Deadliest Catch’s Hell on Ice

Mj 618_348_hell on ice
Photograph by Sebastian Copeland

An old mariner’s axiom has it that below 40 degrees latitude south, there are no laws; below 50 degrees, there is no God. The seas are no more hospitable at 57 degrees latitude north, where a frozen island outcrop called St Paul, Alaska, sits, stuck between Hell and Purgatory. The North Pacific is the birthplace of some of the world’s biggest storms. And when low-pressure fronts from the southwest collide with nor’easters, they produce fierce winter storms with 70-mile-an-hour winds and 40-foot seas that can swallow the sturdiest vessels. And the place where this happens is pretty much where I landed for a two-week stint on a crabbing boat: in the middle of the Bering Sea, where the continental shelf drops from a depth of about 600 feet to more than 8,000. The upwelling of currents, combined with the influence of the Arctic, makes for turbulent seas. But it also makes for a nutrient-rich environment that is especially fertile for deep-sea dwellers like the Alaskan crab, the bounty fishermen risk themselves to haul from the ocean floor.

From Los Angeles, it takes four planes and two days to reach this frosty enclave, with multiple stops along the way on islands with names like Cold Bay (pop. 95). Through the porthole of the turboprop, the view spells out the desolate nature of the island. The barren, exposed terrain is void of trees, and the ever-present wind creates constant snowdrift, covering every surface.

Part of the island is a bird sanctuary, host to more than 250 migratory species, and in an effort to appeal to birders, the chamber of commerce brochure evokes a quaint holiday retreat. It is not. And there is nothing regal about the King Eider, part of a prefab barrack that doubles as the island’s airport and only hotel.

Upon landing, I learn that the Wizard, the ship I’ve come to board, won’t pull in to harbor for another two days. An airport employee suggests a visit to the local bar, the town’s single attraction. Tonight is Friday, a good night at the bar, which is closed on weekends – by city ordinance and tradition – to curb the island’s consumption. The dim lighting hides most of the stained ratty carpet, but the smell of weeks-old beer permeates the room. The sparse tables and chairs are taken up by mostly foreign workers from the nearby fish-processing plant. A coast guard spends a half-hour educating me on everything there is to know about beer. I don’t drink but listen dutifully as inebriated locals, sporting colorful Mohawks, have a go at the nearby pool table and slur expletives at Obama.

The following evening, I go to the Coast Guard base for dinner. There, I meet Josh Shaffer, a flight mechanic whose fresh face belies 10 years of service. At this time last year, Josh was part of a dramatic nighttime search-and-rescue mission. Two fishing ships went down in the Bering. “We found the first crew in pitch darkness,” he tells me gravely, “with 90-mile-an-hour winds and 40-foot seas.” They had to abort mission because the winds were too high, and they were running out of fuel. The worst part was seeing the look on the men’s faces as they pulled away. He pauses for a moment and shakes his head. “You never forget that,” he adds.

When I explain that I will be headed out on a crab boat for two weeks at sea, Jason Evans, a pilot sitting with us, asks if I’ve been equipped with an emergency suit. I have. “Use it as a pillow!” they both blurt out. Later that night, I listen as the storm builds outside. As the windows rattle and the structure shakes, I visualize the Wizard tossed around like a cork in a fountain. I’d crossed the Drake passage, the wretched body of sea separating Patagonia from Antarctica, four times and gotten a taste of what they call the “Drake Shake” aboard a research vessel. But 40-foot waves?

I roll out my immersion suit and time myself getting in it. On the third time, I manage under one minute.

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.”

There are all manner of high fives and fist bumps when we finally moor off. The storm has subsided, and the boat has been cleared of the frozen spray – about 100,000 pounds of ice. A couple on the dock asks for pictures with the crew. Keith signs autographs with the ease of a seasoned celebrity. On shore, the Wizard crew – Keith in particular – are stars. “The locals either love them or hate them,” Steve tells me. Onboard the atmosphere is relaxed. The crew is unfazed by the cameras; still, there remains a curious pride over the interest of outsiders.

It takes some maneuvering to break free of the ice that has built in the harbor, but soon the Wizard makes out to sea. The engines hum and the sodium vapor lights of St Paul fade in the distance. From inside the galley, the pitching and rolling remind me of my dinner of fried cod and gravy. I breathe deep, hoping to keep it all in. We will be steaming for 10 hours, to set the first pots, 80 nautical miles or so from St Paul. From that point, the crew of eight will rotate, working 18-hour shifts for around-the-clock fishing, until the holds are filled. With six hours of rest between shifts, which includes food and bathroom duties, sleep time can’t be wasted. I pass out in the upper bunk of the “boar’s den,” the stateroom I share with Monte. At 5 am, the light comes on, and my roomie tells me that we will soon be “on the crab.” I wake up to the unmistakable scent of fish. I have slept surprisingly well, considering the rolling and the nagging worry that I’d fall off my perch to the ground below.

