Foolishly, I thought the toughest episodes of Deadliest Catch were behind us, but watching last night’s behind-the-scenes look at the filming of season 6, I actually beat my sofa with a pillow and shouted, “[Creative expletive that it’s a shame I can’t share] I. Cannot. Take it. I Cannot. Take it.” — on two separate occasions. The first: When we actually saw Capt. Phil Harris write the note to Todd Stanley, the cameraman assigned to the Cornelia Marie, that said, “Got to have the ending to the story.” (In a voiceover at the end of the hour, Stanley admitted that he’d assumed Phil meant to film his miraculous recovery from the stroke, but later realized he wanted him to document the end of his life.) The second: When Stanley returned to the Cornelia Marie to grieve with the crew and absolutely sobbed as he told deckhand Freddie that just that morning, Phil had told him to tell Freddie that he loved him.
Honestly, I could have watched an hour just on Phil and Todd’s relationship, which Phil described as “like a married couple.” Phil had gotten Todd a Cornelia Marie jacket with his name on it — something you only earn as a member of the crew — and then five minutes later, they were reminding each other that they knew how to push each other’s buttons. Something I hadn’t picked up on when the episode with Phil’s stroke aired, that was Todd who was helping to carry the stretcher from Phil’s room up to the deck (after he helped put a sweatshirt on Phil). He also rode with him in the ambulance. We saw them exchange “I love you”s in the hospital. As Keith said when the Wizard cameraman, who’d been with Phil for three seasons including the most recent King crab, got teary when they received the news about Phil’s passing, this show only exists because the cameramen become a member of both the captain’s family and his crew.
If we learned anything from the rest of the special, it’s how rare that chemistry is. Each boat is assigned one producer and one cameraman who take with them five cameras, 650 tapes, two surveillance systems, and one satellite phone for emergencies. On the Northwestern, they need guys strong enough to stand up to Sig and Edgar. On the Time Bandit, they need guys who can take a joke and a punch (and the crew throwing water balloons at them as Capt. Andy times them getting on a suit). It’s like when you’re watching Man vs. Wild and suddenly realize that everything Bear Grylls is doing, there’s a cameraman doing with only one arm. You’ve got these guys standing atop the cages and at the rail, taking big waves and freezing temperatures in the face. When the crew grinds for 36 hours straight before a delivery date, so does the cameraman and producer. Or, at least they do if Capt. Keith bets them that they can’t. Their prize: Keith had to climb up on the mast and spend 15 minutes there in his underwear during a snow squall at St. Paul Island. He did it. You could feel the cold through the TV. He’d arranged for a large heater to be lifted up by him to ease the pain (smart move), but his brother cut the power (brilliant). Working 36 hours straight, that’s how you earn a crab fisherman’s respect.
Some pairings fail. We watched Keith have a disastrous first sitdown with another cameraman who tried to get a little too chummy too fast. It was too awkward to rewind, but it involved the cameraman playfully flipping off the skipper. When Joel, the greenhorn on Keith’s crew, got corrected by the captain on deck, he wasn’t in the mood to answer the cameraman’s questions about what had just happened and shot him daggers. You saw how miserable it could be for a cameraman if the crew didn’t want to open up to him. Even if they were playing nice, there’s still the problem of seasickness. The crew on the Kodiak took bets on how far into their 30-hour steam to pick up pots their greenhorn cameraman would puke. It happened within the first hour. Wild Bill actually gave him a pep talk, and he eventually made it back out to the deck to film a 12-hour grind, but then he had to admit to his producer and the captain when he started vomiting again that he’d only urinated twice in the last 48 hours. Bill was forced to shut down fishing — you can imagine how well that went over — to help figure out how serious the situation was and, ultimately, how to get him off the boat. (The show also has cameras embedded with the Coast Guard, and uses a chase boat, the Aquila, to get shots of the fleet. The latter picked him up once the sea calmed.)
Did you make it through the episode without a tissue? (Or abusing your couch?)