Deadliest Catch Capt. Sig Hansen interview, bittersweet season ahead

I first met Captain Sig Hansen of the Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Catch” with his wife June at Discovery’s “Life” gala event at the Getty.  He was in conversation with friend and fellow writer Kate O’Hare who had dined with the Hansen brothers and the late Captain Phil Harris, and already had a nice rapport with the animated Norse-American fisherman. 

 

Sig was gamely going along with O’Hare’s brilliant idea to pitch ABC the sea captain for the dance competition “Dancing with the Stars.  He defended his dancing skills and said he would do well on the series. 
 
While they caught up, I got to chat with his beautiful wife June and heard great stories about Sig’s Norwegian family, and how he and Edgar went to Karmoy, Norway and found their brides.  June told me he was a brilliant dancer too, as we caught Sig demonstrating a ballroom move to O’Hare.  The women of “Deadliest Catch,” who wait for their men to come back to them, are deserving of their own show or some extra air-time. 

June shared that Sig’s book, a memoir written with author Mark Sundeen, “North by Northwestern: A Seafaring Family on Deadly Alaskan Waters” had great tales, especially about the early years in Ballard, Washington in a tight-knit Norwegian community that clung to the language and the business of fishing as tight as a tick. 

“His mother Snefryd only spoke Norwegian to him when he was just a little kid,” June shared. “One day he came home from school with a note pinned to his jacket, ‘please stop speaking Norwegian to your son’ it read, of course he kept on speaking Norwegian but the women, all the mothers would go and bowl together and were very close, they never spoke English.” 

June also revealed that the guys who parked cars, the men who were working at the hotels and fancy restaurants when they were doing network PR events always recognized her husband. “It’s the blue collar guys, the valets, they look at Sig and right away, ‘you’re Captain Sig!”

Sig Hansen met Monsters and Critics for lunch during the Discovery Upfront in Beverly Hills, needing a good filling meal (not crab) and a chance to get his bearings after a night of obligatory network dining and lots of wining.

Hansen spoke of his experience in putting “North by Northwestern: A Seafaring Family on Deadly Alaskan Waters” to print as a positive one, and gave pause for reflection on the year that was marred by tragedy.

Hansen shared that the book told the story if his family, his younger brothers, Norman and Edgar, his parents and their seafaring history on Alaskan waters.  He talks of early generations of his fierce Norse grandfather and great uncles who braved an unforgiving sea with no technology in boats few would venture 50 feet out let alone 50 miles or more.

Cut to years later, and the Hansen brothers and especially Captain Sig are part of the Bering Sea’s toughest fishermen crews, and one of the most popular reality TV shows ever filmed. This season sees them crab fishing in some of the roughest situations the crews have ever had to face on the high seas.

Then there is the death of Captain Phil Harris, a friend. 

The next episode of Deadliest Catch airs Tuesday April 27, at 9 PM E/P.  The synopsis reveals that during the third week of hunting King crab, Captain Phil and Captain Sig’s experiment in trading junior deckhands comes to a close. The young crew members are tested by big waves and cruel pranks until the end. Meanwhile, conflict between skippers and deckhands continues to rage unchecked.

At our lunch, Capt. Sig Hansen ordered beef, gourmet Kobe sliders and insisted I take one, and shared his insight on season six of Deadliest Catch.

Monsters and Critics: This is the sixth season of the show, and  when you started it, did you anticipate that it was going to have this kind of longevity, that you were to be on TV this long and become such a famous personality? 

Sig Hansen: Oh, absolutely not.  I mean when we agreed to do the show, or the documentary, rather, there was a three-part series, that’s all it was and we thought that’s all they were going to get out of it and then it just keeps snowballing.  I mean it went from a three-part to an eight, I think, and then 12 and now like 18 or 20 episodes.  So we never thought it would go that far.

M&C: With the passing of your friend and coworker, Phil
Harris, do you feel like the mantel of being the main captain for the series is upon your shoulders now?  Do you feel in a way that you’ve got a bit of him with you?

