Interview: The Deadliest Catch Cast on Pesky Cameramen and Putting Fishing First

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Captains Johnathan and Andy Hillstrand with Sig Hansen - IMAGE VIA
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  • Captains Johnathan and Andy Hillstrand with Sig Hansen

The Deadliest Catch has quickly become one of television's most watched shows. Known for the drama, action and, of course, the rick of injury or death, millions of followers have gotten hooked [ahem] to Discovery Channel's hit fishing show. Prior to their stop at the Touhill Performing Arts Center on Tuesday, May 10 (which will raise funds for St. Louis disaster efforts), Gut Check caught up with Andy Hillstrand and Sig Hansen to talk about how the show has changed and what it's like having to constantly save the cameramen's lives.

Gut Check: Congratulations on having one of the biggest season premiers this year.

Hansen: You know, if I gave a shit, I'd probably be in Hollywood somewhere, so whatever. So how did you guys get started with fishing?

Hillstrand: Well, my dad was a fisherman when I was a kid, so I've been commercially fishing since I was seven years old. I've been on boats since I was three. My dad had five boys and there are three of them on the Time Bandit now.

Hansen: I was 12 the first year I went crab fishing. The Northwestern was built in 1977, but it's been a family business for a long time. We're fourth generation fishermen. Dad came over to the states in 1958 and started experimenting with fishing.

What were your reactions when you heard the Discovery Channel wanted to make a show out of crab fishing?

Hillstrand: Well my brother told them no. But they saw me with the underwater camera I drag on the bottom of the ocean floor to spot king crab and they asked me if I wanted to be on the show, so I talked to my brother and we agreed. Hansen: We thought they were nuts. We were very leery, very cautious. We, along with the rest of the fleet, were very leery about it 'cause we didn't know how it would be portrayed, and we didn't want our insurance rates to go up. We knew it was unique, but they called it the Deadliest Catch, and to be honest we didn't know really how the statistics were about the injuries so we weren't fully aware. You guys didn't know how dangerous your job was?

Hansen: No, no. We were just fishing. We didn't realize it. Have you ever been seriously injured on the boats? Hillstrand: Oh yeah, I've had my neck crushed and my kneecap was almost taken off. I remember all of them.

Hansen: We've been lucky. We haven't had any mortalities on the boat, but we've had a lot of injuries. My brother had his head busted open and we sewed it shut with dental floss. My brother stuck a knife all the way through his arm one time. And I've busted my nose and my teeth, ankles and stuff like that, but nothing fatal.

There's such a high risk or injury or death with this job what keeps you coming back on the boat?

Hillstrand: We're just nuts. We just love it man. It's a cool job.

Hansen: It was all you ever did. Hell, you could draw a picture of a boat before you could write your own name.

What got you to agree to do the show?

Hansen: Well, we were supposed to meet these guys for an interview at a bar, but they were late so by the time they got to us we were half in the bag. And they liked what they saw 'cause we were bantering back and forth because we weren't afraid of the camera. I thought it would be a neat tribute for our family. That's the only reason I did it.

What's it like having cameramen on the boats?

Hillstrand: Well they pretty much get thrown in the tempest, and it's my job to protect them, too. We run them through safety drills, but it's basically up to the captain and the crew to make sure they're ok. And they're totally green. They have no clue what's going on.

Hansen: Well that's the thing. They're doing their job, but we're having to babysit them. And they're so into their job, but it's our way or the highway, so it's like "fuck you."

Have there been any major injuries with the cameramen?

Hillstrand: Oh yeah, they've hurt themselves bad. They've broken ribs, broken arms, broken legs. They fall in open holes or a wave will knock them down and roll them around. If you fall in an open hole you owe us a case of beer the first time, and then if you do it twice you owe us a bottle of whiskey, and if you do it a third time we just drop you off on the beach 'cause you're going to die -- you're an idiot.

Hansen: No injuries. We've been lucky. We did have a cameraman who almost lost his head. He had his neck on the railing; he was trying to film outside the boat. And I yelled at him, "get out of the way," and he took like three steps forward, and a 900 pound pot just came crashing down right on the rail. So it would have taken his head off. Then he comes up to the wheelhouse and is like, "dude, I think you just saved my life." He's all white as a ghost. That's why you have to know your surroundings.

They're shooting 24/7 for two to three months. Do you ever want them to turn the cameras off?

Hillstrand: Yeah, we learned how to turn it off. We know where that button is.

Hansen: Now I'm used to it, but at the time, I didn't like it. I would put my hat over the camera and go, "I just don't want to be filmed for a little while." They'd have the monitor down in the galley, and I wouldn't know when I was being filmed, and it just bugged me. I was paranoid. I don't like that shit. We couldn't come to an agreement, so I turned the boat around and headed for the shore. And then he's frantically calling on his little satellite phone, freaking out. And the producer out in L.A. said, "Just throw it over the side, and go fishing." So I threw the camera over the side and we went back fishing. I think people wonder if any of the show is scripted.

