Remembering Captain Phil

Deadliest Catch stood out from the noise – by Lee Habeeb –

He died on February 9, 2010. Fans and friends from around the world mourned the loss of their favorite TV sea captain — Captain Phil Harris. He wasn’t the kind of man Americans get to meet very often on TV. Not the kind of man TV writers know much about. They generally create soft, goofy men dominated by more capable and competent wives.

But not even the best screenwriter’s imagination could have crafted a character like Captain Phil. Or the men who we’ve all gotten to know thanks to the first TV reality show ever to center around real-life men doing real-life work — Deadliest Catch.

The series, which debuted in 2005 on the Discovery Channel, changed the direction of reality TV. Up until then, we had Survivor and its knock offs, American Idol and its copycats, and by 2007, we got Keeping Up with the Kardashians, and it’s ugly offspring; Jersey Shore and The Real Housewives of . . . well, everywhere, it would seem. Deadliest Catch was different. The show that is about much more than fishing spawned a different progeny. Reality shows that feature men, women, and families at work. Shows like Gold Rush, Pawn Kings, Cake Boss, and Orange County Choppers. Shows that feature strangers and families working together. Even praying together, as they do at the end of every Duck Dynasty episode.

Deadliest Catch started it all. The show, if you’ve lived under a rock and never seen it, follows the lives of fishermen on the vast and brutal Bering Sea during two dangerous crab seasons; the October king crab and the January opilio.

The work is hard and dangerous — which is what makes Deadliest Catch so riveting. It’s about real men toughing it out in the world’s toughest sea, under the toughest circumstances imaginable.

Evel Knievel would pass on this gig if he were alive.

Columbus would not have discovered America if the Atlantic were the Bering Sea.

Those men go out on their boats hoping to reel in a big catch. They do so in sub-zero working conditions, with rogue 30 foot waves tossing their ships around like toys, and with ice formations piled up so high on deck that the ships seem like floating glaciers.

What draws us to watch these men?

First and foremost, we want to see if they make it home alive. We also want to see if the risk they take pays off. Will they get a big pay day? Or come home empty? We hope against hope that those big metal pots they heave into the heartless Bering Sea come back filled with crustacean treasure.

Along the way, guys get injured. They break noses and ribs. But they don’t complain and they don’t lawyer up. They tape up their wounds and get back to work. Sometimes, they score big. Crewmen can make up to $15,000 in a month, and a captain can make twice that, and more.

And yes, sometimes they come up empty.

But there are no bailouts in Deadliest Catch. Unlike Wall Street bankers, no one socializes their losses.

It’s especially fun watching the old timers break in the “greenhorn” rookies. They get heckled, teased, and taunted, but know that what they’re going through is what all the other crew members went through.

And we watch the proceedings safely and comfortably on our 60-inch TVs knowing one thing for sure; we wouldn’t last an Anchorage minute on those boats.

If one man exemplified the spirit of those entrepreneurs of the sea, it was Captain Phil.

He began fishing with his dad when he was eight. After high school, he began crab fishing. He initially worked on a crab boat unpaid until he proved his worth. Some might call that exploitation. Captain Phil would have called it a good time. And a great apprenticeship.

This much we know; by the time he was 21, Harris was one of the youngest captains of a crab boat on the Bering Sea.

Harris was not a perfect man. He had his struggles, and the show didn’t hide them. But he was a natural leader, and led by example. He didn’t ask his men to do things he wouldn’t do or hadn’t done. He also understood that there were many ways to motivate men, and that did not always include screaming at them. He cared about them, and used humor — and food — to build camaraderie.

And he was tough. In one episode, Harris was thrown from his bunk during a storm, and thought he’d broken his ribs. In pain, he pushed on, not wanting to abandon his men. But after hours of coughing up blood, his crew convinced him to get help. Captain Phil, it turned out, had a pulmonary embolism, which kept him docked for a year.

Harris returned to his beloved Cornelia Marie in January 2009, but almost a year later to that day, suffered a massive stroke. We watched as he came out of a coma. We watched as he started to show signs of progress. But those were rough waters he couldn’t escape.

When he died, those of us who felt like we knew him lost a friend. And he had friends from around the world; the show is seen in 150 countries.

There were thousands of posts on websites and YouTube pages dedicated to the show. Said one admiring fan after learning of Phil’s death:

This is the type of man we should all be admiring. Not LeBron James or Roman Polanski or Tiger Woods or that fashion accessory Brad Pitt. Ordinary men who quietly do extraordinary things on a daily basis like manage a business, on the Bering Sea no less! They are the ones we should aspire to be.

This was the shortest post, but carried with it the feelings of millions who mourned his loss. And celebrated his life.

“A lord of the sea, no doubt. God Bless You Captain.”

