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.