You’ll never pay as much attention to safety instructions as when you’re on board a propeller plane heading for Dutch Harbor, Alaska.
You’ll never pay as much attention to safety instructions as when you’re on board a propeller plane heading for Dutch Harbor, Alaska. During the turbulence-tastic flight, you get banged around more than a porn star at a Charlie Sheen sleepover (although you reach for your barf bag half as much).
Dutch Harbor is the home of The Deadliest Catch, the Discovery Channel supershow now going into its seventh season. If you watch it (as four million Americans do each week), you know that it is a documentary series following a ragtag crew of crab fishermen battling the big-ass waves of the Bering Sea in search of pinchy red gold, while trying not to die. If you don’t watch the show, it’s, well, it’s about what I just described. Pay attention here, people!
I’m in Dutch Harbor because, like you, I love The Deadliest Catch. Dudes putting their lives on the line to make 70 grand in four weeks by pulling stuff out of the frozen sea—I’m hooked. I haven’t missed an episode. I imagine I’m sorting crabs when I am separating darks from lights in my laundry. Wait, you don’t do that? Um, neither do I. Totally kidding. Er, moving on…So we all know what the guys are like on TV, but what are they like when the cameras aren’t rolling? Are they as fearless, psychotic, and f-bombing fun? I came here to find out.
BAND OF BANDITS
Climbing off the plane in Dutch is like stepping onto the moon (if the moon were populated primarily with big, bearded men who smell of cod guts). It’s rocky, bleak, and barren. There is one hotel, one coffee shop, one restaurant. There are, however, a ton of bald eagles, which are usually eating garbage out of Dumpsters. (Note to bald eagles: You’re the symbol of America—class it up!)
My first stop is the Time Bandit, captained by the maniacal Hillstrand brothers: Johnathan, 48, and Andy, 47. As I approach the boat, I learn a mantra I will hear (and think) over and over again during my stay: Nothing is easy in Dutch Harbor.
The Deadliest Catch does a great job of showing how dangerous working on crab boats is, but it neglects to show you how dangerous it is just getting on the damn things. This ain’t The Love Boat: There’s no gangplank festooned with flowers and perky cruise directors. Instead, there is a three-foot gap between the dock and the boat railing, a 20-foot drop into life-suckingly cold water, and a dude laughing at you: “Don’t worry, you’ll probably make it.” This is Mike Fourtner, the longtime deckhand, who has the power to push 1,000-pound crab pots and smile in -40°F ice storms.
I’m ushered into the wheelhouse of the Time Bandit—which is much smaller than it looks on TV—where I meet Johnathan and Andy, who are much taller than they look on TV. Also? Yeah, I’ll say it: much handsomer than they look on TV. “That’s because when you see us on the show, we haven’t slept for four days,” says Johnathan. “What do you think you’re gonna look like? Our hair’s not perfect and shit.”
Capts. Johnathan and Andy love their jobs, love their guys, and often express that love by tossing “seal bombs” (smallish sticks of dynamite) at them. Johnathan lights one and tosses it out the side of the boat. The 200-ton vessel jolts when it goes off. The captains cackle madly. “We use those if it looks like the guys need a little wake-me-up,” says Andy.
Our conversation takes many turns, with the brothers finishing each other’s sentences. A typical exchange:
Maxim: If you hadn’t been born into crab fishing, what do you think you’d do for a living?
Johnathan: I’d want to be a fireman or an astronaut or—
Andy: Sell crack to the whole town of Chicago! Whatever we do we want to be at the top! All my proceeds would go to charity.
You have to be a tough mofo to work a crab boat. Crews are expected to haul crab for 30 hours straight as mountains of water and massive steel cages try to kill them. To understand the degree of difficulty, Johnathan suggests trying to golf during an earthquake in Antarctica.
