‘There’s Nothing Coddling About Crabfishing’: Tales from the Bering Sea with Capt. Keith Colburn

by 7 years ago

On the heels of a brutal and icy fishing season, I met the legendary crab captain of “The Wizard” for a burger and a beer to discuss the upcoming season of “Deadliest Catch.” The day before, Capt. Keith paid a visit to Manhattan’s legendary MOMA. A week earlier, he hit up WrestleMania XXIV in Miami. It’s hardly what you’d expect from a captain notorious for his temper. “People are shocked to see me because they just think I’m constantly fishing. So they sit there and they’re like, ‘what are you doing in New York?’ I’m going on a talk show. I’m going over to the Museum of Modern Art to hang out. And they’re like, ‘What? But aren’t you always on a boat?’  No, we don’t work 12 months a year.”

Keith is both a savvy seafood businessman and a hardworking, blue-collar badass. Thanks to publicity from the the show, he’s inked a nationwide crab-distribution deal with Kroger’s grocery stores. “It’s an amazing opportunity. And the cool thing is, it’s my crab. It’s not someone else’s crab that’s coming from the Bering Sea. This crab was caught on my boat. Literally, you’re going to see my guys catching it on TV and then you can eat it yourself.” On the afternoon of our lunch, he’s amicable and all smiles, throwing in a dip after finishing his burger. “This year I had more ‘Oh sh*t’ moments than I would normally get in about four years of fishing.”

Below are 10 tales from our conversation about crabfishing in the Bering Sea, all in Captain Keith’s own words. Think you can do what he does? Just take his own advice, “Bro,” and have another beer.

On work ethic and bad attitudes:

One time I was walking down the dock and there’s this guy who’s a good-sized guy, relatively fit, looks like he’s pushing 28-30 years old. And he walks straight up to me, in my face, and goes “Hey, I’m looking for work” and I’m like “Ok, cool. I have a full crew…” and he goes, “Any of your crybaby crew wanna get off the boat? I’ll take their spot right now.” So I’m, like, going “Ummm…. Yeah, that’s what I need — a headcase on my boat.”  I guarantee you with that attitude, he’d be the first one to fold up their tent, man, and just crumble horribly.
I think work ethic is suffering right now in the younger generation. I don’t think there’s any question. I’m in my late 40s now, and, you know, I’ve seen a lot of kids — or guys in their 20s — try to take a shot at crabfishing, and that’s all they can do: take a shot at it. It’s miserable, disgusting, hard work. It’s the worst experience you will ever have, literally.  And in some cases it’s the best experience you will ever have. It’s really interesting because it takes more than just being an athlete and being young and fit and in good health. You need drive and determination. You need a big heart.

Most guys think that an empty wallet is enough motivation to do the job. I had a run of probably about five years straight where our crab quotas were way off, so we were only working three weeks to six weeks total and that’s all. I had a run five years in a row where I had greenhorns come on the boat that made 25-35,000 for the season.  For three weeks to six weeks worth of work.

These are guys that I hired right before the season. They didn’t go the shipyard or do the gearwork, They did none of the stuff that goes along with the job leading up to it. They were basically guys I hired at the last second because someone else failed or quit. And five years running, all five of them… none of them came back. I’d get the call, “Yeah, I don’t really wanna work in the shipyard or is it okay if I don’t deliver the boa? I just want to fly in.” And I’m like, “NO.”

First off, you’re a greenhorn. you’re not some kind of all-star crabber to begin with. And now you’re telling me that you only want to just be there when we’re making money.

We’ve grossed close to a million bucks in four days before. And, when you see those kind of numbers, the return to the crew and the net are huge; we’re talking six figures sometimes. But those four days? There’s probably 14 weeks worth of work on the frontside and the backside leading up to being prepared to take advantage of the fishing situation. Those are the guys I want when you have that four-day opening to actually catch crab. I don’t want money fisherman. Money fisherman suck. That’s a guy who can haul all day long when you’ve got full pots. You know the guy I want? He sees the empty pot break the rail, and says, “Holy sh*t, I need to speed up because right now we need to get this gear out and crab.” That, to me, is a true money fisherman. You know, he understands the pots aren’t coming up with anything in them, we do all this work to get them in the water, bait them, and everything else and now we’re not making squat? Time to kick it into high gear.

