Skipper Derrick Ray stands with his teeth clenched and his brow furrowed on the bridge of the Cornelia Marie. With his baseball cap, facial stubble, and worn blue jeans, the 47-year-old looks like your typical fisherman as he surveys the boat’s home port of Dutch Harbor, Alaska. But this is far from a typical voyage. The Cornelia Marie is about to embark on its first full crabbing season since the passing of former captain Phil Harris, who died from the effects of a catastrophic stroke. (The Deadliest Catch episode in which he passed away was watched by a record 8.5 million viewers.) And from the way he swaggers about the boat, it is clear that Ray is no Phil Harris.
Unlike the beloved captain from the first six seasons, Ray eschews alcohol, detests nicotine, and doesn’t coddle his crew. So when he agreed to assume control of the boat for the show’s seventh season (premiering April 12 at 9 p.m. on Discovery Channel), Ray immediately hit rough waters with the new co-owners — who just happen to be Harris’ sons, Jake and Josh. ”I’ve got to push them every day, tell them to step up, make lists, look around. See what needs to be done on your boat,” barks Ray. ”But they don’t want to do it. Their dad didn’t make them do s — -. I’ve told them, ‘Ask me questions.’ They don’t ask me good questions.”
What began as a two-hour Discovery special dubbed Extreme Alaska in 1999 has mushroomed into a breathtaking look at the lives of the fearless and foulmouthed men who put themselves at risk to catch crab in the Bering Sea. The trollers of the Northwestern, Time Bandit, Wizard, Kodiak, and Cornelia Marie undertake such herculean efforts (season 5 was highlighted by Capt. Keith Colburn powering the Wizard through a wicked hurricane) that some of them worry the show has glamorized their profession. ”All the time, people are like, ‘Oh, yeah, I really want to do that,”’ complains Colburn from the deck of his unyielding vessel. ”The reality is, 99 out of 100 people that try this job don’t succeed. The show can’t chronicle the miserable working and living conditions because you can’t show pain on TV.”
But the program did show pain of a much different sort last June, when Harris suffered the stroke that ultimately killed him while off-loading in the small fishing town of Saint Paul. Virtually overnight, the unscripted series changed from a mind-blowing thrill ride to a bittersweet and highly rated drama about an ailing man who wished he had been a better father. (With nearly 6 million viewers on average, last season was Catch’s most watched yet.) Jake, 25, continues to battle drug addiction — he got caught stealing his dad’s prescription last season — as he and Josh, 28, also try to kick the nasty chain-smoking habit they picked up from their father, which is partly to blame for his death. ”It’s a hard thing to go through on national TV, having the world watch your father die,” admits Jake, who, together with his brother and the other fishermen, will scatter Phil Harris’ ashes at sea this season. ”When it all happened, it felt like everything should come to an end, but the old man wouldn’t have wanted it like that.”
Now the sons are dealing not only with a new captain but also with the debt they’ve incurred by assuming partial control of the boat (Washington-based Cornelia Marie Devlin owns the rest). As a result of those financial concerns, they’ve decided to go after the elusive but incredibly lucrative blue crab found off remote St. Matthew Island near Russia. ”We’ve got a good skipper, but this blue crab is such a new deal,” says Josh. ”We might go bankrupt, but we’re putting all the chips in.”
First, they need to make it out of the harbor in one piece. Ray immediately made enemies by posting a ”No Smoking” sign on the bridge, which rubbed engineer/deckhand Steve Ward the wrong way. ”He said, ‘I want Phil to be back here,”’ recalls Ray. ”Well, Phil’s dead, Phil ain’t coming back. You know what? You’re 53 years old, act like it. Don’t act like you’re a 12-year-old.” Naturally, the showdown was captured on camera and witnessed by Josh, who’s not thrilled at having to play mediator while attempting to keep the boat afloat. ”Sometimes we lose our train of thought because we’re ding-dongs and morons, but we’re trying really hard to do the right thing,” Josh says about himself and his brother. ”I want to show everybody that we want to keep my father’s dreams going because this was his life. But it’s not easy.”