Sig Hansen: Well, I mean it’s almost like you’re stepping into
those shoes in a way, because when we did swap the boys –.
You know, it’s almost like you became this father figure to his son. And our crew became tighter as well.  There is a bond.

And the other Jake, I mean they’re calling each (Jake Harris) other all
the time anyway, so there is a very close connection now.   And there was before, and with Phil and myself, we knew each other years before the show.
Now all of the sudden, because of the show and after these many years, we had a different relationship.

It was a much more personal level.  And so for me, it’s very painful, because I know what he was thinking, I know what he wanted for his boys.  Phil was robbed, you know what I mean?  That’s how I feel like.  Like somebody pulled the rug right out from underneath him. 

And yeah, I feel like …when we did the Larry King yesterday –.All the guys were there, Keith and Andy and John and me.  And it just felt empty.

It’s almost like – because now, I mean we do have two lives, let’s face it, three.  We are the fishermen, we are the family guy, we do have to do this PR stuff.

And so when he’s not sitting next to you, it just felt empty.  See, he was the captain of his boat.  I’m the captain of mine.  Keith has his brother, Monte, who runs the boat.  John and Andy share responsibilities.  So we were like
more of a single figure, and Phil was his own single figure. Now he’s gone.  So it’s not going to be fun.

M&C: How many episodes of this series were filmed before Phil passed away?

Sig Hansen: Well, and I mean, we were practically finished with our season right before he passed.  When I found out about it and I hit the dock.  So, I have to assume it’s right at the very end.  And whether or not they’re gonna show – I don’t know how much they would show on the program either.  I mean this was off the boat.  So I’m just as curious.

M&C:     Was Phil’s health a worry for you?

Sig Hansen: Well, see, now we have such good communications on the boat these days that we did phone in, we were able to communicate, not directly with him but we knew his status.  And so the guys would – either John would find out, pass it on to me or vice versa.  And so we kind of knew through the rumor mill that he was doing okay, he was recovering.

And so everybody’s spirits were high.  We felt good about that.  And then all of the sudden… bang.

M&C: Before all of this happened, though, did you have a sense that he wasn’t healthy?  Did you have a worry for him?

Sig Hansen: Well, I did because he would admit it.  And we used to go out and – like, let’s say you did go out and you were – had a few drinks, right. And this happens in Dutch Harbor before the season and usually after. Plus the traveling that we did together, and he was taking it easy.  I mean it was a reality check for him, and so he was backing off, but he still had those cigarettes.

And, he would be the first to admit, he just couldn’t quit.

In the end, those are what got him.  So he was aware of it.  We
were – it was noticeable that he was tapering down a little bit.

And because of it, Jonathan now, last night we were together, he
doesn’t smoke.  He quit, or he’s trying to.  He snuck one last night.

And then for myself, my wife, she was close with Phil too, so now
she’s making me workout on weights and stuff like that.  So it’s baby
steps.  You don’t change a lifestyle overnight.  So I mean it was a reality check for everybody.

M&C: Do you get men who apply to be on your crew, to be  on your ship, and if they want to do it for the glory of being on TV more than a career as a crabber? How do you weed out these goofballs that are not going to pull their weight out there when the going gets tough for you?

Sig Hansen: I mean, well, I don’t know how they get my address, but I’ve got a stack of resumes from all over the world.

And then usually it starts out, I’m 6’4”, full of muscle, and I can kick
ass, right?  And I’d like to prove that I can do this…

Well, number one, it’s nothing to prove. You’re a fisherman.  And I do think guys see it as an ego thing.

And I do think some of the fans see it like a challenge, and I think that
they – it’s a testosterone deal.  That’s not what it’s about.  So the
guys that, first off, that talk like that, I shy away from.

And Jake, when we got him on the boat here, what was it now, three
years ago?  It was his attitude, it was his ambition.   He was sincere,
but he had also been a salmon fisherman before that.  He had also
participated in fishery, see what I mean?

And he knew of my boat, but he really didn’t know of the show.