Hillstrand: We're too dumb to script it. You know, you live in close quarters with a bunch of guys --it's pretty easy to not like each other after a few months.

Hansen: Here's the deal. They know that we're there for fishing first, and we don't want the camera guys in our way. We can't afford to fuck around with these guys. Bottom line is, I think they respect us for that, and that's what makes it real, and that's what they want.

Andy, I've heard your boat is a little more luxurious than most of the other boats.

Hillstrand: Yeah we have real mattresses, and most of the guys sleep on a piece of foam that they put on these little bunks. But we've got full-sized mattresses that the guys sleep on and we've got a sauna on the boat, too. We used to have a Jacuzzi in the summertime, but then someone dropped a crane on it. Do you think these extra comforts help maintain the crew's morale?

Hillstrand: Well yeah, you sleep a lot better 'cause either you're working, eating or sleeping. There's only about three things you do when you're crabbing, and my dad knew that if you didn't sleep good, you're going to break a guy's body down after two to three months, and you won't be able to do the job. There's no way. Andy, your boat seems to pull a lot of pranks. Does that help keep spirits up?

Hillstrand: People don't understand. They always say "well, you have the fun boat," but what they don't understand is we grew up with a dad who would scream at people. He was a total screamer. There was no fun on the boat, no music, no nothing. Everything was dead serious. "You're all going to die, you're a bunch of idiots." When it came to when we bought this boat, and he didn't have us around anymore, he fired 26 guys in one summer. We just like to have fun, so we prank a lot. What was it like losing Captain Phil Harris?

Hillstrand: Phil was our good friend. It was just like losing your mom or dad. We just lost our dad a few years ago, but my dad always said, "never look back. Just look ahead." So that's how we've lived our lives.

Hansen: Because of the show, Phil and I did a lot of traveling together. So, he got to know my family, and now my two girls have to see Phil die. And he was always talking about his boys and what he was going to leave for them. He was always talking like that. It was like someone pulled the rug out from under him. Has the show changed since Phil's death?

Hillstrand: It's a lot different of a show. I don't really like the show now. I just don't get a good feeling when I watch it now. Hansen: The show's not the same without Phil. It's no fun. Everything's the same, but it's different when you see the boat and you know he's not there. A lot of times you'll see a boat and you'll call them on the radio, but you know, it's just different. When you lose a guy on the sea it really hits home. It's not easy. Hansen, you've got a wife and two daughters at home. What's it like for your family to have you gone for months at a time? Hansen: My wife's father was a fisherman, so she knows the drill. She's from Norway, so it's a fishing family, too. It's hard because when you come home they get into their routine and I have mine so when you come home all of a sudden you don't want to step on their toes. Do the girls have any interest in fishing?

Hansen: Yah, the youngest is going to go fishing this summer. She's 15, so she's been begging me for two years to go up. But we do a salmon charter, which is like a big fish taxi. Not too labor intensive, but it's a great way to learn and get your feet wet. I don't think she'll be fishing crab anytime soon, but it's a good summer job. If they wanted to do crab fishing would you let them?

Hansen: It's just not something I'd want for my kids. Nina is too frail anyways. Andy could probably do it, but who the fuck wants to go crab fishing.

You've both ventured outside fishing. Andy, you've started writing music and Sig, you wrote a book. How did that start?

Hillstrand: I played music my whole life. I started playing drums when I was seven years old, but you can't really take a drum set around and make it sound pretty. So you have to learn to play guitar, too. I hadn't actually written any songs until Phil died last year. It disturbed me pretty bad. So I woke up at 4 a.m. the day after Phil passed away on TV and I had all these words in my head so I grabbed a guitar. It was kind of my way of saying goodbye to Phil, 'cause I didn't get to see him before he died. Then I wrote a song about our lives fishing -crab farts and well Phil used to always talk about crab farts and duck farts and Crown Royal.

Sig, you wrote a book called North by Northwest about your Norwegian heritage. How has your background impacted you?

Hansen: Well for me it's all about pride and heritage. And that's a big deal. They're a very proud people. We grew up speaking Norwegian in the home, and when I was in first grade the teacher sent a note home with me for my mom, "Teach him English." But as far as the Norwegian work ethic, the town where my folks are from, it was basically a fishing island. That was all they did. So when you grow up with that background, you're proud of it.

You've done tours for the show before, do you guys enjoy getting off the boat for a while and hitting the road? Hillstrand: We get people asking us to come out and fish with them or ride horses with them all the time, so we decided to try a captains' tour last year, and it went pretty well. People get to ask questions that aren't on the show and we get people up on stage and in survival suits. It's just like hanging out for an hour and a half and having fun.

Hansen: It's been fun, and as long as it's fun I'll do it. But it's interesting. I mean there are only so many hours they can get on TV. It's all condensed, so people have a lot of questions. So its fun to let people pick our brains and see what more they want to know about the show. It validates the show, which is kind of cool.

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