On more and more money fishermen coming up to Alaska as a result of the popular success of “The Deadliest Catch”

I meet so many guys that say, “Yeah, I want to try and do that.” So many guys that just want to give it a shot and see what it’s like. You know what? This isn’t bungee jumping. This is crab fishing in the Bering Sea. And even though you’ve witnessed me probably go through more greenhorns than probably any other boat in the Deadliest Catch fleet, it’s not me that breaks them. It’s not my deck boss that breaks these guys. It’s the boat. “The Wizard” breaks them. It’s the workload, it’s the hours, it’s the lack of sleep, the fatigue, the pain, and all that misery that goes along with once we start that boat up and leave the dock. She never stops working.

And it doesn’t matter; If I go down, my brother steps in. If my brother goes down, [Wizard First Mate] Soper steps in. We just make sure we have the manpower there to keep things going. It’s a continuous round-the-clock operation, which makes it even more brutal. Although the guys are going 18 hours on, six hours off, six hours means you’re actually getting maybe four. But, if we start having to chip ice? That rotation is gone. Now we’re throwing more guys at it to try and get the ice off the boat and keep hauling gear. We have to run from the ice, we have to stack the gear – and boom — there goes the rotation. Every man is out there.

So, when you have a guy fail, that’s the worst thing possible. Because they’re used to seeing the rotation die or suspended because of ice or because of weather or because of stacking gear or moving it, but when a crewman goes down and can’t physically do the job? That’s the worst, and you don’t want to be that guy. If somebody decides they’re not capable of doing this job and then they pull their diaper on and head in the house…. Look, the one thing the crew cherishes the most on the boat is their sleep. Because they don’t get much of it.

On working with the camera guys while captaining a commercial crabfishing vessel:

About two years ago for King Crab, you didn’t really see much of the Wizard. I was one of the #1 boats in the fleet. During my two best years, I had an average of 27 and a 30 King Crab per pot. I went out there, told my producer/camera guy, “Here’s what I’m going to do… I when I catch 250,000 pounds of crab I’m going to be out of here.”

We hauled one bad string. The counts just kept coming: 38, 41, 51, 56, 57. Within two days the camera guys were like, “How many in that pot?” 54. “How many in that pot?” 37 They were like, “This is boring, this is not what we wanted.”

For me, as a captain, I accomplished exactly what I was after. We went out there, we didn’t have much incident, we didn’t have any high drama. Everything went smoothly. We were efficient, we went in, we got done, and we got out. That doesn’t make a very good “Deadliest Catch.”

But seasons like this one? Polar opposite. I had everything: crew problems, medical problems, and emergencies at sea. I mean, situations where the boat was in treacherous conditions and it just kept coming and coming and coming. That, I think, is a completely different kind of season that you have to work through. That was the season we had this year. I’ve been doing this for 27 years. I’ve fished crab every year. I’ve never witnessed a season like this. Hands down the hardest season I’ve ever had. And it’s just a lot of everything. I mean there were times when the guys on board who were filming were overwhelmed because they have five or six distinct stories going on at once. And they’re like, “Holy crap, how do I capture this all?” Because they really need to capture all of it. If they miss something, it’s like… “Too bad, that sucks, you missed it. Guy almost gets smashed by a crab pot, if you got it, you got it. If you missed it, sorry man, that’s just the way it goes!”

All we ask is to try to stay out of our way. Just try to stay out of our way, don’t impact what we’re doing. But, in any work environment, you put another body there, there’s going to be a distraction. There’s going to be an impact. So for them to try and do their job and capture it and for us to do our job and just let them continue to document it is a struggle.