So that was pretty nice.  And we don’t switch a lot of guys out that
often if we can help it.  We try to keep the same guys.

M&C: Have you ever observed, in the six years that
you’ve been doing this, a crewperson doing something stupid to get
more airtime, to get notoriety for themselves?

Sig Hansen: Most of our guys on the boat are like pushing the cameras away.

M&C: Really?

Sig Hansen: Yeah.

Because they get tired of it.  It’s not an insult to the production
company, it’s just – especially now, the guys are so –I mean let’s face
it, they’ve been there for six years.

I don’t even think they even know the cameras are there sometimes.
But when they start asking too much, then they’re just like you’re
done and they move on.

So it’s a battle.  Those guys really have to earn their footage.  It’s
kinda funny.

M&C: And it’s cold and you get very short with people
when you’re cold and wet and the wind is blowing I imagine…

Sig Hansen: Yeah.  Well, fishing first, then it’s cameras.

But I mean you can kind of tell –if I look back on all six years and I see the show, I can see a couple of guys that are like show-dogging a little bit.

A little bit.  You can tell, I mean that’s pretty – (laughs) and I won’t
name names, but I can tell.

M&C: When the season is over – do you have groupies
that hang out in Dutch Harbor, looking to bag a fisherman and go off
to the Bering Sea and live happily ever after?

Sig Hansen: In Dutch Harbor?  Well, I mean in Dutch Harbor, we’re good, that’s pretty safe there.  You’re either a hater or a lover.

The town is now happier about the situation, they’re enjoying the
fruits of our labor because it’s made it popular.

M&C: Is it a Tourist town now, where they want to come
see where the Deadliest Catch is filmed…

Sig Hansen: When we flew out – I flew out of St. Paul, and my
brother took the boat to Dutch and there was – I think it was after king
crab, and they were going to the airport to try to get out of town.  And
so the plane that came in had two passengers from Australia, a man
and wife, specifically there looking for the Northwestern.  What are
the odds?

Because we could have been fishing, the guys could have left them
tied up.  And they just figured they’d fly from Australia to Dutch
Harbor.  As far as groupies, there are a few very, very hardcore fans
in Seattle.

M&C: Do they stalk you online ?

Sig Hansen: Yeah.

M&C: Looking for where you live?

Sig Hansen: Yeah.

M&C: Try to figure out where you shop?

Sig Hansen: Yeah.

M&C: Try and run into you?

Sig Hansen: Yeah.

M&C: So how does your wife June handle this?  Does she smack’em on the head?

Sig Hansen: Doesn’t like it.

M&C: No, I bet.

Sig Hansen: And I don’t like it.  Well, it’s flattering, at the same time –.  One of them… like, when she met us, she had been sleeping in her car for 24 hours waiting for the boat to come in.  See, now, she’s gonna find out about this and I’m a dead man, but –.  And when we pulled up, I mean here they are.

M&C: Wow. Creepy.

Sig Hansen: And then they knew the addresses, like, of my bookkeeper, my brother’s address in their head.
Like, yeah, ‘you live, so, so, and so’.  So we went on red alert.

But I’ll tell you one thing, though, I mean we’ve got people that are
based out of the east coast that will fly to the west coast to come and
– if I had a book signing or something –.They’ll be there.

M&C: That’s wonderful.
Do you have a lot of people writing to you personally about things – anything related to life? 

Sig Hansen: Yeah, like, now, I didn’t own a computer till six years
ago.  I didn’t think I’d be walking around with a Blackberry.
You know what I’m saying?

So we have Patrick who is our web moderator, designer.

And he kind of started as a fan, said he’d like to help out.  And I met
him and seemed like a very genuine guy.

And now we have all kinds of moderators and people that are
monitoring our site and we get comments coming in.  Because in the
beginning I tried to do it myself and I was typing – yeah, I was typing
with two fingers and trying to keep up on fan mail and it was taking
me hours and hours. 

And I soon realized, I can’t do this!
Because once you start typing to somebody, they don’t get enough
and then it doesn’t end.  And so it’s just different.