But they’ll be well compensated if they catch their crab quota and survive. Each guy on this boat is likely to walk away with $72,000, and then surely crap it away. “There is a long tradition of living like rock stars and spending like drunken sailors,” says Andy. Of deckhand Eddie, Johnathon reports, “One season all the guys made 52 grand. Eddie goes and buys a brand-new Camaro for $48,000, and I go, ‘You guys are always gonna be broke. When we come back next season, you’ll ask for money.’ He goes, ‘No, I’m not.’ So he hits a moose with the brand-new Camaro. Next time we see him he’s like, ‘I got a story to tell you.’¿”
With the Hillstrands, there is always a story. Andy casually mentions that last night he broke his guitar over the head of another ship’s deck boss, but before I can get clarification, we are down on the gently swaying deck. I wonder how long I’d last at sea before I started barfing up the bottoms of my feet. As if reading my mind, Johnathan asks, “You know who’s a pussy? Mike Rowe.” Mike Rowe, when not up to his neck in pig shit on Dirty Jobs, narrates The Deadliest Catch. “We tried to take him out for a cruise, and in 10 minutes he was crying to turn around.” Andy adds, “Total pussy, dude.” (See Mike’s response, right.)
Maybe it’s the combination of moving floor, salty air, and jet lag, but suddenly my body starts doing things without my brain’s permission. Inside 10 minutes, I’m firing Johnathan’s M-16 (they have a number of guns on board, including an AK-47, because, as Andy tells me, “You don’t know if you’re going to crash and have to hunt for survival on an island”), then I’m locked in a crab pot, and finally I’m hoisted up on a crane and dipped into the Bering Sea. Thankfully, they stop at my ankles. Four minutes in this water without a survival suit and you’re a goner.
Even though I am under their watchful, crazed eyes, a snap of the line or—more likely—my weak-ass grip could put me into the ice soup. It is invigorating to slow-dance with death a little, which seems, ultimately, to be the big lure of the fishing life. “We get asked to contribute to a lot of memorials for guys who die out here,” says Andy. “It’s kind of a love-hate thing, because they go, ‘You wanna buy a brick?’ I go, ‘Fuck you, I don’t want no brick with my name on it! I ain’t gonna die on this thing. I’m gonna die old from screwing.’¿”
Cape Cheerful, the bar on the ground floor of the Grand Aleutian hotel, is like a living wax museum of The Deadliest Catch. Look, there’s Jake Anderson, the kid who proved his mettle on the Northwestern by working without a jacket! And that’s Freddy, the wild Samoan who snacks on bait-fish livers!
I take a seat with Scott Campbell, a.k.a. Junior, one of two new captains joining The Deadliest Catch this year. Junior, 36, who skippers the Seabrooke, is a super-friendly dude who was built to haul crab from the sea—even his teeth seem to have rippling muscles. His philosophy is to work faster and harder than any other boat. “There’s no weather that stops me. Guys will take off runnin’, and I’ll fish for another day through the weather.”
Junior, like every captain I’ll talk with, says his main concern is the crew’s safety. “If they’re hurtin’, they gotta let me know, because something that seems minor to them can actually be a major thing.” He knows from experience, showing me his hand that is missing three-fourths of a finger. His thoroughly unenjoyable tale involves getting his digit “spun off” in the boat’s motor, electing to stay out at sea rather than seeking medical attention, getting a staph infection that turned his hand into a useless “softball” that he had to duct-tape to the throttle to control the ship, and almost losing the hand were it not for a last-ditch procedure that saved his ability to pick his nose and scratch his balls at the same time. I’ll drink to that!
THE WHEEL WORLD
“You’re pretty much driving a small planet,” laughs Keith Colburn, 48, captain of The Wizard. I'm sitting in the captain’s chair piloting the boat 100 feet down the dock to load more crab pots. Easy, right? Not so much. A strong wind suddenly pushes the 499-ton vessel sideways. Due to engine thruster issues, we’re in the tricky predicament of trying to angle back to the dock without bashing into other ships. Keith keeps cool, and after a few failed attempts, The Wizard is safely back in port.
Unlike most of the other captains, Keith wasn’t born into this life. Trained as a chef, he was on break from a fancy Lake Tahoe gig back in 1985 when he got the urge. “I used to buy Alaska magazine, and it seemed like that was the Wild West, the last frontier. I decided I’m gonna go see what Alaska is about.” So he scraped together enough dough for a one-way ticket and prowled the docks until someone took him on board. It was a lonely time. “Before I got here guys kept saying, ‘There’s a lot of beautiful women out in Dutch. There’s one behind every tree.’ Of course, you pull into Dutch and you see there isn’t a single tree! I was young and stupid—I actually bought into it!”