Every single string of gear I haul is different. The weather might be a little different, the current of the stream or the direction the winds blowing might be different. From one hour to the next, you might be able to film from almost any point on the boat and it’s safe. Then, an hour later, it’s the red zone, as I call it. It may go from being 10 percent of the deck, to being 90 percent of the deck. So it takes a while for the guys on deck to really get used to that. And my guys can’t continuously be saying “Get out of our way.” And so that sometimes can become an issue, like last year.

Other times, it can be the opposite. Two years ago, they brought a guy on for his first time out here. He was phenomenal. He was able to hang, talk to the guys, capture stuff, He was absolutely great. But last year I got this guy who was just a walking nightmare. He just continuously could not figure it out. Couldn’t listen, wouldn’t listen, started rough, created a lot of headaches for myself and my crew. He put my crew and myself at risk several times and had a real issue with learning how to listen. At the end of the day, there’s only one guy in charge of the crab boat. Producers are in charge of their cameras and their tapes. And that’s as far as it goes. Otherwise, they’re working for me.

This guy, didn’t get it. By the end of the season, the seas never dropped below 25 feet in a seven-day period. And we were trying to work in it. The waves went up to as much as 40 feet at times. And the thing is, when you’re in that kind of weather as the captain, you’re living three waves out. That’s all you can see. The fourth one might clear the deck, so you can’t get out of the chair, you’re just focused and riveted on your team and your guys, you’re just trying to get over that next wave and haul that next pot. You’re focusing on that.

At that point, a guy who’s been with you for four months should be able to get out of the way and understand that when I get on the loudspeaker and tell my guys, “Hey, watch the starboard side,” they all know exactly what to do. But here goes this knucklehead walking over to the other side. In the case of the guy that I escorted down the hall and confined to quarters, they didn’t capture that guy getting in my face. And he did it twice. And then watch that footage again and you’ll see that he waits, he makes contact with the camera, and then he decides to get in my face for a third time. You know what? Maybe they are a distraction sometimes just because they’re there. It’s a risk. You can come on my boat tomorrow without a camera or anything else, and just wander around on deck and try to be in the safest possible spot all the time. You’re another person out there that we have to worry about. So even when they’re doing their job perfectly, one more person to keep alive.

But I think they managed to really capture a lot of what happened on the boat, if not all of it, most of it. I can honestly say I’m really excited to watch this season myself, because I am interested to see how it unfolds on TV.
On watching “The Deadliest Catch” on TV after the season is over:

You know, you put the season behind you. You remember the highs, the lows, where the crab was. You’ve got all your data that you’ve maintained on your plotter and your log books and stuff, and then, you know, you try to learn from your mistakes. You sort of do a debriefing when you get to town with the other boats and you see how other guys did and compare how things went for them. And that’s what you take out of the season. That used to be right around the beginning of April.
Now I get home around the beginning of April, and, guess what? I have to watch my entire season all over again. But the thing is, we have zero editorial control. Our contracts say, “For perpetuity in the entire universe, they can film us and do whatever the hell they want with the footage, naked or clothed, any time they want.” But it is what it is and there’s stuff that I completely forget even occurred on the boat. And all of a sudden, I start watching the show and it’s like, “Oh, yeah. I remember this.” And then you start busting up like “Oh crap, oh not that.” Or, “Oh man, I’m not gonna look good today, here comes some more hate mail.”

On “Oh, Sh*t” moments at sea…

I’ve never had anybody go overboard, but once I took a 40-foot wall of water and had six guys exposed — 3 behind the stack and 3 in front of the stack. Literally, I lost almost my whole crew in one wave. It was literally as bad as I’ve ever had to go through. I ended up with three pretty serious injuries from it as well. My brother was smashed up; I think he had four or five broken ribs. Lucky that it wasn’t any worse than that. My first mate had nerve damage and just the nastiest shiner you’ve ever seen in your life. He got smashed into the crabpots. And a third kid we were afraid he had some internal bleeding. Ultimately, it was just bruised.
I went through just hours of just hell doing medical triage, going to Coast Guard, getting the boat, turning around, and going back to town. And my two main guys are down. My two main guys who I trained, my brother and my mate/deck boss are both down and done. Suddenly I’m having to do two or three jobs by myself. That particular year, my brother was the engineer, so I had to go down and transfer fuel in the middle of this whole thing in 30-foot seas.