John and I, as soon as they started playing this little
tribute to Phil, I was out of there.  I just went to the front of the yard
and that was it, and I knew what was coming.

And then all of the sudden, here comes Jonathan, you know, like a
minute later.  He’s like you too, I go, yeah.  It was just – and I mean
literally snuck out, alone, and then all the sudden John comes.

M&C: Phil’s sons and their mom, Phil’s ex wife, was she at the tribute
too?

Sig Hansen: Her speech that she gave at the service was really
good. Yeah.  Because she explained like how it was, he’s like, ‘let’s go, let’s fly off the seat of your pants and we’re going to Vegas,’ you know, the yin and the yang.

So – and it just reminded me of how things were before, for all the
fishermen, the kind of this ‘I got money in my pocket, let’s go.’

Let’s go buy a hotrod, let’s whatever, and the partying.  And so she –
I appreciate what she said.

M&C: What was your fun?  What did you do with your
money when you had it in your pocket –  what was your little thing that
you liked to do?

Sig Hansen: When we were teenagers and early 20s, it was cars
and a lot of partying and the Vegas thing and just being stupid.
Blew a lot of money, a lot of money.

M&C: Yes, but you enjoyed it.

Sig Hansen: We earned it!
And at that age, you’re not thinking, well, I got to put in for my retirement.

M&C: I don’t think most people do that young, there’s
always tomorrow.

Sig Hansen: Then like my brother Edgar, it’s in the book too,
the way he bought his Mustang, the same thing.  You would come off
the boat and you got this long, bushy hair and your beard and you’re
just – you’re a scumbag, basically. 

And then you go to a car lot and  the guys are like – they won’t even
give you the time of day.

And, my little brother, he was like ‘how much for the Mustang?’ and
the guy doesn’t even want to talk to him.  He just throws cash down
and goes ‘give me the car.’  There was no – it’s just different.

I think for a blue collar guy, it was kind of like, well, it was just the way
you lived.  We were fortunate.  Most of the problems that our fishermen had was the tax man.

M&C: Really?

Sig Hansen: Yeah, because you’re self-employed.  A lot of them
have drug problems, a lot of them have drinking problems, and – I meant me!

And then a lot of – and they get caught up in it and you  do party and you do blow your dough, and the next thing you know, April comes around, it’s like, well, did you save 30, 40 percent of that money you made?  No.

I got a lot of buddies that owed $4-$500,000.00 and hell that was 20
years ago.  Not very good with money.

M&C:  What was the weirdest thing you’ve ever pulled out of a trap;
what’s some of the weird stuff you’ve pulled out of the ocean?

Sig Hansen: Workout bikes, toilets.

M&C: A toilet?

Sig Hansen: Yeah.

M&C: How did the toilet get in the crabbing pot?  In the big cage?

Sig Hansen: You know what’s funny?  Yesterday I talked with
Jake, I was checking up on our Jake. And I told him to check up on Phil’s Jake.

And he’s going to school for his license.  So – but then he’s like, one
of the guys in the school that’s keeping up on his coastguard license
is an older gentleman said to say hello.  And then he goes, he’s the one that put the workout bike in one of your  pots. (laughs) So they punk you a little bit see?

Now this is probably 20 years ago we’re talking.
And all of the sudden he gets to my kid and reveals the prank.  So that’s kind of neat how it came around, because I never knew who put that in there.(laughs)

M&C: So, okay, so a toilet.  More stuff?

Sig Hansen: Workout bikes. Yeah, and I mean the thing about our fishery is, we target specifically for those certain types of crabs.

There’s not a lot of by-catch.  And so, you know, it’s a good thing.

There’s like these puffer fish that you see once in a while and
all kinds – beautiful coral that we might pull up.  I said a pot, I thought
I was in 120 fathoms, and we were fishing brown crab, and I was setting gear, little did I know because I was inexperienced, that I was setting on an echo, in other words, there was actually 500 fathoms deep.

