Deadliest Catch captains turn one of world's most dangerous jobs into a theater tour
Forget about watching him scoop up loads of King Crab while handling his brother’s needling in spine-tingling episodes of Discovery Channel’s The Deadliest Catch.
There is nothing which can compare to listening on the other end of a telephone line as Northwestern boat captain Sig Hansen shops for shrimp at Seattle’s Pike Street Market.
“These guys just asked me for a picture; this is f-----g horses--t,” said an irritated Hansen, bellowing into his cellphone over the market’s din during a recent interview. “Right now, I just have to buy some f-----g shrimp with my father-in-law.”
But he should know by now: That’s what happens when you let a worldwide reality TV phenomenon turn your family-run fishing boat into a bona-fide, worldwide brand.
Hansen and his crew have come a long way from life as the latest in a long line of Norweigian-ancestry fishermen, “plugging the boat” with loads of King and opilio crab harvested straight from the Bering Sea. And they have few qualms about riding the last seconds of their 15-minutes’ fame into new commercial opportunities.
Which is why the Northwestern’s official website offers ladies underwear with the “Hansennette’s Crest” embossed in pink; the new Cars 2 movie features Hansen’s voice as “Crabby the Boat” and Hansen has joined fellow Catch-mates Andy and Johnathan Hillstrand in a string of live appearances called The Captains’ Tour.
Yup, that’s right. A guy who admits he cut class on days when they made students give speeches in high school now earns a paycheck on a theater stage. The show comes to Clearwater's Ruth Eckerd Hall Saturday night; tickets range from $75 to $35.
“We kept hearing ‘Guys want to know more about your personal life and, you know, the stuff they don’t get on the show,’” said Hansen “We tried it a couple of times before we went King Crab fishing in October and people went f-----g nuts. So we figured, with that big a response, maybe we could pull off (a tour).”
Based on accounts of previous shows, the live tour seems like a re-creation of the story-sharing and ball-busting that happens during Discovery’s After the Catch specials – bull sessions hosted by narrator Mike Rowe that explore the stories behind the episodes.
Past tour stops have included video clips, a question and answer session, a few songs played by Andy Hillstrand and a contest where selected audience members compete to see who can jump into an emergency floatation suit fastest (one minor detail: in real life, if you take longer than 60 seconds to slap it on, you’re probably dead).
The captains are riding a mighty trend that includes everyone from Dog Whisperer's Ceasar Milan to Cake Boss' Buddy Valastro. As stars of popular cable TV shows, they have a built-in audience willing to fork over dollars to see a live experience which mimicks the shows. And with fees ranging anywhere frop $2,500 to $50,000 per show (according to the Chicago Tribune), along with percentages of merchandising and any extra appearances, there's lots of opportunity to monetize reality TV fame in new ways.
“Fishermen, we’re entrepreneurs more than anything,” said Andy Hillstrand in a separate interview. “Like my dad, when he quit crab fishing, he started packing fish for tourists and taking their money. We could be the Donald Trumps of the ocean; everything we do, we just wanna be the best at it.”
Recent seasons of Catch have taken a dark turn as tragedy shadows the men like a bitter shroud. First, the death of Capt. Phil Harris after a stroke sent last year’s episodes into a somber place; this year, the program has shown his sons Josh and Jake struggling to keep their boat in operation, amid allegations that a post-rehab Jake had smoked marijuana onboard.
For Andy Hillstrand, the series’ recent dark turn hasn’t gone over well. “Playing Johnny Cash, everybody’s wearing black, (the tagline) ‘survive the season, survive each other’…it’s like, what the hell are they even talking about?” he said. “We like to have fun doing what we do. So if I see it get dark like that, I just don’t care for it as much.”
Though Hansen respected Catch executive producer Thom Beers, he still admits “spending more on lawyers than they paid us,” to make sure their rights were protected in the first season. And when Discovery sued the Hillstrands over their refusal to participate in completing the pilot for a spin off series, Hansen threatened to boycott the show until the channel cut a deal to everyone’s satisfaction.
“We didn’t want some Hollywood a------ to come in there and make us look like a jackass, you know?” Hansen said with typical candor. “We have insurance rates, we have stuff we’re worried about and we didn’t want to hurt our industry. Instead, it’s done nothing but help our industry.”
Indeed, since Deadliest Catch premiered in April 2005, the show’s success has sparked a virtual industry of tough, working class jobs series, from History channels’ Ice Road Truckers to Spike TV’s miner-centered Coal.
And even now, despite the job's obvious dangers, Hillstrand and Hansen say one of the most irritating results from the show’s popularity is the flood of interest from clueless guys wanting to work on their boats.
“People don’t get it,” Hansen said. “I had a bartender friend of mine a couple of years back; he’s been asking me for years and years, ‘Gimme a job.’ ‘I want to go.’ So I let him up there and he’s like ‘When do I get a break? When do we sleep?' All this b------t. He didn’t last more than two days; we had to send him home. It’s not for everybody, and we’ve always known that.”
Andy Hillstrand said such experiences taught him long ago to mostly hire crew from fishermen they’ve already known. Which is why he scoffed at the episode earlier this season in which The Seabrooke hired a greenhorn with no fishing experience – perhaps a fan? – who quit after two hours working on the boat.
“Oh, let me look at a piece of paper and hire a guy from Idaho Falls? Gimme a break,” he said, laughing ruefully. “We had to hire a greenhorn two years ago and he didn’t make it, but we didn’t destroy his life on national TV like (Seabrooke captain) Junior did. He’s going ‘That guy cost me $80,000.’ No, you cost yourself 80 grand, jackass.”
Still, from getting name-checked by Tom Hanks on one of Oprah Winfrey’s last episodes to the possibility Hansen might fulfill his longtime dream of competing on Dancing With the Stars in March 2012 – seriously! – the Catch captains are buoyed by the kind of success they could scarcely have predicted when Beers first suggested putting a film crew on their boats for the first time.
“I flew with the Blue Angels and I’ve met Paul McCartney, Willie Nelson, Jay Leno, more than I could ever dream of,” said Hansen, adding that his Dancing gig may still happen, if Discovery executives can get past the fact that ABC’s hit show airs at the same time as Catch in the spring.
“What I’d like to do now is just f------ take a month off and go up to the lake and chill,” he says, laughing loudly. “But I know when all this is over and done with, I’ll still be fishing. That’s just the bottom line.”