I’m doing that, I’m having to just clear everything out and focus completely on the guys well-being and health. I mean, it was just a bad experience. It was a bad experience. At the end of the day it was a good experience because I still had all six guys, and nobody had any career-ending injuries and we got the boat back to town safely with the guys safe.

On “Oh, Sh*t” moments at sea in the upcoming season…

This year I had more “Oh sh*t” moments than I would normally get in about four years of fishing. when people asked me, “Is it really that rough out there?” I’d say, “You guys haven’t seen how rough it is out there. You really haven’t seen it captured yet.” And in the past few years you’ve started to see just how big the waves are and just how lethal they can be. They’ve started to capture the weather well. One thing up until now that they’ve only captured glimpses of is the ice. And just what it represents and how dangerous it can be. The entire fleet was tied up for close to a month-ish this year. It was that bad.  I’m not gonna say the entire fleet, there was a big black boat that was still out there fishing. You have to go about 40 miles through a frozen harbor to get the crab off. When you’re making less than 100 feet an hour because of the ice, you know you’re moving pretty damn slow.


My boat is pretty heavy because I’m packing around 16,000 cubes of water in the holds, plus the weight of the boat. We’re packing more than two million pounds of steel and water. “The Wizard” is a big, heavy serious boat. I’m sitting 100 feet from the bow and you can sit there and feel the whole boat shuddering and crunching from the ice. You’ve got a chunk of ice up on the bow and all of a sudden you’re pushing, pushing, pushing and it’s still all ice. You’re constantly on the edge of your seat trying to get through that stuff.
You can’t predict this stuff. We had our gear under the ice a number of times this year. We were dredging our gear out of the ice. It’s between one- and two- feet thick, you crunch through it, you get some spots of open water, and pretty soon you get into it and it’s like, “OK, this is a little heavier than I was expecting.” And all of sudden it’s getting worse as you’re going into it, so then you’ve gotta try and turn the boat. You’ve gotta worry about the ice going underneath the boat, going under the wheel, losing your rudder, and being stranded in that garbage. Lastly, by the edge of the ice you get a swell, so you’ve got these giant projectiles the size of semi-trucks that you’re trying to dodge. It’s crazy, crazy stuff, man. So that’s why a lot of guys opted not to fish in it. They said screw it, we’re gonna go tie our boats up.  So we didn’t do that though, we fished straight through.

On fishing strategies:

Two years ago, we had a situation where the lady that’s predicting the ice and currents was off. The report was off by about 30 miles. We get these currents that’ll push to the north-north-north for two weeks straight. And then, all of a sudden, they turn around and – boom — you get them just blowing in the south for two weeks straight. When you get northerly winds and a current moving south, the ice is charging and just covering the Bering Sea.
I had my gear right next to the ice. I fished and nobody around me filled my boat. My two partner boats — they’re not deadliest catch guys – that gear is gone, that’ll never be gotten back. We’re on a point in the season where most of the fleet is down on the edge and picking through scraps that have already been picked over because they had retreated from the ice and we’re right there working through it. All of a sudden, they start to realize and the report is that it’s going to get better. So they start to come north where I am, but at this point they can’t because big factory trawler — which drag the big nets through the water — have literally encircled me. These factory trawlers with the big cables can saw off a whole string of buoys in an hour.
But they don’t want to do that. So if you’re in an area first, they’ll observe that and stay away from you. So I’m sitting there and I have this little area I’m working. I’m surrounded by trawlers, fishing in the Bering Sea, and I’m by myself. I had this halo of bad guys surrounding me and the rest of the fleet can’t get up there to set gear because the trawlers are there. They’re not gonna try to fish next to those guys.

