"Bait!" Capt. Sig Hansen's voice booms at me from the wheelhouse of his crab fishing boat, the Northwestern, as we cut through Alaska's Bering Sea on a misty October morning. I've joined his five-person crew for a day as the ship's newbie, or "greenhorn," to help set gear. It feels just like I'm on the unscripted Discovery hit Deadliest Catch…except I'm not on camera.
My assignment: hooking bait bags inside the 875-pound steel-framed crab pots that are dropped one at a time into the churning sea. Eager to please, I scurry across the slick deck — or attempt to in my oversize neon fishing jacket and pants. Until a few minutes ago, the 10-pound bag of chopped herring I'm clutching was a frozen rectangle of whole fish — then I pulverized it in a metal grinder.
I climb awkwardly into the 8-foot-tall, 7-foot-wide pot that sits perched on the boat railing, secured by a cable. As I try to attach the bag, my two layers of gloves cause me to fumble, although another reason might be hearing Sig shout, "Turn and burn!" and "Time is money!"
In Season 16, there's a bigger payoff at stake for the scrappy Americans coming out of Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands. One of those Americans — fan fave Capt. Keith Colburn, Sig's friend and rival — is notoriously tough on his greenhorns but kindly showed me how to navigate in the Wizard during my visit. (The show follows seven boats altogether.)
The crabbers' biggest competitors, the Russians, are working under a revamped quota system that cuts down on illegal fishing. And because we're all vying for the best spots, every second I waste means less bank for the boat.
Finally, success! I scuttle out of the pot as elegantly as a crustacean. Sig's patient and methodical relief skipper, 25-year-old daughter Mandy, helps me secure the hinged door. The cable is unhooked, and her husband, Clark Pederson, pushes it into the sea. Already sore, I grab the buoy line (a rope to you and me) attached to the pot and toss it overboard along with the orange "bags" ID'ing the boat and pot number.
Only 176 more to go! All those stacked pots can make the boat top-heavy, a risk in the wicked storm that's coming. The 60-knot winds are still a day out — you see the Saga, with Capt. Jake Anderson and returning skipper Johnathan Hillstrand (Time Bandit), tossed around — but I drill getting into an insulated survival suit anyway. Afterward, I ask Sig if he'd hire me. "You were ambitious and didn't complain. Yes, you're worthy," he says. Hey, it's a start!
Deadliest Catch, Season Premiere, Tuesday, April 14, 8/7c, Discovery
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