Standing in line outside the Bell Harbor International Conference Center in Seattle Saturday morning, Robin Thornburg had a particular goal in mind.
She held a large plastic bag containing a quilt her mother made for her last Christmas, adorned with fabric-screened images of the man whose autograph she wanted on it—Phil Harris, her favorite captain from the “Deadliest Catch” television series.
“Phil’s the most ornery son of a bitch and so am I,” said a smiling Thornburg, 40. “He’s a cutie.”
Thornburn flew from San Leandro, California to attend CatchCon, the one-day “Deadliest Catch” fanfest that drew attendees from as far away as Florida, New York and even England. Now in its fifth season, the hit documentary series chronicles the high-risk, high-stakes lives of crab fishermen on the perilous Bering Sea.
Fans at Saturday’s event played fishing-themed games, bought “Deadliest Catch” merchandise, watched a simulated Coast Guard water rescue and toured two of the fleet’s ships, the Wizard and the Northwestern, that were moored outside the convention center.
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Standing on the Northwestern‘s large wooden deck, Seattle couple Mark and Ginger Garff said they’re fascinated by the extreme conditions—the massive waves, freezing seas and howling winds—the “Deadliest Catch” crews work under.
“Working 30 hours straight, hauling pots in 40-foot seas—I don’t know how they survive,” said Mark Garff, 35. “I think what they go through out there is a kind of torture.”
Airing in more than 150 countries, “Deadliest Catch” draws some 3 million viewers weekly. The show’s uber-manly nature has attracted a loyal following of female fans, who made up close to 60 percent of CatchCon attendees.
Among them was Gina Chalcroft, who traveled from Juneau, Alaska for the event. For her, the show’s appeal is simply about men making an honest living.
“It’s about men working,” said Chalcroft, 47. “I love that. My favorite shows are about men working. It just seems very real.”
Russell Newberry, a “Deadliest Catch” deckhand on Time Bandit, stood outside the conference center cracking jokes with fans and posing for photographs. Newberry said he thinks the show’s fans are intrigued by its mix of danger, fast cash and the age-old lure of the sea.
“We’re kind of like the 1880s cowboys—we work hard and we work all day long,” he said. “People like to watch us because of our work ethic and they like to see how much money can be made in a very short period of time. It’s big money coming over the rail and it’s harsh conditions.”
But the idea of the show’s crews—unshowered for days on end, haggard and sleep-deprived, reeking of fish and cigarettes—as sex symbols is baffling to Newberry.
“I’ve never thought anything about us is sexy,” he said. “I’m just a regular guy trying to make a mortgage payment and a child support payment.”
Regular or not, the show’s five captains—Keith Colburn, Phil Harris, brothers Andy and Johnathan Hillstrand and Sig Hansen—were greeted with a standing ovation when they walked onstage to for a question and answer session with the enthusiastic audience. The often raucous conversation ranged from talk of fast driving to the perils of the job, from womanizing to Harris’ elaborate handmade birdhouses.
One woman in the audience wanted to know how the captains prepare their wives and children for their extended absences, which prompted jokes from the captains.
“Your wife wants you there for the first couple of months. Then your bags are packed and at the door,” Harris said, to laughs.
After the discussion, fans lined up to get autographs. Ducking outside for a cigarette break, Johnathan Hillstrand said while the public attention has been difficult to adjust to, fans are typically friendly and appreciative.
“They’re all really nice to us,” he said. “They want pictures and they want to shake our hands.”
Hillstrand recalled a publicity event in Florida, where a woman approached him and told him she’d previously been so obese she’d stopped walking. Seeing what the show’s crews endured, she told him, inspired her to start walking again and she eventually lost more than 200 pounds.
The grateful woman gave Hillstrand a pirate-patterned quilt she’d made for him, which now covers his bed on Time Bandit.
“That was nice,” he said. “That made me feel good.”