Keith’s wheelhouse is plastered with his daughter’s drawings and a host of good-luck charms, like an Ichiro bobblehead doll. Keith is extremely superstitious, as anyone knows who saw the episode where he freaks out because no one woke him up when a herd of walruses swam by (good luck, apparently). His other superstitions include, but are not limited to: no whistling in the wheelhouse, all the mugs in the galley need to hang the same way, and only Keith’s brother Monte is allowed to draw the dividing lines in his crab-count notebook. Until a few years ago, a bar called the Elbow Room existed (it was shut down due to how many fishermen drunkenly killed each other there), and every season Keith and his crew would have a drink at what they called the “sacred table” for good luck. Not one to let a little demolition get in the way, Keith now stands on the spot where the table once stood and cracks a beer before heading out. “It sounds silly, but if it works, don’t change it.”
Today Keith is interviewing prospective greenhorns (newbie deckhands). Have a lot of guys shown up who just want to be TV stars? “Oh, yeah. I tell the guys that the cameras aren’t on the boat this year. You can tell right away who just wants to get on TV. But by the time they’re on TV, they’re wishing they never were. They look like idiots. They fall apart. Those are the moments that are going to make the show. The producers love that.”
WIDE FUCKIN’ OPEN
Something is always falling from the sky in Dutch: rain, sleet, snow, or, in the case of what drenches me as I climb on the Ramblin’ Rose, fish guts. The boat is offloading cod—many of the boats catch cod when not crabbing—which involves a bucket hoisting the bloody bastards over to a processor.
The Ramblin’ Rose is the second of two new ships joining The Deadliest Catch. It’s skippered by Elliot Neese, 28, the youngest captain in the fleet. Unlike the Seabrooke, on which I was asked to remove my boots, the Ramblin’ Rose is less than tidy. Think Animal House with waterproof pants instead of togas.
But this ain’t no party zone. Elliot might look like someone you’d see on line at an Eminem show, but he’s all business. “We have a little saying here: WFO, wide fuckin’ open. If it ain’t 100 percent at all times, you better get the fuck off. For cod we run 36 hours on, three off. For crab we’ll run 24 hours. We’re not here to make friends: We’re here to make fuckin’ money.”
Elliot played semipro hockey in California and feels prepared for any celebrity the show might bring. “If someone wants an autograph, I’ll give them the hat off my head and sign it. A lot of these guys think they’re better than other people. I’m nobody special.”
Elliot’s grueling pace has many a deckhand running for his life, which he understands. “There are days where if there was a teleporter from Star Trek, I’d fuckin’ pay 100 grand for it just to go home.” But in the end, he says, it is worth the bumps and bruises. “Nowhere else is a guy gonna make 300 grand a year and not have a college education. I was making 70 grand in eighth grade.”
It’s not all about the Benjamins, however. “When the wind is blowing and you’re on 30-foot seas hauling up crossbars of crab…fuckin’ amazing,” he says. “Better than sex. Well, maybe not that far, but pretty fuckin’ cool.”
WHERE REASON GOES TO DIE
Sig Hansen, captain of the Northwestern, is throwing punches to either side of my face. The gruff Norwegian is smaller than he looks on TV but much more animated. We are at the sports bar, where everyone goes when the hotel bar closes, and a place that Mike Rowe says is “where reason and good judgment go to die.” Sig is telling me a long story about a mystery person who, years ago, tied a rope around a bell in this bar and yanked it out with a truck, sending the bell flying through the crowd, colliding with faces and heads. It doesn’t matter if that doesn’t make sense to you. All that matters is that a hopped-up Norwegian’s fists are missing my face by millimeters as he screams, “Bam! Bam!”
His story ends with my nose intact, and another round of Dutch Harbor’s signature drink, the Duck Fart (equal parts Kahlua, Baileys, and Crown Royal), is ordered. Despite the punch-
ing, Sig is in a better mood than when I saw him earlier at his boat. A plumbing problem on board meant you couldn’t flush a toilet or, more important, make a pot of coffee.
