(Donald Bland/Discovery Channel) Norman Hansen, a deckhand on the Northwestern and brother of its captain, in the reality series “Deadliest Catch.”
DUTCH HARBOR, a fishing port in this town on a pair of islands in the middle of the Aleutians, may be the bleakest, wildest frontier left in America. There used to be a bowling alley, but it closed. So, just recently, did the worst and most dangerous of the town’s three bars. Now most of the port’s social life, and a fair amount of its business activity, takes place in the two others. One of them, the Unisea, has a sign outside that says, “If you fight on these premises, you will be 86’d for an indefinite period of time.” Inside there is a sign proclaiming “Where Fish and Drink Become One,” whatever that means.
These are not bars for amateurs or casual drinkers. Getting hammered is the whole point. When the fishermen are in town, they toss around $50s like confetti in their eagerness to be served, and at the tail end of an evening one or two might drop to their backs on the floor and do a dying-cockroach imitation, waving their feelers in the air. Others stand in the middle of the room, glassy eyed, swaying slightly, itching for someone to bump into them.
Some of these guys are also TV stars of a sort and appear on “Deadliest Catch,” a reality series that begins its fourth season on the Discovery Channel on April 15. The show is watched by some three million viewers a week, making it one of the top-rated programs on basic cable, and it’s about work, of all things — the boring, repetitive and sometimes brutal job of crab fishing in the Bering Sea. A typical episode includes monstrous waves that slosh right up on the inside of your television screen, along with scenes of slicker-clad deckhands nearly faint with exhaustion and of anxious, bleary-eyed captains cursing and chain-smoking up in the wheelhouse.
F/V Wizard (Photo courtesy of Discovery and Don Bland)
Alaskan crab is caught in baited pots that are actually the size of small apartments and weigh about 800 pounds. These are launched over the side of the boat, allowed to soak for a while and then hauled up by a crane. Until they’re wrestled down, they’re lethal, free-swinging weights. When the crab (that’s a plural as well as a singular in fishermanese) are running, the crew members work day and night, sometimes 40 hours at a stretch. They haul pots in 30-foot waves and 60-knot winds, with seas cresting over the bow or the side. In the opilio, or snow crab, season, which usually begins in January, they routinely begin the day by chopping ice off the boat for a couple of hours. Fingers are smashed, ribs get broken, men sometimes go overboard.
Of all the reality shows, “Deadliest Catch” is by far the realest; people have actually died on it. In the first season one of the featured boats, the Big Valley — top-heavy with stacked pots — wallowed and then sank, drowning all but one of its crew.
A small number of boats are featured on “Deadliest Catch” every season and turn up weekly, like characters in an episodic novel. Each of them is rigged with two fixed cameras covering the deck and a smaller “captain’s cam” in the wheelhouse, focused on the skipper. Two Discovery Channel cameramen are embedded with each crew, stalking them day and night with hand-held cameras.
All this exposure has made unlikely heroes of some of the fishermen, especially a few of the captains: Sig Hansen of the Northwestern, who has the brooding, blond appeal of an aging Norwegian rock singer; Johnathan Hillstrand of the Time Bandit, who cultivates a sort of biker look: mullet, backward baseball cap, leather USA jacket and ostrich-skin cowboy boots; and the Cornelia Marie’s skipper, Phil Harris, gravelly voiced, tattooed and irascible.
They’re recognized on the street in Las Vegas, where a lot of fishermen like to vacation; they get sacks of fan mail, including marriage proposals, and make a nice bit of change on the side selling souvenirs, including thong underwear, on their boats’ Web sites. Last fall Brandee Lecki and Roseann Sullivan, two devoted fans of “Deadliest Catch,” traveled all the way from Swartz Creek, Mich., to Dutch Harbor, just to watch the fleet sail out for the beginning of the king crab season.
Dutch Harbor is hardly a tourist destination. The airport’s runway is so short that when a plane arrives or departs, the end is sometimes blocked with a pickup, to keep the plane from crashing into traffic headed for the docks. There are three or four trees in Unalaska, which is mostly cliff, and a number of blockhouses and Quonset huts left over from World War II, when Dutch Harbor was bombed by the Japanese. The landscape is beautiful, like the high Scottish moorland, and postindustrial, with truck chassis, fuel drums, spools of wire and other assorted junk rusting on the shore because it costs too much to ferry such stuff away. Sea lions troll the harbor. Perched on lampposts and trash bins, bald eagles are as common as pigeons.
Some crab fishermen refer to their time offshore as “sea-hab,” and as Captain Hillstrand writes in “Time Bandit,” a book he and his brother (and fellow “Deadliest Catch” captain) Andy have just published with Malcolm MacPherson, “The crew who work best on deck are animals who should be dropped off at the sea buoys on the way to port.” But Dutch Harbor is actually tamer than it used to be, back when crab fishing was an unregulated free-for-all and an unlimited number of boats competed against one another.
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