from its third season, depicts the huge waves, harsh weather and equipment malfunctions common to life working in the dangerous environment.

The show has caught the imagination of a huge segment of the country. Some captains have appeared on late-night talk shows and two boats have their own clothing lines.

This season marks the 100-foot Aleutian Ballad’s second on the show, joining crews from elsewhere in Washington, Oregon and Alaska. The boats on the show are only a small portion of those that seek Alaskan king crab and Opilio crab up in the Bering Sea.

The show splits its season between the two catches, and episodes from the Opilio crab season will begin this week. The Aleutian Ballad did not participate in that season, so viewers will have to watch them during reruns from the king crab season.

Appearing on the show hasn’t fazed Tilley much. Once filming is wrapped, he doesn’t just pack up his gear and watch the episodes on his couch. He heads right into the next fishing season, as the Alaskan king crab fishery is only one of many he has his hands in, both in Alaska and Washington.

Along with the dangerous nature of the business, “Deadliest Catch” shows the camaraderie between crew members and the angst — and joy — that comes with the uncertainty of fishing.

Discovery Channel The crew members of the Aleutian Ballad appearing in Season Three, from left to right, Brandon Krenz, Jerry Tilley, Ron Brown, Allen “Kiwi” Brant and Nicole Tilley. Matthew Tilley is not pictured.

“I think it’s really great as far as letting the masses know what it takes to get crab to them,” he said. “Maybe they’ll be a little more appreciative. We go through hell trying to catch that crab.”The Aleutian Ballad crew includes Tilley and his children Nicole, 28, of Westport, and Matthew, 24, of Everett, who are both deckhands, engineer Brandon Krenz and deckhands Allen “Kiwi” Brant and Ron Brown. Krenz and Brown are from Westport, and Brant is from New Zealand.The crew was about 190 miles from Dutch Harbor — which is the base of operations for the fishing fleet — and 100 miles from shore during filming last October.

“We’re out in the middle of nowhere with nowhere to go and nowhere to run,” said the 51-year-old captain from Westport. “We had a couple bad days (with the weather), but nothing horrendous.”

Tilley said his kids think more of being on the show than he does.

“It’s fun being on the show,” Nicole said, although she admits she always saw herself on a reality show more like MTV’s “Real World” than one about fishing.

Show sheds light

While the show is edited to focus mainly on the most dramatic moments of the fishing trips, the Tilleys agree that it does shed some light on the life of a fisherman — especially for viewers who have never been around the industry. They all agree that they will probably return for another season if asked.

Matthew says some people may think that what happens on “Deadliest Catch” is standard for all commercial fishing.

“The 70-some boats (in the two crab fisheries) can’t be compared to the entire world fishing fleet,” he said. “People who saw the show one time ask ‘That’s what you do, right?’

“It’s like, ‘yeah, we do do that sometimes.’”

Nicole takes a more critical stance on the show’s emphasis on dramatic events — and its portrayal of her as the boat’s cook and as a beauty school dropout; both of which she says aren’t true. Nicole usually serves as a crane operator on the trips and said she chose to fish rather than go to work at a salon.

In fact, both her brother and her dad say she is a better worker than some men.

She plans to post a video she took of life on the boat on her MySpace profile to show people the “true version” of events during the season. She says the show’s footage often gets mixed around and edited to get the most visually arresting scenes.

“It’s not at all how it happens,” she said. “I think they change stuff around to make it look how they want. It shouldn’t be called reality TV. It’s a good channel, but they’re kind of liars.”

No one with the show ever told the crew of the Aleutian Ballad what to do, though there is some subtle encouragement to “make us sound more hard-core with our comments,” Matthew said.

Viewers shouldn’t expect to see the Aleutian Ballad in any dangerous situations, though, he said.

“I haven’t had an injury in 30 years,” Jerry said. “I’m a very cautious and prudent fisherman.”

Crew members must “always be on” because there are 700-to-800 pound pots over their heads, along with other heavy equipment, Matthew said.

“You have to be aware of everything and watch out,” he added.

Besides, “we have too much of a top-notch crew to have mishaps,” Nicole said.

The Aleutian Ballad’s appearances during the third season were filmed using two mounted cameras — one on the crane, one on the mast — and one cameraman. During the second season, the crew filmed its footage by hand because the Aleutian Ballad joined the season a little late.

The trio notes that the vessel hasn’t been featured in too many episodes — possibly because of their lack of dramatic situations.

“They’ve exploited about five of (the boats), but have excluded the Aleutian Ballad,” Jerry said. “It doesn’t bother me in the slightest.”

However, the cameraman on the Aleutian Ballad was a little upset by the lack of footage, the Tilleys say.

“There’s so much more going on on our boats, but they don’t show it,” Nicole said.

