Sebastian Copeland, a seasoned polar explorer, survives two frigid, perilous weeks on a crab boat in the Bering Sea with the blue-collar heroes of 'Deadliest Catch.'
Credit: Photograph by Sebastian Copeland
When asked if I would fly to Alaska to write a story about 'Deadliest Catch,' the hit TV show that spawned a slew of tough-job reality programs, I had little idea what to expect, except that it would be cold. I hadn't seen the show and had never spent time on a crabber. 'Deadliest Catch,' now entering its ninth season, is an achievement based on a simple premise, given the high casualty rate in commercial crab fishing on the Bering Sea: Let's embed two cameramen on a bunch of ships, keep the cameras rolling, and wait for something to happen. And invariably, something does. From broken bones to open wounds, the show also capitalizes on what can resemble a soap opera, what happens when a crew of fishermen live in tight quarters on the high seas, performing a job the Labor Department ranks at the top of workplace-casualty occupations. The question: Did I want to join them in doing the most dangerous job in America?

I'd survived more than a few cold-weather expeditions already. I'd crossed the most inhospitable bodies of ice on the planet, sleeping in tents; I spent three months journeying on foot across Antarctica in temperatures rarely warmer than 35 below; I'd been attacked by polar bears in the Arctic; I'd fallen through the ice on my way to the North Pole; I was pinned down in my tent for seven straight days by a hurricane on Greenland; and over the years, I have had frostbite on most of my extremities. But how would I stack up on an Alaskan crab-fishing boat in the middle of January? Was I tough enough to handle this torture? And would my suffering validate the job's top claim?

My first thought was "Why not?" I am a sailor, and the idea of spending time on the water in the company of fishermen was enough to pique my interest. Had I watched even a single episode of 'Deadliest Catch,' I might have left it at that. But for reasons foreign to me now, and mostly having to do with ignorance, ill-placed ego, and journalistic bravado, I agreed, on one condition: that I would not simply observe, but I'd get to work as a deckhand. For two weeks, I would suffer among the fishermen who risk everything for this highly prized loot. Only they would be getting handsomely paid for it.

As I pull up to the Wizard, its giant holds are being cleared of the catch. At 155 feet, it is one of the largest vessels in the fleet, and one of six crab boats featured in 'Deadliest Catch'. The frozen spray that coats the deck, handrails, and every other exposed surface onboard tells the story of conditions at sea. Overnight, the temperatures have plummeted to –15 degrees Celsius, encrusting the harbor with a one-foot sheet of ice. I step inside, looking for someone to report to, but the crew is passed out and all is quiet. In the galley, next to the poker chips, lies a DVD of 'Bridesmaids' and a copy of 'Us Weekly'. I try to picture hardened seamen poring over the list of best- and worst-dressed on the red carpet. The incongruity, along with the notable absence of cigarette stench, softens my expectations. The Wizard has a crew of eight. With the film crew, myself, and an observer for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, there will be a total of 12 men onboard. How bad could this be? I wonder as I step back out into the blizzard. On deck, international contract workers from the local plant are unloading what will amount to 419,000 pounds of Opilio crab. When I ask them what they think of 'Deadliest Catch,' it draws blank stares. One shrugs and puts a thumb up, but I wonder if he understood me.

I'm on my way back to the hotel when my phone rings. It's Steve Wright, the 'Deadliest Catch' segment producer, and one of two cameramen onboard. He tells me the ship will not leave for another 24 hours. A fight broke out at sea between a veteran deckhand, a 230-pound Samoan named Feleti "Freddie" Maugatai, and a greenhorn, the lowest rung of the crab boat's crew. Punches were thrown. The greenhorn quit, and they need to wait until a new one is flown in.

Like everyone else, the greenhorn was lured to the Wizard by the chance to make quick cash. Crab fishing can be lucrative. The catch they're unloading today will gross $986,000, and there should be three more like it this Opi season. A greenhorn makes half a share, or 2.5 percent of the net. This can amount to more than $50,000 for three months of work; in a particularly good year, a full-share deckhand made close to $200,000 for six months of work.

"It's a dream job," Keith Colburn, the captain of the Wizard, tells me. "It's a cruise, an adventure, a treasure hunt, and freedom all wrapped in one." More times than not, the people he gets up here are running from something – the law, the IRS, legal problems, girlfriend trouble. "We get 'em all!" he says. Keith is a brawny man, just shy of 50. Originally from Tahoe, where he skied by day and worked as a sous chef by night, he decided that he didn't want to end up in a kitchen, and so he hitched a plane to Alaska with a buddy. "We arrived in Kodiak in mid-March," he says. "We landed in a snowstorm, and walked out of the plane with a tent and sleeping bags." They were six weeks early. All the boats were dark, and there was ice on the bay. After two days of running up and down the docks knocking on every door, they met a man who'd just bought a ship that needed fixing. Keith joined the crew and stayed with that boat long enough to learn the trade. When he got on the Wizard in the late 1980s, he quickly moved up the ranks, got his mate's and then master's license, and eventually got the run of the ship, which he bought in 2005. Under his command, the Wizard has consistently produced the biggest catch in the fleet. And for the last seven seasons, Keith has craftily refined one more tool in his arsenal: staying relevant in reality TV, an unlikely skill he comes to relish and rebel against all at once. That inner conflict plays to the show's dramatic bent, and Steve's mission is to capture it.

Keith's brother Monte Colburn, 48, is the Wizards' co-captain and has been running the deck on the boat for years, since the boat he captained was sold. His rows with big brother account for some reliable airtime on the ship's TV segments. "He doesn't blow," Monte says of Keith, "he erupts! This can happen on a dime." "Keith once grabbed a cameraman by the collar and shoved him all the way down the hall," confides Steve. "I am not sure what the reason was, but I think it had to do with coffee." Keith lives up to the mythical mariner's reputation for eccentricity and superstition. After assessing the last run's catch – "It's not the penthouse, but it's not the outhouse" – he knocks three times on a wooden box his daughter made for him and on a figurine of ex-Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki. In the galley, hanging cups must face aft; he calls the nefarious sea ice "the white stuff," never by name; 13 is "12 plus 1"; and there is no whistling in the wheelhouse. But don't call him superstitious: That would be bad luck!

On ship, Keith is omnipotent. He is the boss man, and no one questions that. It is a stripe a captain earns with years of command and a stellar record. "I've thrown them off my boat before," he says of the cameramen. "In the end, the ocean makes me a lot more money than these guys are. If they get in my way, that's it. It's game over." Steve concurs: "Bottom line is we are guests on this boat." But it's not that simple: Keith understands the value of storyline. And no good story exists without conflict. For a ship to make recurrent seasons on 'Deadliest Catch,' audiences must respond to events onboard, and those rely greatly on a captain's personality. The conflict gets the ratings, and staying on the show can add a few zeros to the crew's earnings. Keith has two kids approaching college age, and he's starting to plan for retirement. With a deal in the six figures, the show helps pays for that.

I try to get a sense of the gap that exists here between reality and reality TV. When I suggest to Steve that nobody acts the same with a camera in their face, the segment producer is emphatic. Unlike so many reality shows that are scripted, he claims never to force a situation: "We just capture reality as it unfolds." Keith suggests that that can be nuanced: "They want to make me look like the grumpy old man? Fine," he says. "But it's not necessarily the representation. If Monte and I are having fun, laughing, that's not going to make it in the show! But," he concedes, "it's not like things portrayed didn't happen."