Calling into Breitbart News from the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, Capt. Keith Colburn of Deadliest Catch fame is preparing the next generation for his next step.
Colburn, captain of the Seattle-based F/V Wizard, part of the crab-fishing fleet featured on Discovery’s hit reality show, is with his son, Caelan, for freshman orientation.
The show ends its 10th season tonight (Aug. 5) with an episode of the pre-show, called The Bait, at 8 p.m. ET/PT, and the two-hour finale at 10 p.m. ET.
No one who’s been watching this season will be surprised to learn there are emergencies involving the bitter Arctic winter during the opilio-crab season on Alaska’s Bering Sea–culminating in a full-blown Arctic hurricane–along with serious mechanical difficulties.
That’s something Colburn knows about, since an errant crab pot hit one of the Wizard’s props while she was far from the rest of the fleet, fishing not far from Russia.
“It worked out,” says Colburn, “because we were able to finish the season, but it did force us to pull off the prop and have it redone, pull the shaft out, go through and replace the bearings. So, ultimately, a few seconds of an oops while taking a crab pot in at the wheel was a $25,000 or $30,000 mistake.”
A former cook and Lake Tahoe ski bum, Colburn arrived in Alaska at the age of 22 with, as his Discovery bio says, “no experience, a tent and $50.”
Starting as a greenhorn (fishing lingo for a rookie) on a crab boat, Colburn worked his way up until eventually becoming captain and owner of the Wizard. He’s become intimately familiar with the myriad of things that can go wrong for a fisherman.
“One year it’s ice,” he says, “the next year it’s weather; the next year it seems that guys have mechanical issues. I mean, there’s not a lot we can do to avoid the weather. All we can do is try to do our preventative maintenance and make sure the boats are in the best shape possible, so we don’t have breakdowns and things of that nature.”
Another boat in the fleet, the F/V Time Bandit, co-captained by brothers Andy and Johnathan Hillstrand, had one of its main shafts break, a costly event.
“Andy and John spent a lot of time to get that boat into really good shape,” says Colburn, “but it’s the worst-case scenario when you put the time, the energy, the money, into making sure the boat’s in perfect shape, and then you have a freak incident occur, or you have something that’s out of alignment. Maybe it wasn’t installed properly, but you’re trusting that the people that are working on your boats do a great job, and maybe they don’t.”
But there’s a definite appeal to being literally the captain of your own venture.
“What’s most rewarding?” says Colburn. “I think I thrive on competition; I thrive on adversity. You know what, I like to be the one that’s making the decisions. You can’t put a price tag on being the boss, and I enjoy that.”
While being on TV has allowed the featured captains and some deckhands to have economic opportunities outside of crab fishing, that’s still how they make their living. And once the boats and the couple of cameramen/producers on board each one head out from the fleet’s home port of Dutch Harbor, Unalaska, they’re entirely at the mercy of the elements.
If something goes very wrong, like mechanical breakdowns, serious injuries, health problems, empty crab pots or even legal issues, there’s very little the TV producers can do about it. And sometimes, problems come from afar.
In the fall of 2013, the government shutdown left the fleet high and dry without its fishing licenses to start the autumn king-crab season, prompting Colburn to head to Washington, D.C., to testify before the Senate Commerce Committee.
He said, “On behalf of all fishermen, I’m asking Congress to end this shutdown now. I’m a small businessman in a big ocean with big bills. I need to go fishing.”
Asked what advice he’d give to a young person looking to go into business, whether it’s fishing or anything else, Colburn says, “Work harder than the next guy. Make sure that what you’re going into, that you’ve done your research, and you know what you’re doing, and you’ve got a good handle on the job or the business you’re trying to open.
“I didn’t go up to [Alaska] and say, “I’m going to buy a boat in a couple of years, become a crab fisherman and own a boat.’ When I became engaged in fishing I learned all the ins and outs, from the decks to the wheelhouse to the engine room to behind the scenes, the political end of things, the regulations and everything, before I even considered going out and trying to purchase a boat and trying to become my own boss and the owner of my own business.
“There’s a lot that goes into it, even understanding the cycle of the crab and when they’re going to have a good year and a bad year. You’ve got to put the money away for a rainy day and then suck it up when you get that rainy day.”
Colburn was fortunate in his choice of a wife, since Florence has not only been a life partner but a business partner.
As to how far he would have gotten without her, Colburn says, “That’s a great question. I’m thinking, not very far.”
Although his son is starting college, Colburn thinks he might have a future at sea.
“Caelan worked in the salmon fishery this summer,” he says. “He was up in Bristol Bay [in Alaska], fishing salmon. Right now he’s down here at SMU, delighted to go to college this fall, but there’s a good possibility that there’s some fishing still in his future. Maybe he’ll be the one you’ll see here in a few years–or if he doesn’t do well in college, a few months–on my boat.”
Fans (and the occasional cameraman) know that Colburn can be a tough boss, so is his son concerned about being a Wizard greenhorn during crab season?
“I think he’s terrified to be a greenhorn on my boat,” says Colburn. “He’s had me coach him in baseball, and I’m as tough on him as anyone else. So, if he ever does make it on to the boat, let’s say this, if you think I’m tough on greenhorns, wait’ll you see me with my son on deck.”