And there I am with all my electronics turned off and they can’t see who I am. I’m just a blip on the radar, so I’m sitting there basically with my cloaking device on, fishing right in the middle of the trawlers, filling up on crab. They have footage of these factory trawlers looking the size of a building right next to my gear. For some reason they never showed it. That strategy was so cool.{pagebreak}

On getting along with other crabfishermen outside of the Deadliest Catch fleet:

There’s two attitudes. Initially, when the show first started, it was like “Oh yeah, go ahead! Whatever.” Now they’re starting to see guys on TV like some of the other captains and myself do things like “Morning Joe.” They’re also starting to see us in the offseason sell crab. I tried before I was even on TV to find a way to get my crab to market, and it’s extremely complex and very difficult. But now because of the notoriety that comes along with being on television, it’s opened up opportunities for me.

Are there some people jealous of that in the fleet? Absolutely. There are guys that are definitely jealous of that. But there’s also the overall sense that they’re happy that we’re doing it, because it’s raising awareness. People sit there and see what we’re doing for a living and they’re like, “OK, now I see why crab is a luxury item” Not just because it’s great, but you’re not just going into a field and laying some feed for some chickens and getting some eggs, not to downplay the chicken farmers, it’s a different thing. So that awareness has definitely been brought to the American consumer and has helped the entire fleet overall with pricing.
On becoming a captain of a commercial fishing vessel:

I moved pretty quickly through the ranks. Even though I was working ten months a year, I decided to go for my mate’s license once I had my seatime. It takes about five years to get enough seatime to go test to get your mates license. It’s a pretty complicated and timely process. You’ve got to go to school to learn a lot of things you don’t just learn on a boat; everything from firefighting to medical emergencies at sea to bridgewalking, radar scroll,  etc. All kinds of stuff.

So I was taking my two months off a year and going to school. And then about two years later I had enough seatime to upgrade that to a captain’s license. I applied myself. I stayed with a boat. A lot of guys want to come in during the high point of a season and just fish over here and then jump to another boat at the peak of the salmon season, then jump off that boat and get another boat to fish halibut right during the peak. All-star guys. And they’re great fisherman, but they’re not upwardly mobile.


On superstition and using a Cup of Noodles for a spittoon:

I had it during one of my best seasons ever. So then, the next season, I’m like, “I have to use that again.” I had just an amazing year. But I didn’t have it and I’m hauling nothing. I don’t have my cup of noodles. My brother at that time is hauling another boat and he’s about ten miles from me. There ain’t no way in hell he’s giving up two hours of his fishery for a stupid Styrofoam cup. But I’m on nothing and he’s not catching much either. So, we split the difference: I pull off of a string and meet my brother halfway. He gives me my spittoon, I go back to the string I’m on, 18, 24, 72, 82 (crabs per pot). I’m on fire. I’ve had it happen twice now. Without the Cup of Noodles, I was on nothing.

One time, this f*cking camera guy rode the boat north with us. He ate like two cases of Cup of Noodles on this ride north. that’s all he ate. My mate, he knows, man; we’ve gotta have that on the boat. So we start hauling a string and we’re getting 10s, 5s, 8s, whatever. At the same time, like four or giv really hairy once in a lifetime things occurred at the same time.

During the course of hauling 150 pots and getting them on board, we had like one break off. We had another one almost crush a guy. So a boat clearing hunt for the cup of noodles was going on. Lenny ended up dredging up this old, nasty Cup of Noodles from way underneath one of the benches in the galley and, no lie, I got back to my gear, started hauling, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s.  Everything was back to normal and we were good.

There’s other crazy stuff, too. I don’t draw columns in my log book. My brother and Soper are the guys that draw the columns for me. It’s the same thing. This is probably 12 years ago now, but I’m hauling gear and realize all the best strings in the last two days are where my brother drew the columns. So, it’s like ok, you do it, you do it I’m not touching that book anymore and it’s been the same ever since. I tried a couple of times in the past 15 years and I fail every time. So why push the envelope?

You think superstitions are just pure craziness, but generally there’s a story that goes along that validates the fact that there’s a reason because you had good luck or a string of good luck associated with something.

“The Deadliest Catch” Season 8 begins tonight at 9 PM on the Discovery Channel. 

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