Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Main Event

A tempest raged during the night before CatchCon. Probably wouldn't even have been noticed by the crews of the two fishing vessels moored right outside our windows, but two landlubbers trying to get a good night's sleep with the boats crashing into one another had a difficult time of it. Truthfully, I think there was about a ten mph wind and about six inch waves. And then there was the seal bomb around midnight... were the Time Bandit boys out and about?

The weather quieted down and the morning dawned if not sunny, then at least mild. It was so unique to have the boats so close that we simply ordered breakfast in our room and sat on the balcony watching the crews go to work.

Early on, Edgar is in front of the cameras, nailing his lines like the pro that he is.
Again, the crews are hard at working making preparations for the days activities. The blow in the night rearranged the ramp from the dock to the Wizard and the steps that had been rigged between the Wizard and the Northwestern. The boom truck hadn't arrived yet, so the undaunted Wizard crew used the crane to muscle it into place. They were almost successful when the truck arrived and the construction crew took over.

Edgar Hansen and Travis Lofland confer during a quiet moment.
It's their day to shine, and CatchCon doesn't start for about four hours, but between making the boats ready and working with the camera crews, it never ends for these guys.

They haven't got the ramp reconfigured yet on the Wizard, but Captain Sig is needed on the Northwestern, so he just climbs down like he was born to it. Wait... he was born to it.
He seems to take to being in front of the camera just as naturally as if he was born to it as well. Really all of the guys do. The cameras roll right in their faces for the close-ups, and they don't get all nervous and flustered. They are well grounded, calm, cool and collected and just do what it takes to get the job done. Whatever is asked of them, they do. Bring the boats over for CatchCon, make them ready for visitors (suppose they swirled a brush around the toilets?), spend the day being asked the same questions they have been asked ad infinitum, smile, be warm and friendly... they do it, and do it well!

If you were watching the show Tuesday night, you saw the promos Sig and Edgar did aired already. That's fast editing work, and these guys are good enough not much editing was necessary, I'm sure.
Looking down from our balcony, it was about 20 feet to the deck of the Northwestern, after the camera crews let him alone for a few minutes, Edgar enjoyed a solitary cigarette on the stern. You get two gear heads talking and things just seem to flow from there. The Mister repairs locomotives at Union Pacific's Bailey Yard (the largest railroad yard in the world, located in North Platte Nebraska, ahem!), and before I knew it the two of them were comparing the size of the engines in locomotives and crab boats.



In the time those two spent talking, I learned more about the operation of the Northwestern and the business of crab fishing than I had in years of watching the show.
Your own boats personal quota is one thing. There are still expenses that eat into the profits, diesel (they only trust #1 diesel out on the Bering sea, and who can blame them. They can't burn the sludge that locomotives can. Being dead on a railroad track is a little less catastrophic than being dead in the water), food, taxes and docking fees. And of course the guys are actually self-employed, so Uncle Sam needs to be paid out of the crew share.

Did you know that it costs them four percent of their offload each time they pull up to St. Paul, Akutan or Dutch? That's why they prefer to offload at floating processors, fighting the ice to do so. It reduces their expenses.

Then there's the leased quota which increases their overall catch, but at a cost of 50%. While the lessee catches the crab and pays the lessor 50%, the processor that the lessee delivered to predominently during the four or five years that the quote system was developed still has a hold on that quota. It can only be delivered to them.

As a farmer, I've seen vertical integration in the major meat markets, beef and pork, and of course in poultry and even dairy. When the processors start owning or having too much control of the raw materials, it can be a disaster for the producer, whether you're a crab fisherman or a Nebraska corn farmer.

Sounds like that's par for the course in the fishing industry.

Thank you so much for all the time you gave us the morning before CatchCon Edgar. Your knowledge of your boat systems and the business was fascinating.
Not too much later, it was time to lose our place on the balcony and stand in line and wait for the CatchCon doors to open. We headed down about 11, and while we were by no means the first, we weren't too far back.

As I mentioned, we were within a hundred or so people from the entrance doors when we took our place in line around eleven. Shortly the line was snaking around the convention center and down the block. Glimpses of the guys and even the chance to spend some time and have some pictures made the wait seem much shorter.
Before we knew it, the doors were opening and we got to see what Discovery had planned for us. After receiving our credentials, the Discovery Store with everything Deadliest Catch and CatchCon was the first thing we encountered. There was a lot of memorabilia available from caps, t-shirts and hoodies to framed collectible prints and thermoses.