It is dark out, and a blizzard covers the deck with freezing snow. But this won’t last. “If you don’t like the weather,” Freddie tells me, “wait five minutes.” Freddie, the massive, Mohawked deckhand turns out to be a teddy bear in a brick-house body and the hardest worker onboard. This is his fourth season on the Wizard, but he is an 18-year veteran. Within minutes the clouds part, and the moon cuts a reflective path in the choppy, steely-black seas. Today is my day of learning. There are 20 seven-by-seven-by-three pots, stacked on deck, waiting to be set. A 20-foot crane lifts one of the 1,000-pound steel cages and hauls it to the launcher, a metal table that hangs over the ship’s starboard edge and tilts the pots overboard. Once on the launcher, the pot is secured by two sliding hooks to prevent accidental slipping in rough seas. Three large cod have been affixed inside, along with ground sardines. Six hundred feet of line is pulled out of the pots; the launcher slides the pots overboard; the line is tossed behind it; and the buoy follows. All this happens in rhythmic harmony, at a brisk pace set by the moving ship. Over and over again.

Words are rarely exchanged on deck: The repetitious nature of the work and bulky cold-weather gear do not make for a chummy environment. Occasionally, when an unusually full pot is hauled on deck, the crew will howl just to break the monotony or Freddie will launch into a brief warrior dance, a Samoan-inspired gyration, to lighten the mood. A nor’easter is moving in, and the temperatures plummet, more ice accumulating on deck. But the slippery ground does nothing to interrupt the sequence of the men on deck, even as the ship is pitching and rolling on the building seas. As I shuffle over the ice, I secretly wonder how long it will be before I land on my butt. Eventually, a string of 15 to 30 pots is set and “soaking.”

Then the whole process happens again, in reverse, this time with crab to sort – up to 800 per pot. “Everything on this boat is an assembly line,” Monte confirms. But the monotony is deceiving. Each movement has been refined to its essence, optimizing purpose and efficiency. The precision is the special sauce. And no one here is shy about correcting you, especially Keith, who’s perched in the wheelhouse and armed with a loudspeaker. Instructions can be painfully barked at greenhorns because an error here, big or small, may affect everyone down the line and break the timing that’s the backbone of this operation. Success is not just measured by the catch, but by how efficiently it has been caught. From behind an array of screens and electronics, that responsibility mostly falls on the captain, and his mind never stops computing. After decades of practice, Keith makes effortless the work of integrating fuel data, pot locations, weather predictions, math, charts, surveys, experience, and instinct, referencing all of it into an estimation of what the biomass might look like on the ocean floor. And where it’s moving. This he does while maneuvering 499 tons to the buoys in 30-foot seas and 65-mph winds, while discussing the crucial need to protect the ocean’s fisheries. The respect of his men, who all pitch in for fuel, food, and bait, relies on his performance. His accuracy accounts for energy saved and, ultimately, more money in everyone’s pockets.

My first real shift begins at 6 am on my workday. Stepping out onto the deck is like entering the arena. First, we wait under the heatlamps in the “wet room” for the engines to rev down, signaling the first approaching buoy on a string. Once the hatch opens, the elements hit you all at once. And it’s on. In single file, the crew manages the icy deck, braving snow and the 60-mph freezing north winds in pitch darkness, while the sea throws in all directions. A big wave breaks over portside spraying the deck with heavy drops. Seconds out of the hatch and the deck crew is glistening in freezing seawater. The plastic hoods prevent a full soak, but the dousing does wake you up. The captain maintains the ship’s higher portside to the wind, shielding the deck from most of it, but the accumulating ice is a good indicator of the wind-chill temps: Spray sticks to exposed surfaces and almost instantly freezes, caking the ship with “the white stuff.”

Yesterday, water had dripped inside my rubber gloves, soaking the woolen liner, and the cold is now grabbing hold of my hands, sending a throbbing pain to my fingertips. Lesson number one: Make sure the liners dry overnight! While I shake my hands to promote circulation, Freddie shouts instructions over the wind. “When the line is thrown overboard, don’t lift your feet from the deck!” This is just one of an array of useful tips for avoiding a litany of hazards. I am told of the deckhand whose foot was caught by a descending line and pulled overboard. Apparently he used his knife on the line on his way to the bottom, but cut the wrong end: The buoy was found, but the pot and the deckhand were lost to the sea. Most accidents occur from falls, or random equipment failure that can send a 1,000-pound pot wildly flailing off a crane in heavy seas. “Never stand under the crane,” Monte tells me. A heavy block of frozen spray can suddenly break off, hurling 50 pounds of ice onto the deck, and easily kill a man. Injuries run the gamut from flesh wounds to broken bones or internal trauma.

