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BRACING FOR DANGER

Take some advice from guys who toil in one of the world's most unforgiving environments: Never let your guard down.

Andy Hillstrand thought he was going to die. The Alaskan fishing captain, a star on Discovery Channel's hit television series Deadliest Catch, had grown accustomed to mountains of cold, gray water towering over his crab boat.

But this particular storm, even by Bering Sea standards, scared even seasoned veterans.

"We were in 80-foot seas, 150 miles offshore, all sealed up and running for cover," said Hillstrand, who will make an appearance at this weekend's Tampa Boat Show.

Time Bandit, a 113-foot boat designed by Hillstrand's father and built with his brother and co-captain Johnathan, has a steel hull and twin Cummins diesel engines.

"We can go through pretty much anything," Andy Hillstrand said. "But we don't move very fast ... maybe 8 knots. So it takes a long time to get anywhere."

A rouge wave appeared out of nowhere, slammed down on the crab boat and buried it beneath tons of ice-cold water.

"We were surrounded by white water, the windows were singing from the water pressure, and I thought for sure they were going to blow out," Hillstrand said. "I said to myself, 'So this is what it is like to die.'"

Fortunately, for fans of the show and boaters looking for practical advice from a man who knows, Time Bandit bobbed back to the surface and the Hillstrands survived the ordeal.

"The minute you don't respect the ocean you are a dead man," said Andy Hillstrand, who turns 46 later this month. "Mother Nature doesn't give you a second chance. All you can do is prepare for the worst and hope for the best."

Andy Hillstrand, who will be at the show today and Saturday with his 46-year-old brother, pointed to the highly publicized deaths of three football players in the Gulf of Mexico earlier this year.

"The ocean is very unforgiving," he said. "One minute you are here and the next you are gone. Sometimes that is all it takes."

Commercial fishing is consistently ranked as one of the most dangerous jobs in the United States. During the five seasons that Deadliest Catch has been on the air, several boats in Alaska's king crab and opilio crab fleets have been lost.

"It used to be, during the course of the season, we would average about one death a week," Hillstrand said. "Things have gotten a little better since they reduced the number of boats. ... Many of the guys looking to make a quick buck are gone."

The water temperature in the Bering Sea during the winter months, when the Hillstrands do most of their fishing, ranges from 34 to 38 degrees. The captain and crew all carry "survival suits" that can help keep them alive should they fall overboard. Without some type of protection, a man in water that cold would be dead in a matter of minutes.

"In the cowboy days, a lot of people sank because they didn't take care of their boats," Hillstrand said. "But these days, only the best of the best are left."

The most important part of the Hillstrands' year doesn't get much air time.

"That is when we pull the boat out of the water and do all the maintenance," Hillstrand said. "We work on it for two months; clean the bottom, paint the hull, and go over everything twice."

And when it is time to hit the water again, the brothers bring two of anything that can break. "The key is redundancy," Hillstrand said. "We have backups for our backups."

The show's producers like it when the Hillstrands bring a rookie, or "greenhorn," along on a trip. "A lot of stuff goes wrong. ... It adds to the drama," he said.

But Hillstrand prefers crabbing with seasoned veterans. "You are only as strong as your weakest link," he said.

Hillstrand said he hasn't let fame go to his head. He does get recognized occasionally in the grocery store, but he has yet to be stalked by Deadliest Catch groupies.

"Sometimes I just have to get away and go fishing for fun," he said. "I love it because you never know what you are going to catch. Could be a little rockfish or the big kahuna. You just never know."

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FAST FACTS

Tampa Boat Show

When/where: Today through Sunday; Tampa Convention Center, 333 South Franklin St.

Hours: Today, Saturday -10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sunday -10 a.m.-6 p.m.

Tickets: Adults, $9; children 13-15, $5; under 12, free when accompanied by an adult.

Check it out: The show will feature the latest in "green boating," including the Endeavour Green electric hybrid boat, a clean, quiet runabout featuring electric propulsion, low maintenance and low depreciation.

More information: Call (954) 441-3220 or visit www.tampaboatshow.com.

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