Fans who watched the seventh-season premiere of Discovery Channel’s reality hit “Deadliest Catch” last Tuesday (April 12) saw the crab-fleet captains gather to pay tribute to friend and fellow skipper Phil Harris, who died last February after suffering a major stroke.
A Harley-Davidson fuel tank — complete with a portrait of avid biker Harris by airbrush artist Mike Lavallee — was put into a crab pot and then dropped into the Bering Sea near Priest Rock, located at the entrance to the fleet’s off-loading port of Dutch Harbor, Alaska.
Those who saw the end of last season may have thought that fuel tank looked very similar to one that was buried after a formal funeral service early last year, but with a different portrait of the bearded, raspy-voiced skipper of the F/V Cornelia Marie.
Apparently the halves of a single tank shared Harris’ cremated remains.
“The tank was cut in half,” says Andy Hillstrand, who shares the captain’s chair of the F/V Time Bandit with his brother — and close Harris pal — Johnathan Hillstrand. “They buried one half next to his mom, and they put the other one in the pot, and we buried him at Priest Rock, where everybody does stuff like that.
“We put Phil to rest in October, and it was good.”
Hillstrand has also immortalized his friend in song.
“I wrote two songs,” he tells Zap2it. “The night after Phil died on the show, I was feeling weird. I went to sleep, and I woke up, had it all in my head. I wrote an ‘Ode to Phil’ and ‘Fishing Man’s Life.’ I just woke up, and I had all the words in my head.”
Hillstrand hopes to get the chance to perform “Fishing Man’s Life” on the “Deadliest Catch’s” companion-roundtable show, “After the Catch,” which starts later in the season, and to have “Ode to Phil” available on iTunes
“I’m not that great of a singer,” he says, “but when you hear the words and you hear the guitar playing, then you hear what I say … I would tell you if it’s a bad song, but they’re really good songs. One, I’m just saying goodbye to my buddy; and the other one just talks about kicking ass and fishing.”
Speaking of getting a boot in one’s posterior, according to Hillstrand, the Bering Sea got its licks in during this past late fall and winter.
“We had a pretty good season,” he says, “but we got our asses kicked. There were nine broken bones in four days on a lot of boats — not on our boat. But there’s pretty much blood on every one of the featured boats.”
To anyone who thinks the captains fake risky situations or put their crews in peril for the cameras, Hillstrand says, “No one would ever try to hurt somebody for a stupid TV show. It’s just not going to happen. You don’t even have to do it. It’s dangerous enough already.”
This season of the show saw another casualty before the episodes premiered.
Time Bandit deckhand Justin Tennison — seen in the premiere episode — died at the age of 33 in Homer, Alaska, in February, only four days after returning to shore, from complications of sleep apnea.
“I know,” says Hillstrand. “J.T., man, craziest thing I ever saw in my life. His mom died when he was six of sleep apnea, is what we were told. It’s where your throat closes, and you just stop breathing. John does it, too, scares the hell out of me.
“It was tragic. The guy, it was his first year of fishing with us. Everything was going good.”
After years of working in front of the cameras, doing publicity and appearing at two CatchCon fan conventions in Seattle, Wash., Hillstrand says he’s come to terms with not just being a fisherman anymore — a subject he discussed with fellow Captain Sig Hansen, of the F/V Northwestern.
“It’s weird,” he says. “We’ve been hiding the whole thing of being a TV star, like, ‘No, we’re just fishermen.’ But two months out of our lives, we’re being TV stars, then people see you for 16 weeks on TV.
“It’s like, ‘Sig, screw it, yeah, we’re fishermen, and we’re TV stars. We’re dads; we’re husbands; and we’re just trying to survive and take care of our families like everyone else.’
“No one gets a big head, or else we’ll kick their ass.”
And besides, if Hillstrand gave up the fishing life for full-time showbiz, he’d miss the sweet smell of success.
“Let me tell you this,” Hillstrand says of the particular aroma of a working crab boat, “remember when Phil said, ‘Crab farts’? Think of the nastiest, smelliest fart you’ve ever smelled in your life, that’s what it smells like. It’s bad. That’s all I can tell you.
“The guys are wearing rubber suits, where they’re sweating. They don’t take a shower every day, and they start smelling like the bait, because they breathe it in through their mouths. There’s bodily functions, and then you’ve got the smell of bait and rotting cod.
“It’s just a beautiful smell. It’s the smell of money, baby.”