“Nothing’s turnkey here, man,” he told me. “It never works out that way!” When I asked if there was anything easy about being a crabfisherman, he answered without hesitation: “Going home.” During our hour-plus talk, Sig enlightened me on his management style (“My two favorite words are ‘fuck you’¿”), his feelings about being immortalized on The Deadliest Catch (“With reruns it’s like this is the new Gilligan’s Island—it ain’t ever going away. We’re fucked”), his interactions with celebrities (“I met that Kate Plus 8 woman. She gave me a weird stare”), and his biggest frustration with being on camera 24/7 (“Sometimes I’m like, ‘I want to talk to my wife. Just give me five minutes of phone sex here. Let me spank myself in privacy, OK?’¿”).
Back at the sports bar, Sig is buying drinks for everyone. He looks downright happy in this, the weirdest fucking bar I’ve ever been in. There is a dance floor, packed with men in fishing gear, dancing with each other as other fishermen take turns singing karaoke. And the karaoke videos being projected on the wall? Men fishing for crabs. There is a lot of testosterone and a lot of booze—at any second it seems like something can go horribly wrong. But then something goes horribly right. Sig grabs one of the female production people from Discovery and hits the dance floor. Dude is downright graceful! (Memo to ABC: If you don’t mind contestants telling the judges to go fuck themselves, your next Dancing With the Stars winner is currently floating out on the Bering Sea.) I tell him he looked good out there, and he tells me he knows he did. Is he the smoothest captain in the fleet? “I don’t know, but it sure as hell ain’t Keith! If I had to fuck one of those guys, he’d be last in line. There’s a quote for you!”
THE HARRIS BOYS
The next day finds me in the wheelhouse of the Cornelia Marie. Even if you’re not a regular watcher, you are probably aware that last season one of the most beloved captains in the fleet, Phil Harris, died of a stroke at 53. His death left all the captains I spoke with deeply saddened and his two sons, Josh, 28, and Jake, 25, responsible for keeping the Cornelia Marie at sea. Despite what perks you think being on The Deadliest Catch might bring, this is one situation fame couldn’t help. Running a ship is a hugely costly endeavor and requires an intimate knowledge of the rules and regulations of the industry. The Cornelia Marie came dangerously close to not leaving Dutch for king crab.
But eventually, with the help of some compassionate captains and despite the extended middle fingers of less-TV-friendly fishermen, the Cornelia left port with a hired hand as captain. It’s been a tough year for Josh and Jake (who spent some time in rehab), but they’ve soldiered through and are a goddamned hoot to hang with. The jerking-off jokes come fast and furious when you’re with the snowboard-loving bros, and just saying a word like “Vegas” will send Josh off on a long, zigzagging tale, which in this case ends with him getting his ass kicked by a midget.
The boys miss their pop and appreciate the well wishes of fans, but do note that it can get a little weird, especially when they’re out with a lady. “I can’t eat in restaurants anymore,” says Josh. “You’ll be on a date and people come up and fuckin’ hug you randomly.” Adds Jake, “They won’t say nothing. They’ll start crying and hug you and you’re like, ‘Uhh…did I do something to you?’¿”
So, fans, if you’re out and you see one of the Harris boys, easy with the hands.
My last night in Dutch finds me once again on the Time Bandit, which Andy is piloting from one side of the island to the other. We won’t be going into big seas, but I am advised not to eat anything for dinner that I enjoy, as I’ll very likely yack it up and hate it forever.
The Time Bandit tops out at about 8.5 knots (just under 10 mph), so we’re not moving fast, but we’re moving. It’s cozy and warm up in the wheelhouse, but I didn’t come here to be cozy: It’s time to stand on deck and experience the closest I’ll come to bearing the brunt of the Bering Sea. I put on enough Gore-Tex to choke a shark and step out into the wild.
Out on deck, 40 mph winds tear across the Bering Sea, whipping it up and dumping it on my head. “People wonder how we stay awake after 24 hours,” says deckhand Mike Fourtner.
“Well, try to fall asleep with that slapping you in the face!”
Despite the emasculating fact that I am wearing enough gear to allow me to ascend Everest and that deckhand Travis Lofland is standing next to me wearing only a T-shirt as he lights up a cigarette, I feel like a man! The wind, the waves, the freedom—this is amazing! Fucking incredible! Better than sex…well, maybe not that far, but pretty fuckin’ cool.
An hour or so later when we pull into the harbor, I climb off the boat and realize I’m about to face the toughest task of my time with the Deadliest Catch captains: getting back on the plane and leaving.
Check out Maxim's Deadliest Catch video here.