Lee Habeeb is the vice president of content at Salem Radio Network. He gets seasick on a canoe.


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10 years ago

I don’t consider myself to have been living under a rock. I don’t spend my time watching TV, I read books, books that help me to know what is really going on in the world, not just Hollywood, or someone’s reality show. I guess, I’m just not one of the “followers” maybe I shouldn’t bother to read your articles, since you think so lowly of people like me who don’t watch television 24/7. What an offensive way to tell someone about a TV show, attack them as “living under a rock.”

Debra Herman
10 years ago

Deadliest Catch is one of my favorite shows. I admire the men who work on the cold and dangerous Bering Sea. They are a different breed-independent, brave, hardworking and they care about their families back home. I have enjoyed every episode and I miss Phil Harris. He was a rugged individualist and tried his best to prepare his sons for crab fishing. Its refreshing to see a show like this, when so much on TV is junk.

10 years ago

There are few men that have to take the chances and work as hard as the guys on the crab boats. I try to emagine what it would be like but my years in the Navy are nothing compared to what they go through in just one season. God Bless them and Captain Phil. You are all our hero’s.

10 years ago

Any man who makes his living from the sea is a man to be admired. The life is tough and many die so that we landlubbers can enjoy their success when they bring in a good catch. We complain about the price of the food and don’t even think to give thanks to the ones who make our great meals possible.
I have watched the program only a few times and I am cold just thinking of all they endure. God bless and protect them all.

Bob Russ
10 years ago

Thanks for the wonderful article about such a great person; something the so called media usually doesn’t write about.

From Texas
10 years ago

The harder you work, the luckier you get. Some in our society never learn that.

James Cooper
10 years ago

I hope that Captain Phil’s sons are able to make their dream come true and put a crab boat to work in the Bering Sea. They deserve the chance, I’m sure Phil will be their Guardian Angel. God speed Josh and Jake.

Tony Cuesta
10 years ago

This men like Captain Phil and his boat crew are the real people that build the real american way of life. With hard work, worth ethic, courage and with the faith in their efford to feed their families and create their own destiny. They are an example for every one. No doubt, they are of a different and superior breed. God bless this guys and RIP Captain Phil.

Grace Lauro
10 years ago

My nephew was a crew member of one in Alaska. Only by the Grace of God did he return safely.

Richard Hayes
10 years ago

The men who go out on these boats are of a different breed, they take there lives in there hands every
time they leave port. But they do so they can earn money to take care of there families knowing they may
not come back.Un like some able body men who dont look for jobs and are satisfied collecting welfare.

10 years ago
Reply to  Richard Hayes

The men who go out THERE on these boats are of a different breed. They take THEIR lives in THEIR hands every time they leave port, but they do so that they can earn money to take care of THEIR families, knowing that they may not come back. THEY’RE (they are, contraction) unlike some able bodied men who don’t look for jobs and are satisfied with collecting welfare.

Please do not take offense at my corrections. You are “spot on” in your evaluation of these MEN.! Good comment by you.

10 years ago

a nice article about such a great example of being a leader and hard worker but no picture of Phil? come on, Habeeb! and a picture of you is not really needed on this one.

10 years ago

As a United States Coast Guard veteran I just want to say that, Captain Phil and the men of all these crab boats are an example of what it is to be a man. You have a job to do and you do it no matter how hard it is to accomplish. These men are real heroes, not all the phony celebraties that the young people of today admire so much. These are hard working men, fathers, sons, neighbors,etc. that go to sea to put food on your table and to feed their families no matter how rough it gets. Celebraties live in a make believe world where as these men live and work in the real world. I salute you all. captain Phil, rest in peace, your voyage is over.

10 years ago
Reply to  J.J.K.

And I would just like to add that without the United States Coast Guard, those fishermen and many others out on the water would not be able to do what it is that they enjoy so much…. Thank you to the brave men and women of the United States Coast Guard for all that you do to help and protect others…… True hero’s in the most powerful sense of the word.

10 years ago

Thank you for the affirmation of the life of a human being.

Phillip J. Sloan
10 years ago

These men are the Ilk of “strong men armed who go into the fight and protect us while we sleep”.

10 years ago

“you don’t work, you don’t eat” simple as that. AMEN

10 years ago

A good Man was Captain Phil. I agree we should be admiring men such as him and showing them to be the role models for the younger generations. Down to earth, salt of the earth. Determined, tough and God fearing men not afraid to lead. Really lead.

Diana Erbio
10 years ago

As a fan of the show since its beginning I too have had similar thoughts about why so many people tune in. I think it is because we admire their independence, stamina and how they never seem to give up no matter how tough it gets. They are not afraid to say what they think. These hardy fisherman also recognize there is a Higher Power and they say a prayer before heading out to sea. They are a symbol of the American dream.

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