•F/V Time Bandit enjoys celebrity status on “The Deadliest Catch.”
June 21, 2006
HOMER TRIBUNE/Layton Ehmke
|Neil Hillstrand brandishes the ink showing his family’s crabbing boat, which is one of several Alaska boats featured on “The Deadliest Catch” TV series on the Discovery Channel. Hillstrand has been crabbing with his family 20 years.|
If you tuned in to the Discovery Channel this season, you might have heard the wildly dramatic theme music to “The Deadliest Catch,” inciting the feeling of terminal danger and cliff-hanging suspense. You may have even seen Neil Hillstrand and his older brothers and crew getting thrashed and frozen as they filled the F/V Time Bandit with crab.
Hillstrand said commercial crabbing isn’t exactly like what they show on TV — but it’s pretty close.
Two separate film crews documented parts of the activity on the Time Bandit during two crabbing seasons. The film crew, Hillstrand said, asked the crabbing crew to act a certain way for the cameras, to explain everything they were doing, what they were going to do next and to act “crazy.”
“At first I didn’t know what they wanted from us. I’m not a movie star,” Hillstrand said. “I’m a fisherman.”
“But I wasn’t really on film that much. I didn’t get along with one of the film crews,” he said.
In thousands of miles of traversing the Bering Sea, the crew has seen what many people would give good money to get a glimpse of. Three of the five Hillstrand brothers, Neil, Andy and John Jr., make up the crew, which also includes local Mike Fourtner and Tom Miller of Kodiak as deckhands.
Hillstrand said he’s getting a little attention from the show, and his girlfriend Shannon Liberty said he loves his newfound celebrity status.
“Some of the locals call him ‘Hollywood,’ and he’s got some out-of-state fans,” Liberty said.
In the off-season, he runs a hydro-seeding operation that keeps his schedule mostly filled.
Hillstrand is a wirey guy, built something like a bullrider. On the boat, he’s the engineer, the cook and keeps the ship running. He’s the kind of guy who, if he sees something that needs to be done, he does it. He described what it takes to work as a crab fisherman through everything Mother Nature can toss at you.
“You need to know how to be a carpenter and plumber. There’s no room for laziness,” Hillstrand said.
There is always something to be done on the boat, be it painting, cleaning, reorganizing or mopping. Working on a boat is not for those with pedestrian mentality.
“You can always check gauges. There’s a lot to keep track of,” Hillstrand said. “It’s a giant piece of equipment that we live on.”
It takes tough people, mentally tough, too.
“People ask what it’s like, and I tell them to throw a 5-gallon bucket of cold water in their face over and over and over again. Maybe toss a jellyfish or two in there to burn your face,” Hillstrand said, demonstrating peeling imaginary burning whips of jellyfish off his face. “Oh, they don’t hurt that bad.”
Some people certainly can take it, but in many cases, the applicants wise up after a tour.
“Lots of people come and go. We’ve just about hired everyone I know at some point or another,” he said.
Hillstrand described the ideal commercial crabber. He said you should be about 5’10” with good stamina and no “mental problems.”
“You can’t have people with you that can go psycho. There’s people that start fires or threaten to jump overboard just so you take them back, which really happened in the show this season,” Hillstrand said.
“The Deadliest Catch” show is said to have roped in a whole new subsection of population of the country that is fascinated with this line of work. But it’s not exactly how TV shows it to be. It’s crazier, and truly deadly.
Hillstrand said the death toll in commercial fishing is only high because there are so few people who do this anymore.
The Discovery Channel series was a slice of the daily life that showed only a glimpse of what really happens. One noticeable difference was the lack of music on deck the crew listens to while pulling up and setting crab pots.
Hillstrand said it’s usually whatever music the crew wants — they listen to just about everything, be it pounding metal or Alice In Chains. However, on the TV show, the speakers are quiet, and only the sound of the ocean, the boat and crew explaining their chores can be heard.
Hillstrand has been fishing 20 years. He started taking in full share at 18 and has kept a grinding pace ever since.
Now that there are crabbing quotas, the pace of the season has slowed some — the fishermen are less on a time crunch than they used to be. Still, they can’t be out to sea too long, because, as Hillstrand put it, “You don’t get paid for dead crab.”
Harvesting the ocean two weeks of work at a time can be taxing on the body.
“You’re out there getting slammed around, and your hands are frozen. You get to thinking that it’s better to just let them freeze and warm them up later when the work is done,” Hillstrand said. “It’s a scary job because you don’t know if it’s the last time you lose your footing. You just want to get it done.”
Time Bandit uses 137 crab pots measuring 7 by 8 feet, weighing 800 pounds each. They set the traps with plenty of bait, then cruise about, setting more. Hopefully when they come back, the traps are full of crab. A good catch means a good vibe on the boat.
The Time Bandit has a half-inch-thick, single-layer steel hull that is thick enough to push through the ice in the extreme north Bering Sea. It’s a 113-foot house aft boat built for work and comfort, and cost $1.4 million to build. It’s equipped with a four-man sauna, state rooms with queen beds, cappuccino and coffee machines and a dishwasher. This is all thanks to Hillstrand’s father, who built it with the thought that if you’re only sleeping about three hours a day, you’re going to want to be comfortable.
While watching the season finale last week, Hillstrand said, “If you’re not working, you’re thinking about home. You think about the money you’re making and the money you’re losing. You end up counting crab in your head. So you work.”
And you can only work if you’re not seasick.
“You can also get seasick so bad you just wish you were dead. Two weeks at sea is long enough for anyone,” Hillstrand said.
Through it all, Liberty said commercial fishing means bread and butter, but it also means treading through stress.
“I stress everyday he’s out there. I can’t tell him any bad news when he calls home, because he’ll start thinking about it while he’s fishing,” Liberty said. “I want him to come home every season.”
That said, she holds the same pride about the boat as she describes how she perceives those who make up its crew.
“They’re gung-ho and full-on-board crazy, and loyal to each other,” Liberty said.
Hillstrand was born and raised here. He wanted to be a fisherman.
“It’s gnarly out there … my adrenaline is the ocean,” Hillstrand said.
Growing up, he was a top motocross racer, and a horsepower fiend.
Adrenaline aside, the Time Bandit crew have been talking about using their new-found recognition for a practical gain. They’ve tossed around the idea of inviting celebrities like Kid Rock, Jesse James and Dennis Rodman, to see if they are tough enough to take a day at sea.
“I think they’d pay to see it. Why not? They could see bears on the ice pack, whales, red skies and waterfalls that shoot straight up in the air,” Hillstrand said.