What appears on television as a tabletop packed with crawling crustaceans is pure red gold for Russell Newberry’s bank account. Alaskan king crab, Newberry’s red gold, have powerful claws that can cause intense pain to a gloved finger, a periodic occurrence that can cause a deckhand to want to strike back at his antagonist.“You’ve got the skipper yelling at you, ‘Don’t kill the crab,’ ” Newberry said. ” ‘Take the pain, you crybaby. That’s a $50 crab.’
“Crab fisherman Russell Newberry, left, shares laughs with friends Mel Brooks, center, and Fred Fry, at Vancouver Farmers Market on Thursday. Newberry is a deckhand on the Time Bandit, one of the boats featured on Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Catch.” (STEVEN LANE/The Columbian)
For those who brave monstrous waves and bone-chilling weather to catch crab in the frigid Bering Sea, it’s all about the payoff – and maybe a fleeting chance for reality TV stardom.Newberry last year joined the crew of the Time Bandit, one of eight crab boats featured on the Discovery Channel’s show, “Deadliest Catch.” Newberry was in Vancouver Thursday to catch up with some friends, Fred Fry and Mel Brooks, who operate a seafood booth at Vancouver Farmers Market.Fry, former president of the market’s board of directors, spent decades fishing. His last king crab season was in 2001. Today, he favors a spatula over a salmon gaff but still loves to swap stories of fishing, boozing and brawling.
“Russell was just starting out when I was a veteran,” Fry said.
“Deadliest Catch” was the Discovery Channel’s highest-rated series in 2006. Nearly 3 million viewers have been transfixed by the steely resolve of crab-boat operators and deckhands who are often wet, cold and dead tired.
During the height of fishing season, Newberry faces a 20-4 regimen: 20 hours of duty and four hours of sleep. Even during those scant four hours, deckhands take turns pulling one-hour watches on the bridge.
It’s a grinding existence. Newberry said he often is asked if crew members take illicit stimulants to keep going. The answer is no.
“Now, caffeine is a whole different animal,” he said.
“Besides diesel fuel,” Fry added, “a boat doesn’t run without coffee on it.”
Newberry’s appearance on television hasn’t led to a fame-filled life. He has signed a few autographs – he penned No. 16 while swapping stories at the indoor farmers market Thursday – and a person in a convenience store once mistakenly asked if he were Jason Lee from NBC’s sitcom, “My Name is Earl.”
Newberry has been fishing since he was 15. Having turned 44 three days ago, he is thinking about life after the crab business. Newberry intends to return for the 2007 king crab season, and he always will fish for salmon during the summer.
Alaskan fishing consists of stretches of intense work that allows Newberry to get what he calls “monied up,” followed by months of leisure activity where he answers to no boss.
“I’m spending it on booze and women, and I’m wasting the rest,” he said. “If you want to know what my hobbies are, my first and main hobby is just trying to stay out of jail.”
Despite those half-joking comments, Newberry’s life is more than alcohol, women and fishing. He is quick to point out that he is a taxpayer, the divorced father of a 6-year-old daughter, a guy who still gets queasy from sea sickness after almost 30 years fishing, and someone who is hardly oblivious of the world around him.
“I read anything, from dime novels to National Enquirers,” he said. “Whatever we can get, because there’s not a lot to read on the boat.”
Newberry also continues to enjoy the taste of fish and seafood. The first king crab of the season doesn’t go into the boat’s holding tank, where crabs are kept alive for up to 18 days before they are off-loaded in harbor. It goes right into a pot in the galley.
Newberry likes his crab with cocktail sauce or a little garlic butter. But when standing on a crab boat’s deck in heaving seas, he is content to munch on a huge crab leg like a plump hotdog without mustard.
Newberry grew up in Homer, Alaska, a small fishing town about 200 miles southeast of Anchorage. He spent a couple years attending Montana State University, but his plan to become a physical education teacher was lost to a more practical reality.
“I was making too much money (fishing) in the summer for me to even think about going into education,” he said.
Many of the “Deadliest Catch” skippers live in Seattle, but Newberry continues to reside in Homer.
“In fact, you can put it on my tombstone,” he said. “Lived here, died here, still here.”
Not that there will be a tombstone. Newberry insists he wants to be cremated and his ashes loaded into shotgun shells so friends can fire his remains off the town’s bluffs.
“Not today,” he added quickly. “You know what I want to be known for? The man who lived the longest.”
He might be in the wrong profession for that title. A deckhand washed overboard in the icy Bering Sea will last only four minutes, a chilling fact the “Deadliest Catch” repeatedly tells its viewers.
“If you fall in,” Newberry said, “the basic rule of thumb is you are going to die.”
How much money deckhands receive for risking their lives depends on market conditions, namely whether Americans are eating seafood. Most of the Alaskan catch is exported to Japan, Newberry said.
“I want people to start eating more wild salmon,” he said. “Too many people are eating farm fish, and it’s bringing my market down.”
The back of Newberry’s T-shirt makes it clear where Alaska ranks. (STEVEN LANE/The Columbian)
The Discovery Channel, in its final episode about the 2006 king crab season, said each deckhand on the Time Bandit pocketed $32,000 for about six weeks of work.
“That’s what the television show says, so we have to go with that,” Newberry said.
If that amount is a bit shy of what the crew actually earned, Newberry isn’t about to say for fear his ex-wife could find out.
“She’s trying to up my child support as we speak,” he said.
Did you know?
– An average Alaskan king crab male has a leg span of almost 5 feet. The largest ever caught weighed 24 pounds.
– Only male crabs can be kept. Females and juveniles must be thrown back into the sea.
– The allowable catch for last year’s Bering Sea king crab season was 15.5 million pounds. Each crab boat was given a quota before the season started Oct. 15.
By Jeffrey Mize of The Columbian