To help pass the time between the Captain and Crew forums, games were made available for your to test your crab fishing skills. The Mister tried the ring toss, to simulate tossing the hook, and who should show up to try his luck as well but Lynn Guitard of the Wizard.
Everyone was on hand with the Captains took the stage. It's a good indication that things are going to go south fast when Captain Johnathan sets the tone by asking "You know what's long and hard on a fisherman? ...the third grade." The forum was moderated, with Discover Executive Producer Jeff Conroy leading the guys through memories of past seasons and encouraging them to talk about their friend Captain Phil, including the story of taking the poor guys remains to the wrong graveyard after the memorial service. Guess the cars weren't equipped with the same sophisticated navigation system the Captains find on board their vessels.

For us fans, the passing of Captain Phil is our first experience of losing someone we care about to the sea. For these guys, it's just another in a long sad string of losses, some of which hit home just as hard as Phil's death, and they recounted a few for us.

They used the opportunity to make the point that one of the main changes the show has wrought is just this type of introspection. They are always being asked to remember, tell stories about what the season was like. The norm is to go through the storms, then just forget about it until it's time to do it again. Johnathan quipped "We used to watch the previous seasons of the show on the way to the crab grounds, but when I got there I was already exhausted. I'd already fished a season and was ready to get drunk and go home. Now we don't watch the show on the boat any more."
Fans not only take the show very seriously, they take what happens very personally. The second question after the panel was opened up for the fans was about the Hillstrands firing of Russell Newberry last season, and the ongoing story line of Russ moving from boat to boat this season.

The Hillstrands tried to explain that while we're watching a television show, they are trying to conduct the business of running their boats, crab fishing and the rest of their lives. It just happens to get caught on camera and broadcast to millions of people, each of who have an opinion about their actions. It's business and they've got to do the right thing for that business.
The very first question that was thrown out by a fan started out with a personal attack against Captain Keith Colburn, "Keith, I have lost all respect for you, how could you..." bringing up the conflict between the Wizard and the Time Band that has been ongoing this season. The personal nature of the attack seemed to cause all of the Captains to band together and come to Keith's defence. Politicians and corporate CEO's could take lessons from the way Keith handled the criticism.

It helped that Johnathan rose to the occasion and revealed that the two had, in fact, begun to reconcile their differences. If anyone watched the show this past Tuesday, we find that on television anyway, the hard feelings are still raging.
I came away from the Captains Forum with an even greater respect for these men and the job that they do. Captain Keith is passionate about the fishing industry and the enviornment. Thank goodness for his activism against drilling in the Bering Sea. Just think of what would happen to numerous fisheries if a spill such as is ongoing in the Gulf happened there? Thank you Keith for being on the front line of that fight.

For the Hillstrands, it's all about family, legacy, the boat they helped their dad build, and having fun. They work hard, demand hard work from their crew, but then put just as much effort into having fun.

Captain Sig and his family on the Northwestern are true entrepreneurs, parlaying celebrity into business opportunities, while also using their fame to jump wholeheartedly into philanthropy, giving not only money but also their time to many worthy causes.

