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Alaska's crab fishermen go prime time
Anchorage Daily News


March 28, 2007
Wednesday AM

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Captain Phil Harris lost a crew member overboard. He broke his back (twice), all his fingers, both shoulders, an ankle and a wrist. Many of the guys he started fishing with were killed on the job. Both his wives left him.

Crab fishing's been better to him than most.

For starters, he's 50 and still alive.

The Seattle-based captain of the Cornelia Marie has never returned to land broke. His record annual haul: $500,000.

Anchorage Daily News

5,000 - The pounds of equipment the production team ships from Los Angeles to Dutch Harbor, Alaska.

60 - The number of cameras the film crews leave Dutch Harbor with each season. Due to saltwater and frigid temps, only a third of those make it back to land in working order.

8,000 - The hours of footage that are shot by 18 cameramen over the course of king and opilio crab seasons. This footage is edited down to 12 hourlong episodes.

36 - The average number of days a cameraman will spend at sea per TV season.

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

The combination of jackpot earnings, dogged crab fishermen and life-threatening weather has made the reality-TV series "Deadliest Catch" the top-rated show on the Discovery Channel, with about 6 million viewers per week.

The show has turned craggy boat captains like Harris into unlikely reality-TV stars, who now receive crab pots full of fan mail and romantic proposals.

In the third season, which debuts at 9 p.m. EST Tuesday, April 3, cameras roll as crabbing crews leave Dutch Harbor seeking a windfall on the Bering Sea.

The first episode ends in the middle of a Coast Guard search, with the ominous image of a yellow survival suit floating empty on the waves.

"This ain't a hamburger stand out here," Harris says to the TV camera as he listens to the rescue operation on his radio. "This is the real deal, and people really die."

Harris' perilous career started with run-of-the-mill car envy.

When Harris was in high school, he drove a Volkswagen. His buddy, whose dad owned a crab boat, drove a Chevelle.

He thought "something's wrong here." At 17, he volunteered to work for a crab fisherman for free until he could prove himself.

His first day on a crab boat, the Bering Sea lay still. He sat up on the stack, drinking beer and daydreaming about the millions he'd make crabbing.

The next day, giant waves of frigid water flew over the boat. "I was so sick, I was literally lying in the bait pan, hating life, throwing up," Harris said in his sandpapery voice. "I walked up to the galley table holding on for dear life, thinking, 'Dear God, shoot me now.' The captain chuckled at me, said, 'I didn't think you'd make it.'

"And I thought, '(Expletive) him,' and I got back up."

Today, Harris has 30 years of crab fishing under his rain gear.

He only remembers being scared a few times, including a day nearly 20 years ago he calls Black Monday. That day, a furious storm stirred up waves more than 50 feet high and sank six crab boats in less than four hours, according to news reports.

"There were constant maydays coming over the radio," he said. "In the moment, you're mostly just anxious because you're just working so hard to stay upright and on the boat, but when it's all done with and you have time to reflect on it, holy moley."

Harris said that, obviously, he's a thrill seeker. But equally he's motivated by the big pay/less hours lifestyle. By fishing just a few months a year, he had plenty of time to help raise his two sons, Josh and Jake, and savor his hobbies: riding his Harley and making custom birdfeeders.

Last season, Jake joined his dad's crew as a greenhorn. This season, Josh became part of the crew, too. Both are in their early 20s. Harris said some parents might criticize him for bringing his kids into such a menacing workplace. But he's convinced they're going to fish with or without him, so he'd rather they learn from his trusted crew. "Plus, if something were to ever happen to either of them, I'd want to be there," he said.

Crab boats are Indiana Jones-worthy obstacle courses, with all sorts of ropes, chains, winches and 1,000-pound steel crab pots. Temperamental waters can send the whole works hurtling across the deck. Add long hours, mental fatigue, backbreaking physical labor and the risk of falling into near-freezing water, and you've got TV executives salivating.

It's one of the most hostile environments for the Discovery Channel, which has shot everything from camels in the Gobi Desert to ocean-bottom shipwrecks, according to Jeff Conroy, co-executive producer of "Deadliest Catch."

Just transporting the L.A.-based production crew and its 5,000 pounds of equipment to Dutch Harbor is a financial and logistical nightmare. "I avoid looking at our shipping bills," Conroy laughed.

Each boat has three fixed cameras and two cameras operated by hand, all of which need to be waterproofed and ice-proofed and pot-falling-on-them proofed. Every season, 60 cameras go out on the boats; only about a third make it back in working order.

Camera operators go through safety training.

Harris said he will fish for crab at least a couple more years to recover financially from his most recent divorce. Then he'll turn the controls over, he hopes to his sons.

"I keep doing this and doing this and my number's going to come up," Harris said. "I'd just as soon quit in one piece."


Anchorage Daily News reporter Sarah Henning can be reached at
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Scripps Howard News Service,

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