Life outside the show

Jerry Tilley’s life hasn’t changed much since the show aired; he’s still out fishing for days at a time.

For the past few weeks, the crew of The Watchman, one of Jerry’s three Westport-based boats, has been on the hunt for spot prawn, and after a recent weeklong trip, he helped his crew unload its fresh catch.

While Jerry missed that trip due to shoulder surgery, he didn’t hesitate to climb aboard for the next trip — leaving the Westport Marina mere hours after the spot prawns were unloaded and sent to California and down to the Seafood Connection on Float 8.

This fast turnaround is typical of commercial fishing, according to Jerry. Breaks between trips usually only last long enough to wash some clothes, take a nap, pay bills and buy groceries before crew members are expected back at the marina.

“You gotta do what you gotta do,” he said. “When there is money to be made, when the weather is good and the fishing is decent, you’ve got to fish. We’re not into time — it’s a matter of fishing the season. For us, time doesn’t matter.”

Hours and even days at sea can pass by without recognition, he said.

“I lose days of the week,” he said. It’s “the life of a fisherman.”

Part of the craze

Despite the hoopla over the show, Tilley’s focus remains on the task at hand, although he is preparing for a three-day trip to Seattle for the show.

The longtime fisherman — he’s been a regular on boats since he was a teenager growing up in Westport — isn’t fazed by the Bering Sea either.

“I’ve been going up there since I was 18,” he said. “I was full of piss and vinegar, looking for adventure. I was a live wire. I couldn’t get enough of it. I was not scared a bit.”

Jerry started fishing when he was 13 out in Willapa Bay. The moment he was out of high school, he started making his living on the sea.

He goes after catch like halibut, salmon, crab, prawns, black cod and shrimp year round, only taking a break in November.

“We’re farmers of the sea,” he said. “We don’t go out and harvest corn, we harvest seafood and feed the masses. I can’t imagine how many people I have fed over 30 years of fishing.”

The fisherman and his crew members were no strangers to 30 to 40-hour stretches of work during Alaskan king crab season, with only snatches of sleep. Meals were usually a quick sandwich, but when the boat turned back toward port, the crew tucked into much larger meals — and much larger chunks of sleep.

“On the nine-day trip back from Dutch Harbor, the crew slept for five days,” Jerry said. “After they came out of their coma, they start cleaning the boat, watching movies, relaxing and cooking big dinners.”

During trips around Washington waters and other areas of Alaska, long work days are still the norm.

However, Jerry said the shorter fishing trips that last days or weeks instead of months are a big change from the old days.

He used to be out for four months at a time, going from one catch to another.

“We would fish straight for months, not a week or three weeks,” he said. “Things have changed quite a bit over the years. (Crews) are not as tough as they used to be. It’s funny to watch — the crew will be sniveling or whining and I’ll tell them to try four months.”

It’s in the blood

Three of Jerry’s four children caught the fishing bug — after all, they are fourth-generation fishermen.

“I haven’t encouraged that,” their father said. “I encouraged them to go to college. But I think they kinda want to be part of what I do.”

He predicts he’ll be fishing until he’s in his 80s.

“If I stay home for anything, I’m champing at the bit to get out there and fish,” he said. “It’s something I enjoy. … I’ve contemplated other avenues after a bad season or during bad weather. I think, ‘what am I doing here?’ But I’ve always had a big family and I couldn’t afford to stop. I had mouths to feed and people to support. I’ve worked extremely hard to accomplish these things.”

Jerry said Nicole got the itch to fish when she was 12 years old. He discouraged her, but after 10 years of “relentless pressure,” he took her on a trip.

“She is just a natural,” he said. “She loves the ocean and loves being on the boat. She’s as tough as nails. She baits, runs the cranes, does everything.”

Matthew is quick to learn any new tasks, his father said. He started fishing when he was 19 and hasn’t stopped since.

“He’s extremely intelligent,” he said. “You show him something once and he’s got it. Other kids, you show them 20 times and they still don’t get it.”

His youngest son, Jerry Jr., 17, also picks up things quickly on the boats.

“There’s nothing he can’t do,” he said. “It’s just in his blood. He’s just a wonderful kid.”

As for his son, Jesse, 26, who works down in California, fishing just wasn’t right for him. After a trip about five years ago, he decided to go after his m aster’s degree instead of joining the family business.

“Fishing is a way of life, it’s a hard way to go,” Jerry said. “It’s an honest living. You can be a functioning member of society, buy a house — you know, the American dream. It takes a lot of hard work, but you just have to be willing to do it.”


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One Response to ‘Deadly’ job doesn’t scare fisherman

  1. Randy Lemmer says:

    Love the article. Keep up the good work! Thanks!

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