But sometimes you’ll get a bottom echo.  And you think you’re – because the edge is so steep.  You can be a quarter a mile away and you’re setting into infinity, right, rather than on the edge, getting closer.
And we were pulling up this weird, like, alien looking spider crab or
something that we were just – I never saw before – and they were 500 fathoms, that’s why.
It was kind of cool.

M&C: The abyss.

Sig Hansen: Yeah, it was.

M&C: Do you ever think about when you get out in the the
middle part of the sea and you know that you’re going over the endless abyss, how do you not think about that?

Sig Hansen: Be careful what you say, I don’t want to end up on
the bottom.  I would love to see what’s down there.
I think it’d be great.  We don’t know how far these crab migrate and how deep they go and where they go.

Because you’re on an edge, so they’re up and down –  see what I
mean?  So it’d be interesting to see, actually, what’s going on down there.

M&C: Do you feel like you just know your fishing grounds like the
back of your hand?  Do you know exactly where to go? 

Sig Hansen: Well, every year – every season is different.
And, it’s not just one school of crab that’s out there.  There are many schools.

And so I’ve said it before, if a guy thinks that he’s got it all figured out,
he’s a fool.  Because if you’re going to go to one area and you say ‘that’s where
they’re gonna be this year’ –  most likely, you’re wrong.   

Jonathan managed to get – this is his third year in a row he found a school of crab.  There’s a little family that lives off of Adak Island.  The son of a bitch got ‘em three years in a row, that gene pool is back.  They’re getting better, but it’s a tiny family.  See what I mean?

There’s different families out there, there’s different schools.  I know
if I go past the 57 degrees line, up towards the compass rows, which is waaaay up north, I know that that gene pool of crab is going to be a little larger, it’s gonna be dirtier legs, and they’re there.

I know if I go way out west, it’s a different specie or a different genetic
king crab.  They’re much larger, beautiful shiny shell, and it’s a different gene.  I
know in the middle of the Bering Sea, where there are more abundant numbers, they technically are a little smaller but that’s the easier place to go.

And the last couple of years we’ve had like a cold-water pond.

Scientists can’t figure it out but the bottom temperature got so cold in
the Bering Sea that all the crab have sort of pushed east.  So all these gene pools are still around but everything was forced to the east because nothing was surviving in this bottom, and they don’t understand why. 

You know, for me it’s like, it just goes to show, you can’t ever tell.  Sometimes you can look at the water and if you – it’s like this algae and it becomes almost like a purple or a turquoise.  And been through it before and I’m like ‘we’re screwed’, because I see the algae in the water, and every time the crab don’t school up.  So your numbers are minimal.  There are still just as many on the bottom…

M&C: Right, but they’re spread apart.

Sig Hansen: They’re spread out and they don’t crawl in the pot.   And it’s just – I don’t know why, but like you said, when you do it long enough, you see these signs.

M&C: How many different types of crab do you fish?  How many different types of crab are there in the Bering Sea that are edible?

Sig Hansen: Well, over the years, we’ve fished – okay, the Aleutian Chain, they have – that’s what they call that Adak, so that’s west on the chain.

You can go out and fish red king crab there. Which are a very, very large genetic king crab.

They’re showy, right, they’re the big, showy crab legs. Big.  And then you’ve got tanner crab out there, you have hair crab out there, you have deep-water brown crab out there. 

M&C: I’ve never seen Brown crab on the menu..

Sig Hansen: Well, but see, when they cook it up, it’s red, and then a lot of times, they may say, ‘hey, king crab from Alaska,’ you don’t know it’s brown crab.  I can tell by the leg but they wouldn’t.  And then there’s another up by Saint Matthews Island, there’s a blue king crab there, which I fished when I was a kid and that was my favorite fishery, always.

And then around another Island, there is a red and a blue king crab, very large.  Then in the Bering Sea, there is a king crab.  Up on Nome there is a red king crab, which is very small. 

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Next week we will publish part two of Captain Sig Hansen’s interview with April MacIntyre, M&C smallscreen editor. You can reach her via Twitter

 

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