The Bering Sea has always been a character on Deadliest Catch, but last night’s episode took it to another level as we watched it work through the five stages of grief. Unaware of Phil Harris’ final fight, the other captains continued to battle a 1,000 square-mile arctic storm. The Northwestern plowed through 45-ft. waves and 60-mph wind and suddenly looked like a toy in a bathtub. “That’s an angry sea, my friend,” deckhand Nick Mavar, Jr. said. Wind blew in every direction around The Wizard. “We got just this confused sea going on right now,” Capt. Keith said. The sea eventually turned flat calm – three hours after Phil passed. “I just feel weird right now. I don’t feel comfortable,” Andy Hillstrand said in the Time Bandit wheelhouse, where he hadn’t yet received the call from his brother, Johnathan. He looked out at one of his crew atop the cages, the cloud-covered moon shining down on a spookily quiet sea in the background. Forty miles north of the rest of the fleet, Wild Bill and the Kodiak crew worked through -40° weather and a “bizarre” ice fog, a haunting image you wouldn’t believe if you saw it in a movie.
Let’s forget about the crab count, the tempers, and This Week’s Accident on the Kodiak, and focus on Phil. The timeline of who found out when about his passing was tough to follow, but the reactions were painfully raw. Josh phoned the Cornelia Marie and Freddie, the deckhand who’d told Josh he should go with his father to the hospital in Anchorage instead of staying with the boat, answered. “We just lost him,” Josh said, and Freddie tried not to cry. If he failed, you can’t blame him: He was standing right by Phil’s chair. Freddie told Steve, the engineer who found Phil after his stroke, and Steve had to grab on to something to steady himself. He sat down, and cried. I felt bad that Sig had to find out about it from a man he’d never met – the relief captain of the Cornelia Marie, Derrick Ray. Sig had shut down fishing a day early because of the storm, returned to St. Paul Island to unload, and thought he should go introduce himself to the acting skipper. He couldn’t find an ashtray and asked Derrick if the Cornelia Marie was a non-smoking boat now. Just in the wheelhouse, Derrick said. “When the old man hears about that, he’ll probably get a [bleep] kick out of that one,” Sig said. Derrick choked up. Sig waited for what seemed like an eternity for him to say they’d found out Phil had passed away. It takes a lot to silence these men, but the only word Sig could muster was “Wow… wow.” He’d just talked to Phil’s boys yesterday. The Cornelia Marie crew had just talked to Phil yesterday, Derrick said. They’d both thought everything was fine.
Sig was visibly shaken but didn’t cry (on-camera at least). We didn’t hear him tell his crew, but we saw the aftermath as they sat around the table. Edgar’s and Nick’s eyes were wet. I’d done a lot of talking to my TV up to this point, but it wasn’t until the Northwestern left the harbor, Sig said “The Cornelia just looks like it’s dead in the water, it’s eerie,” and his crew stood at the rail looking over at the docked vessel as they passed it, that I cried. Edgar waved and gave a salute. Jake Anderson broke down into tears (which, frankly, I was surprised he hadn’t done at the table). It did look wounded, like it was sitting lower in the water than usual. Somehow that was as heartbreaking as looking into the faces of Phil’s boys. Phil had captained it for 20 years. We always knew how much he needed it, but in that moment, we felt how lost it was without him.
That was just the beginning of the waterworks. I experienced a short burst of tears four more times: When Sig, watching a seagull stare in at him, explained that seagulls are said to be the images, the remnants of sailors that are gone. “For all I know, that could be old Phil on the bow right now.” When Keith, who’s a big crier and we love him for it, gathered his crew on deck and evoking the old naval tradition of ringing a bell eight times to signify the end of a man’s watch, said, “I’m going to toll the bell eight times, and then I’m gonna set that pot over the side so that Phil will always have one full one to come back to.” (I felt bad for the crab, which could starve to death in there, but then I saw the Wizard crew had written “If this pot is found leave in memory of Phil Harris 2010” on a buoy, and watched the seagull that had been sitting on top of the crane fly away right as the pot was lowered, and I got past it.) When the Time Bandit crew set off fireworks and Andy looked up to the sky and yelled, “Hello, Phil! We love you, brother!” And finally, when Phil’s boys lowered one of the split Harley Davidson gas tanks that held his ashes into the grave at his funeral, and Josh had to walk away afterward. That tank represented “Phil the family man” and had the faces of Phil, Josh, and Jake painted on it. (The other tank, representing “Phil the crab fisherman” will be blown up at sea this October at the beginning of the king crab season.)
We learned a lot about both sides of Phil during the tribute that followed in the second hour. We saw tons of photos of Phil from throughout this life: From when he was eight, and lost his mother to cancer, which is when he started fishing with his dad in the summers. From when he was 15, a drummer, and living with two friends in a house the three of them rented. From when he was 17, and talked his way onto a boat by saying he’d work for free. (He got sick and the captain told him he’d never cut it, which made Phil want to prove him wrong. A crew member broke his leg, and Phil stepped up and earned $130,000 in one month, which he spent on cars, hookers, and other “recreational things” – after the high school guidance counselor who told him he’d amount to nothing declined his offer to buy her house.) From when he turned 21, and got the keys to his first boat from his father, who needed to recuperate from being lost at sea and presumed dead for eight days after a rogue wave took out his electronics and chart table. (Phil said he’d consider himself successful if he was half as tough as his dad. His father, Grant, was teary-eyed when he told the camera, “I think that he was probably as good a fisherman as anybody in the Bering Sea. He was a much better fisherman than I am.”) From when he was married to the boys’ mother, ex-wife Mary, who was also interviewed and said she didn’t want Phil to fish because it was bad for his health and for their marriage. But like everyone, she knew Phil would never leave the sea, which meant he would never change his lifestyle. Sometime after a blood clot traveled through his heart in 2008, Phil told the Catch cameras he wasn’t going to be around for much longer. He knew he smoked like a train, had “done every drug known to man,” and that those things catch up with you. Bottom line: He wanted to live life his way. Work hard, play hard. With three Harleys in his living room.
In the end, what we’ll remember is Phil’s sense of humor (his legendary crab farts theory, which I’ve embedded below), his way with words (“I feel like a one-legged man in an asskickin’ contest”), and his huge heart. He wasn’t afraid to tell his boys that he loved them, and he was so aware of how lucky he was to be able to spend the kind of time he got to spend with them on the boat. He missed a lot of their childhood, but he really got to know them as men. Josh said when they’d be on land, he’d get a call at 3 a.m. from Phil and answer it worried that there was something wrong. It was just his dad wanting to know what he was doing, if he wanted to go for a drive. I think Phil really did believe his time was limited and didn’t want to waste it. Johnathan Hillstrand said the sea was calm for 10 days straight after Phil passed, like it was at peace. I hope his boys get some knowing that their father had been able to say goodbye to his two loves – them and the sea (in his final season, he returned to the Rock Pile, the grounds where he made his name).