If you make your living on the sea, you put your life at risk every time you leave port. That’s just an unavoidable fact of working on the ocean, and one that every commercial fisherman knows all too well. Certainly that is well-known by all the crabbers working the Bearing Sea crab grounds, the fishermen whose lives and livelihood are documented in The Discovery Channel’s hit series, “The Deadliest Catch”.
Long before television make some of them into rock stars, rugged crews drove their boats into harm’s way on the wrong side of the Aleutian Islands in search of the bounty of crab that lives there. All too often, someone didn’t come home, and it was that “roll the dice” mentality that brought the cameras north in the first place. The change from the winner-take-all “derby” fishing to a more sedate – and safer – quota method drained a lot of the drama out of “Deadliest Catch” after a couple of seasons, and focus turned to the people who ran the boats and took the risks. We learned more about the men of the fleet, and what made them tick.
One of those men was Phil Harris, captain and co-owner of the crabber CORNELIA MARIE, and audiences got to know an awful lot about Phil and his crew. We learned that he was a prankster, a lifelong crabber, and a proud father to Jake and Josh, his two sons who served on his crew. We also learned that he was a short-tempered, chain-smoking, Red Bull-swilling advertisement for how not to live a long life, a stroke or heart attack just waiting to happen. In 2008, that vision nearly came to pass, as a blood clot forced Harris off the boat and into the hospital for treatment. When he returned in the spring of 2009 to once again run the CM we hoped he’d be a changed man, someone who had cheated death and learned a valuable lesson. Alas, that was not to be.
On January 29th, while the CORNELIA MARIE was tied up at remote St. Paul Island to offload catch, Harris suffered a stroke. He was rushed to Anchorage and placed in a medically-induced coma, and seemed to be making progress. The coma was ended, and he appeared to be on the mend when he died unexpectedly on Tuesday.
Aa television viewers, we saw Harris as the editors wanted him to be seen, but the townsfolk of Dutch Harbor saw him every day for many years. Here is how the local newspaper remembered Captain Harris:
Their pain is so new that people in Dutch Harbor talk about Harris in the present tense, like he’s about to walk through the door any minute amid a cloud of cigarette smoke and colorful language.
He was “friendly,” “honest,” “strong,” “hardworking” “caring.” He was the kind of guy who took “Deadliest Catch” T-shirts to sick children in the hospital.
“He was a one-of-a-kind person,” said Al Mendoza, fleet manager for Unisea, where the Cornelia Marie landed millions of pounds of crab over the years. “I don’t think he had an enemy over the years I knew him. Not one enemy, ever.”
All say he loved his sons, Josh and Jake Harris, more than life itself.
Then they tell how he used to joke about why lions eat their cubs. The words “brash,” “macho,” “loud” and “impatient” pop up. By all accounts, he could be a pain in the patoot, but that doesn’t mean they loved him less.
It’s been a tough opilio season for the boats of “Deadliest Catch” – deckhand Jake Anderson of the NORTHWESTERN lost his father only days before Harris was struck down. It is a reminder that a life on the ocean can be a very remote one, and time spent on the beach with loved ones is all the more precious.
Phil Harris was 53 years old.