As captain of the F/V Northwestern, Sig Hansen faces the hazards of the Bering Sea, all in the name of crab fishing. Of course, all of that drama is captured on tape for Discovery Channel’s smash hit Deadliest Catch. The show’s now in its seventh season, and Hansen, along with the rest of the captains and quite a few crewmembers, has become somewhat of a celebrity. He’s written a book, put out a full line of F/V Northwestern merch including shoes and skateboard decks, inspired a beer, released a video game for Xbox 360 as well as an iPhone app, and even has his own line of tartar and cocktail sauces. The good Captain also travels the country, speaking to audiences about his life and Deadliest Catch. He made one of those stops in May at The Venue at the Horseshoe Casino, where he was joined by fellow Catch stars Andy and Johnathan Hillstrand. As the show's 100th episode and season finale (airing July 26) approach - not to mention an all-day marathon airing on Sunday, July 3 - The A.V. Club talked to Hansen about all sorts of pressing issues, from tsunamis to his brother, Edgar.
The A.V. Club: Why do you think Deadliest Catch has done so well? It seems like people really identify with you guys.
Sig Hansen: I think it’s interesting. Our military fandom is huge, as is law enforcement, police officers, doctors, and airplane pilots. Holy shit, man, if I get on a plane, you can literally flip a quarter. If the pilot sees me, he’s coming out every time, for whatever reason. I don’t know why. For captains, I think it’s the way people perceive you, as being a captain or as a man of authority. For other people, it’s the work ethic behind it; that’s what they respect. There’s the danger and the other stuff, but I think it’s the work ethic. A lot of guys come up and tell me, “I don’t bitch about my job anymore. If I’m having a bad day, I think about you guys.”
AVC: What’s the live show like?
SH: A lot of guys have these preconceived notion of captains that we’re on-the-job tyrants and that we just do our thing. They can expect the opposite of that, really. We’re little kitty cats, man. People can see the other side of the coin, and that’s fun for us. We talk about our lives and occupations, and people can meet us on a more personal level.
As far as the actual show, if you want to call it that, it’s more of a fan interaction. It’s personal, with a meet and greet, and we get to participate with them and do fun activities. We play never-before-seen footage, and we have pictures that we throw out there from our families, past and present. That stuff’s not so choreographed. We just have fun with it. That’s the difference—a lot of the time, the fans set the tone.
AVC: Is your boat running full time? How do you keep up this appearance schedule?
SH: We started fishing king crab in October or November, and maybe into December now that we’re on quota. January, February, and usually through March, we’re fishing for opelios. Sometimes we fish them into June and July. Typically, in years past, the boat is busy eight to 11 months a year. It’s steady and nonstop. Nowadays, though, it’s more like six to nine months. This summer we’re doing a salmon charter, which is basically like a big fish taxi. We transport fish all across Alaska. It’s the third summer for me not participating, though, since I was a kid. I’ve fished before, but with the road show and other things happening, we have another guy to run the boat, or Edgar will do it for half the time and I’d do it for the other half.
AVC: You have so many side projects—like video games and T-shirts and books—that the other captains don’t have. Why do you think you’ve had more opportunities than some of the other boats?
SH: I’m just an entrepreneur, and I think it’s fun. I’ve been there the longest, and I’ve had more time to seek and destroy.
The video game, we did on our own, and that took two years. You live and learn. It wasn’t the greatest move. We still fish, though. That’s the thing. The book was driven by fans asking for one. That’s the one thing we did with an actual agent. The rest was on our own, by word of mouth and meeting people.
It’s been fun. It’s fun to use your mind in different ways and think about different things. I’ve been fishing since I was a kid, and it’s all we’ve ever known. I never went to college, so this is a way that I can explore different attitudes and keep the same business. It’s bonus life.
Fuck, man. You want to spend half your time on the ocean, or see how the rest of the world works? It’s a lot of experiences, and that’s incredible. I get to meet a lot of people who have made it in business, and that’s fun.
AVC: So fame hasn’t interfered with your actual crab business? The other captains aren’t calling you “Hollywood” or anything?
SH: They do once in a while, but in the beginning, it was terrible. Everyone turned their backs to the show because they were paranoid and skeptical. We took a chance, went out and did it. It took about three years to catch on, because people thought it would just be this 15-minutes gig. They were also afraid that insurance rates would rise and the show would cause mass hysteria. The opposite happened, though. It helped the industry. There are some naysayers, but multiple boat owners have come up and formally apologized to me.
That’s one thing I’ve always known. Fishermen are entrepreneurs. They want bigger, better boats and crab pots. We’re always looking for things to make us better. We want to build a better mousetrap. It’s all about timing and the learning curve. So, that’s one thing I knew from the beginning is that you cannot buy this kind of notoriety. It helped the fleet, and we needed it. We’ve got a lot of competition from Canadian and Russian crab sources, and the fact that you can put Alaskan crab on the map and get that demand, that’s a big deal. Everyone knows Deadliest Catch, and everyone knows king crab now, and you can’t buy that.
AVC: How does stuff like the Japanese tsunami or even the Gulf oil spill affect business?
SH: It all affects it. It’s all global. Everything’s connected. The majority of crab in Alaska goes to Japan. Fifty to 70 percent of it goes directly to Japan. They’re the biggest major buyer. A lot of companies in Alaska are owned by the Japanese, so it’s going to have a direct impact. It was really the coast that was hit, but it depends on how the larger cities are going to take it. They really buy most of the crab. It’s a delicacy. So, it depends how the economy is affected.
The crabbing industry seems very small on TV, but it’s a global network. We won’t know how the tsunami affected us until next October, though, which is the next king crab season. We might fish for brown king crab this summer, and that could be affected. That would be our first little introduction to what’s going to happen.
AVC: How much of the drama between you and your brother Edgar is real, and how much is for TV?
SH: It’s all real. He didn’t go with us for part of the season. I don’t know if you can print that, though.
Edgar’s a handyman. He’s been buying up rental houses and staying busy with things like that. He’s trying to accumulate more money toward his retirement. It’s not like we have a 401k; it’s up to us to survive. So, that’s it. That’s one incentive. Also, his shoulder and back are shot, and he’s going to therapy. He’s been whining about it for a long time and it’s very real. I told him to go to a fucking doctor and get better.
AVC: How did you feel about the way the show handled Captain Phil Harris’ death?
SH: I thought they did it eloquently. I mean, let’s face it, Discovery could have done a lot of different things and exploited the death to no end. They knew it was a major story, which it is. Anyway, they did it in a good light.
That’s one thing people don’t know. We have our battles with Discovery, and they’re invading our lives, but there was still a very close and personal connection with Phil and his boys. Discovery stepped up to the bat, helped with funeral services and didn’t ask for anything in return. They showed their true colors there, I thought. One of the boys needed rehab, too, and they stepped up and helped out there. They were personally involved.
I mean, we’re their biggest show, but we spend so much time together going back and forth that it takes on a more personal tone. The CEO and president, everyone was shook up.
AVC: Do you every fish for fun?
SH: We fish salmon for fun here in Seattle on the Puget Sound. We have a little 32-foot Bayliner, and we can go up to the San Juan Islands in that. At least, we try to. We take the family.
When you’re at sea and fishing crab, a lot of that is for fun as well. When you forget about the paycheck or the dollar value and get into “let’s find them,” it becomes fun.
On the other hand, it’s not fun when it’s blowing fucking 80 mph with 40-foot waves and people are freaking out. It’s not fun when you’re not catching crab. It’s not fun when the guys aren’t getting along. It’s a social network, and that’s not fun when that doesn’t jive.