Remembering the World’s Most Famous Sea Captain

Phil Harris died on Feb. 9, 2010, eight years ago today — but he will never be forgotten for reasons beyond his TV show

Fans and friends from around the world mourned the loss of their favorite TV sea captain when he died eight years ago today, on Feb. 9, 2010.

Without him, “Deadliest Catch” may not have caught on with millions of television viewers around the globe. None of us can order Alaskan king crab without thinking of him and the men he worked with, and the near-death experiences they endure doing their jobs.

No screenwriter could have come up with a character like Captain Phil, and no Hollywood set can match the setting the film crews captured in the long-running hit television series.

Without Captain Phil, though, none of it would have been possible.

“Deadliest Catch,” which debuted in 2005 on the Discovery Channel, helped change the direction of reality TV. Up until then, most reality shows focused on oddballs and outrageous characters looking for their 15 minutes of fame. There was “Survivor” and its copycats, “American Idol” and its imitators — and it didn’t take long for a truly lurid number of programs to arrive: “Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” “Jersey Shore” and “The Real Housewives of” … well … just about everywhere.

From the moment it started, “Deadliest Catch” was different. The show that was about a lot more than fishing spawned a different progeny. It was a show about men at work. Others were soon to follow, shows like “Cake Boss,” “Gold Rush,” “Pawn Kings,” and “Orange County Choppers” — shows that feature men, women, and entire families working together. And even praying together, as the Robertson clan does at the end of every “Duck Dynasty” episode.

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Unless you’ve lived in a cave the past decade, you know “Deadliest Catch.” It follows the lives of real fishing crews trolling the vast and brutal Bering Sea during two dangerous crab seasons — the October king crab season and the January opilio season.

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The work is hard and very dangerous — which is what makes “Deadliest Catch” so captivating. It’s about real men, not actors playing real men. And real men toughing it out on the world’s toughest sea, under the toughest conditions imaginable.

If the Atlantic Ocean were the Bering Sea, Christopher Columbus would have never crossed it. That’s how tough those waters are.

Why do these men do it? We learn there are many reasons. The money. The adventure. Because it’s what they know. Because they couldn’t imagine themselves doing anything else.

These men go out on each adventure with empty boats and dreams of a big catch. They do it in sub-zero temperatures, surrounded by rogue 30-foot waves that toss their ships around like plastic toys. We watch as ice formations pile up so high on the decks that the ships looks like floating glaciers.

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Why do we watch these men do what they do? Because we can’t not watch. Because we can’t believe what they do, how they do it — and where they do it.

And most importantly, we want to see if they make it home alive.

We’re rooting for them all along the way. We’re hoping that the risks they take with their time, with their energy — with their lives — will pay off.

Will they strike gold? Or come home empty-handed? All of us hope against hope that the big metal pots they heave into the heartless sea come back filled with treasure.

Along the way, we watch guys get injured. We watch them break noses and break ribs. We watch them take hard falls, and sometimes take big spills into the sea. Through it all, they don’t complain. And they never lawyer up. They tape up their wounds and get back to work. Because the men they’re working with depend on them.

Sometimes, these men score big. A member of the crew can make, in a good month, up to $15,000. The captain can make more. Much more.

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Sometimes, we watch the men come home empty-handed. There are no bailouts when they hit shore — no government program waiting to socialize their losses.

Perhaps the most entertaining aspect of the show was Captain Phil Harris himself. He helped turn “Deadliest Catch” into a hit as we watched the old veterans break in the rookies, whom they call “greenhorns.” The veterans heckle and taunt them, and the rookies take it, knowing those veterans were once rookies themselves and went through the same initiation.

And the very best part of all of this? We get to watch the proceedings in the comfort and safety of our living rooms on our flat screen digital screens. And we watch knowing that not one of us would last an Anchorage minute on any of those boats.

If one man exemplified the spirit of those entrepreneurs of the sea, it was Captain Phil. He began fishing with his dad when he was eight. After high school, he began crab fishing. He initially worked on a crab boat unpaid until he proved his worth. Some social engineers today would call that exploitation, or even a violation of child labor laws. Some might even call it child abuse.

Captain Phil would have called it a good time — and a great learning experience. That experience as a young man, his apprenticeships, reaped dividends: He was one of the youngest men to ever captain a crab boat on the Bering Sea.

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Harris was once on tour with his pals and told a story about his early life, his time in high school and one particularly cruel high school counselor that voted him least likely to succeed. Here’s the story he told that audience:

“So in the first year that I went crab fishing I was 17 years old and I made $130,000. That was 50 years ago. So I went to the bank and I asked for $42,000 in cash and I wanted it in a brown paper bag. And I had a few drinks to pull the courage out for what came next. My counselor that had voted me least likely to succeed, her house was for sale, and they wanted $40,000 for that house. So I throw all the money in the bag, I go up to her house, and I beat on the door and her husband answers and I just marched right in. The counselor was in the kitchen making dinner. I walked in the kitchen and dumped the cash out and said, ‘Now get out.’ She started crying and ran up in the bedroom and wouldn’t come out because she felt like an a**hole. They wouldn’t sell me the house.”

The audience burst into spontaneous applause when Phil told that story, because that counselor reminded us of every jerk we’ve ever met who told us what we could or couldn’t do with our lives. That story exemplified why we loved Captain Phil. And why he was the heart and soul of that show — its anchor.

He wasn’t just the star of “Deadliest Catch.” He was the show’s North Star.

Harris was not a perfect man. He had his struggles, and he didn’t hide them. That, too, is why we loved him. We loved him because he was a natural leader. He didn’t ask his men to do things he hadn’t done. He also understood there were many ways to motivate his men, and that did not always include screaming and yelling at them. He cared about them, and used humor — and used food too — to build morale.

And Captain Phil was tough. In one episode, Harris was thrown from his bunk and thought he’d broken his ribs. He was in pain, but he continued his day, not wanting to leave his crew behind. After what seemed hours of coughing up blood, his men convinced him to get to shore and seek medical help.

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Captain Phil didn’t have broken ribs. It was much worse. He suffered a pulmonary embolism, and it kept him land-bound for nearly a year.

He returned to the Cornelia Marie in January 2009, but nearly a year later to that day, suffered a massive stroke. We watched together on TV as Captain Phil came out of a coma. We watched as he showed signs of progress.

But those waters were too tough even for Captain Phil. When he died, the world that had come to know this man — “Deadliest Catch” is seen in 150 countries — felt like they’d lost a friend.

Posts on the official website ran into the tens of thousands. One admirer said this: “This is the type of man we should all be admiring. Not LeBron James or Roman Polanski or Tiger Woods or that fashion accessory Brad Pitt. Ordinary men who quietly do extraordinary things on a daily basis like manage a business, on the Bering Sea no less! They are the ones we should aspire to be.”

My favorite post was the shortest and sweetest — one I suspect Captain Phil would have at least not have been embarrassed by: “A lord of the sea, no doubt. God Bless You, Captain.”

Lee Habeeb is VP of content for Salem Radio Network and host of “Our American Stories.” He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, Valerie, and his daughter, Reagan. This piece originally appeared in LifeZette last year and has been updated. 

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