Surviving The Deadliest Catch

You’ll never pay as much attention to safety instructions as when you’re on board a propeller plane heading for Dutch Harbour, 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 Harbour is the home of Deadliest Catch, the Discovery Channel super-show now in its eighth season. If you watch it, you know it’s a documentary series following a ragtag crew of crab fishermen battling the big-arse 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, about what I just described. Pay attention here, people!
I’m in Dutch Harbour because, like you, I love 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’m 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.

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 tonne of bald eagles, which are usually eating garbage out of dumpsters.
My first stop is the Time Bandit, captained by the maniacal Hillstrand brothers: Johnathan, 49, and Andy, 48. 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 Harbour.’
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 one-metre gap between the dock and the boat railing, a six-metre 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 450kg crab pots and smile in -4C 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 180-tonne 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, Johnathan 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 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.”
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-arse 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, ‘F—k 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.’”

For the full feature and images grab the July issue of MAXIM, in stores June 20 – July 18, 2012.

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