For guys who are just "very popular fishermen," they are certainly comfortable on stage in front of a live audience of a thousand, and a viewing audience of tens of thousands thanks to live streaming on the Internet by Discovery. Dancing has become a frequent topic of conversation, and Johnathan and Sig made half hearted but hilarious attempts at showing off their skills.
The newest member of the family is Captain Bill Wichrowski who joined the forum near the end. He is going to be a welcome addition to the story line, and fits right in. He's colorful, articulate, profane, professional and just as warm and generous to his fans as all of the others.
Following the forum it was time for fan interaction and each of the Captains were asked to choose a crew of four audience members for the Deckhand Relay challenge. When it came to Captain Sig's turn, the Mister's hand was in the air (wait, was that my hand holding his up... possibly.) Anyway, Captain Sig point out to him and shouted "You're old, but you'll do." Not the most auspicious beginning, but a start.
It fell to Jake Anderson's lot to whip team Northwestern into shape
For his part, Josh Harris was in charge of the Cornelia Marie crew.
As we've seen on the show, Captain Sig is never content to let his crew do a job when he thinks he can do it better (remembering some of the comments from the Mister's roast, they are alike in that trait.), and he gives the Mister some pointers.
After sweating bullets in the anxiety of being the first relay member, the Mister gets a high five from the Captain for a job well done.
Yay for team Northwestern, who came in second or third overall... out of a field of four.
Then it was time for the crew forum, and it was just as raucous and free wheeling as the Captains forum. It began with the introduction of the "bag of truth" that we first saw on the Time Bandit earlier this season. The premise is that anyone wearing the bag can say whatever they want with no repercussions... Now that's a good idea. Edgar is giving some thought into what he's going to start with.
Captains being Captains, and Sig being an uber Captain, he's not going to let Edgar get away with saying what he wants without some instruction first. However, even without the sanctity of the bag, all of the crew members were very forthright in discussion their place on the boat and the relationships with their Captains. After all, it's what the show is all about, giving us the opportunity to experience the truth of the lives of crab fishermen and we have to take it all, the good and the bad. Fortunately, it's mostly good.
That these men respect each other deeply and truly like each other is evident by their ability to say absolutely the most outrageous and insulting things to each other, take as good as they dish it out, and laugh about it. In their rough and tumble world, slights and irritations are soon forgotten and even the biggest blow-ups soon blow over.
As I said, the Captains have a hard time letting go control of the situation.
Lenny Lekanoff, long time Wizard deckhand, who keeps retiring and coming back to the life he loves made just that point. He disputed another deckhand's assertion that "If anyone tells you they're out here because they love it, they're lying to you. They're out here for the money." Lenny proudly said that he does it because he loves it, and they all agreed.

I am reminded of the old cowboy song "Night Riders Lament" in which a suit asks of the cowboy:
Why does he ride for his money,
And tell me why does he rope for short pay.
He ain't gettin' no where and he's losin' his share,
Sure he must have gone crazy out there.
To which the cowboy answers:
They've never seen the Northern Lights,
They've never seen a hawk on the wing.
They've never seen spring on the great Divide,
And they've never heard ol' Camp Cookie sing."
My point is that fishing, like cowboying or farming is a lifestyle as much as it is a living and it's obvious that these guys do it as much for the love of it as for the living they make from it.
Jake and Josh Harris share a special bond with their father Captain Phil Harris that can only come by working side by side with him on a difficult and dangerous job, and coming to respect each other as equals. Very few fathers and sons get to experience that type of a relationship and it is a tragedy that it ended so soon for them, but I'm sure they bless every moment they had, even the difficult ones.

We even got to hear some of the trials and tribulations of camera men on board the vessels working not only in the hostile environment of the elements, but the hostile environment aboard the boat, filming men who see the introduction of a camera as an intrusion into their work and life. Some very interesting stories come of that.
After hearing all of the great stories, it was time to get down to the real business of a fan event - the autograph signing. Not that the guys hadn't signed a great number of autographs prior to this, but this was the formal sitting.
The Mister and I are really new to this whole "fan" thing, but we caught on quickly and managed to get plenty of autographs and pictures with the "very popular fishermen".
What I came away with from the whole event was that these are just regular guys whose work just happens to get filmed for television. Living among blue collar America here in rural Nebraska, we work and socialize with guys just like them on a regular basis. We ARE them. Farmers, Ranchers, Railroad workers, Nebraska Public Power District employees, the local Co-op workers, these are our friends, neighbors and colleagues.

They are all hard-working, giving 110% on their jobs, then stopping to say hello to a friend in the store on the way home, raising a cold one in the bar, and volunteering to coach their kids baseball team, serve on the volunteer fire department or help a stranger with a flat tire along the side of the road.

All of the men from the Deadliest Catch face many more dangers in their jobs than any of us do, and I in no way want to discount what they do, but the fact is that they are just regular, incredibly nice, guys. Very popular fishermen.

The long day was now over, much too quickly as all good times are. We came away already making plans with our new found friends for the next year. Here is a final shot of yours truly next to a crab pot. They are much bigger when you're standing beside them than when you see them on television.
Our one regret of the entire experience is that we did not have the chance to set foot on the deck of our beloveed Northwestern (oh yes, of course the Wizard too). Following the sneak-peek of the "Bering Sea Swim Club" clip, we made our way out to the line, but at 4:30 in the afternoon, we were told that they had shut down the tours. We were terribly disappointed, and our one criticism of the Discovery organizers is that they could have announced that the tours were going to close at 4:30. However, having spent the last two days looking down on the decks from the vantage point of our balcony, we could live without actually walking the decks.

Next time however...
Thanks for stopping by. Your coffee is probably cold by now. I know mine is.

ShareThis