Lenny Lekanoff, 53, is the oldest crew member and a seven-year veteran. His gestures are masterfully efficient, often utilizing the boat’s roll to reduce effort. In a job where repetition is the key factor, this can trim the daily slog by 20 percent. By contrast, a greenhorn’s zealous energy will quickly get ground down, while the toll on the body grows. That would be me. The hands are the first to get hit. The minute motions required to tie knots, click, flip, strap, and sort a few hundred times every hour are quick to manifest a burning sensation in my left wrist that soon spreads to my right. The stress on the tendons and ligaments is a common ailment they call “crabber’s claw.” Sixteen hours into my 18-hour shift, I can barely lift the 40-pound cods, let alone set them inside the pots. The pain is excruciating.

Too proud to complain, I count the minutes until the midnight hour, and the end of the seemingly endless shift. With pain radiating from my wrists, I choose to suck it up, a mistake commonly made by newcomers.

The fate of the greenhorn is a tantalizing feature on many of the show’s episodes. The cameras stalk his every move, looking for priceless moments like him tossing his cookies. The new greenhorn is 28-year-old Robby Schlosstein, whose brother, Roger, is a deckhand. He flew up from Tacoma, Washington, to replace the greenhorn who tangled with Freddie. “I got the call on Friday and was in St Paul on Sunday,” says Robby. “I had no idea what to bring.”

Five days in, he can barely open his hands, his body aches, and the crew is riding him pretty hard. “Roger went through it last year, and he really suffered,” he tells me. “But he came out on the other side and walked away with almost $60,000 [for three months of work]. Where else do you make that kind of money with no training?” I ask Keith what he thinks of the new guy. “Right now, he’s like a deer in the headlights,” he says. “Everything is coming at him. I don’t like to make predictions, but on average, one in 20 finishes the season. Of those, most of them don’t come back.”

As my shift draws to an end, I find a few seconds in the sequence between pots to sit on the buoy and get a load off. Lenny smiles and gives me the thumbs up: It seems I have identified one of the coveted windows to relieve fatigue. No sooner am I on my feet and feeling momentarily refreshed, when I am thrown to the deck by a wave that washes overboard. Josh, the on-deck cameraman, is swept off his feet and lands next to me. His camera slides nearby. We never saw it coming.

I get a sample of every position on deck. Aside from running the crane, which requires specialized and critical skill, tasks rotate between deckhands depending on mood, preference, and ability. But the pungent bait station is the greenhorn’s domain, and I get my share of that: the hooking, the hanging, the tossing. I also throw the hook, the buoy, sort crabs by the thousands, and never once get sick. When my shift ends, I am almost too tired to eat. The fish stench that fills my pores is but an afterthought.

The boys honor my effort and seem genuine when they ask me to stay. Would I join their crew? Not a chance! My wrists, for one, would not allow it. A week after my shift they still burn with pain. Monte is not shy about the physical toll. “Everyone who works the deck hurts,” he says. “And if they tell you differently – they’re lying!” Back in the wheelhouse, Keith negotiates 30-foot seas and our second storm in one week. The ship’s four holds have been filled with crab, and we head to Dutch Harbor to unload. We will be steaming in rough seas for 24 hours. Multiple 18-hour shifts make a solid case for burying yourself in your cot. The ship is throwing in all directions, and any other activity is unpleasant. There are no poker games or wild drinking binges. The crew doesn’t convene to eat the fresh cod I cook for dinner; it’s slowly picked at by invisible takers, emerging from their rooms long enough to flip through the one magazine. By the end of the week, everyone seems to know exactly what kind of Rolls Royce Beyoncé received on her 25th birthday.

I ask Keith how this trip compares with the norm. “It’s as good a trip as we want,” he tells me. “The fishing was strong; we’ve had a smooth sail, with no incident. That’s my number one responsibility.” Steve’s ambivalence is notable. To say that he wished for trouble might be a stretch, but his hunt was disappointing. In his defense, a cruise where all goes well and everyone gets along might help the good times, but not the ratings. “A little dull on this trip but not unusual. We had the greenhorn…” His thoughts trail away without much enthusiasm. Just then, word comes over the radio that another boat from the fleet is in distress: Its engines are sputtering, and failed electronics onboard are hampering communications. Its young captain faces tough, potentially critical decisions with a boat fully loaded, in the storm we just weathered. That is real-life drama and what the show thrives on: It will likely get the lion’s share of that week’s episode. But last week, on the Wizard, they had a fistfight leading story….

As I step off the Wizard, in Dutch Harbor, I feel depleted. Robby smiles for the first time in a week. He made $9,000 in nine days, and it looks like he might make it back. The crew is pulling for him, which is heartening. As I drive away, I see Keith walking on the muddy road of Dutch Harbor, his head down, caught in thoughts. Probably running numbers and computing strategies in his head. Ready for another go at the seas. The Wizard will unload approximately 365,000 pounds of crab from this run alone. The sale value at the processing plant is around $850,000. Maybe not the penthouse, but definitely not the outhouse. [‘Deadliest Catch‘ airs on Discovery Channel on Thursdays at 9 p.m. EST]

Visit our photo gallery for more pictures from Sebastian Copeland’s Bering Sea trip with the ‘Deadliest Catch’ crew.

For access to exclusive gear videos, celebrity interviews, and more, subscribe on YouTube!