Captain Phil Harris Dies at 53

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A couple of years ago I got the chance to interview the cast and crew of The Deadliest Catch in Dutch Harbor, Alaska. My first interview was with Captain Phil Harris, who recently passed. He was in the wheelhouse operating a crane, moving palates of groceries from a delivery truck on the dock onto his deck. He lit up a cigarette, cranked some heavy metal to show off the new stereo he had just installed, and started yelling back blunt answers to my questions. He was refreshingly frank.

Phil's journey as a fisherman started because of car envy. While in high school in Bethel, Washington, he drove a Chevelle. His buddy came around with a new car he bought after a season fishing for king crab. At 17, Phil left with that friend to fish on the American Eagle. Early into his first season, he quit and then crawled up on a galley table and curled up. The captain came down and yelled at him, “You can't handle it.” He took it as a challenge, got back up, and never looked back.

That year as a greenhorn he made no money. The next year another guy got injured and he stepped in, taking home a full share. In 1975 he estimated he made roughly $130,000. On his 21st birthday the captain gave him his own boat, the Golden Viking. In the 90s he became captain of the Cornelia Marie. He captained crews in one of the world's most dangerous jobs during the boom years of crab fishing. In the 00s he gained fame on The Deadliest Catch.

The entire time he remained a fisherman's fisherman. As a captain and star of the show, he still reacted to the everyday pressures of the job. “The most stress? It comes every time a pot comes up empty.”

On that day we talked, he was trying to stay mellow despite just learning his boat needed $50,000 in repairs. He took out cigarette after cigarette, filling the wheelhouse with smoke.

He knew life on the ocean affected his family, and he expressed remorse. “If you want to start a family, don't try it. You put a lot of pressure on people at home. I've been divorced twice.”

But now he had the opportunity to work closely with his two sons, Josh and Jake, and relished it. He traded verbal jabs with them as they moved around the boat.

He knew his love of cigarettes, alcohol, and caffeine were driving down his health, but he loved the fuel they gave him and the camaraderie they offered. One day he saw me eating lunch with a couple of people from the show. He came over and ordered a round of duck farts—equal parts Kahlua, Bailey's, and Crown Royal. He drank four more before lunch was over.

Though he sat in the wheelhouse, he still suffered from the effects of a career on deck. “I've broken every bone in my body except my neck.”

He never let go of his pride in the skills he learned on deck. One night at a local bar, he and a few other captains challenged various crew members to rope coiling contests. It escalated into something that could only be described as “air coiling.”

He knew the acute and chronic risks of his job. “We don't have great life expectancy. Everybody I started with is dead.”

And he loved it despite the monotony of hauling in pots and driving into big waves. “The day I start to think I'm sick of it, I'll walk off.”

Most of all, he was a testament to the fact that adventure isn't just defined by uber athletes and extreme scientists pushing the limits during once-in-a-lifetime expeditions. It can exist in the realm of a fisherman who goes out everyday and loves the simple opportunity his boat offers. “I like the freedom of it.”

You can leave condolences for Phil's family and friends on the Discovery web site.

–Joe Spring

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