Deadliest Catch: An interview with Capt. Andy Hillstrand

23 January 2009 By Kelly Sanford

In the February issue of Dockwalk, we featured an article about life at sea in the commercial world. This included a peek into the reality behind the reality television series "Deadliest Catch" that runs on the U.S. network Discovery Channel about a fishing vessel in the Bering Sea. Here is the expanded interview with one of the vessel's captains, Andy Hillstrand.

True to his fisherman/cowboy identity, Capt. Andy Hillstrand is a man of few words; short and to the point, he was gracious enough to sit down and sate the curiosity of and several captains who submitted questions of their own.

About the Boat
DW: Dockwalk readers may not be Bering Sea fishermen, but they are boat people. They know boats and they know what it is like to work at sea. The most under-developed characters in the Deadliest Catch television series are the boats themselves, so let’s start by learning a little more about the F/V Time Bandit.
AH: The Time Bandit was built by my father, myself and my two brothers at a shipyard in Charleston, Oregon in 1991. The hull is half-inch steel. It is 113-feet with eight-foot draft. The layout is a house aft Power-Scow with 2 KTA 1150 Cummings engines for mains. Time Bandit has a 20,000 gallon fuel capacity. Typically she cruises at 8.5 knots and nine knots is top cruise. At speed we burn 750 gallons per day. For generators it has B series Cummings 125KW which run all the hydraulics including a 10-ton crane and the pot launcher. It was built as a crab boat and a tender and has no stabilizers.

DW: What about her makes her special to you?
AH: Time Bandit is one of the most seaworthy boats out there, and it was built with our father who is no longer with us.

DW: Under what conditions does she ride best and why?
AH: Tank down and a load of pots on it, then we are drawing eight feet. Making Miracles Happen.

DW: Do the officer of the deck (deck-boss) and the engineer hold any specific licenses or have any specialized training other than years of experience?
AH: Jonathan and I are both licensed captains with years of experience, but no engineer’s license.

DW: Is it typical for the deck boss and engineer to be the same person?
AH: Yes.

DW: What are the most important pieces of equipment on board?
AH: Engines, cranes, hydraulics and ground tackle.

The Mechanics
DW: What happens if an engine has a major breakdown or a shaft gets bent or a prop gets damaged during the season?
AH: We have another one backing it up.

DW: If there is ever a mechanical failure where you end up red over red, is there an equivalent of Tow-Boat US or Sea Tow for you guys, or are you at the mercy of fellow fishermen in that kind of situation?
AH: We’ve never been red over red because we have a main to go back on. Usually you would wait for fishermen and if it is not life threatening, you need to get a tow boat.

DW: Do crab boats have spurs or line cutters on the running gear? If no, why not?
AH: Some do, we don’t. We don’t because if we run pots over, we can get them back instead of losing them.

DW: What happens if fishing gear gets tangled in the running gear? Would you ever get in the water to remedy a situation like that?
AH: Yes, and I have. First we’d do a drag and get it out of the wheel, but sometimes I have to dive on it and cut it from the boat.

Living Aboard
DW: Can you describe the crew quarters?
AH: 12- by 12-foot rooms with two beds in each, full size beds.

DW: What about the galley?
AH: As good as any home; dishwasher, trash compactor, microwave, fridge, stove..etc.

DW: Who does the cooking?
AH: Neil Hillstrand.

DW: What would be a typical meal on board?
AH: Steak, spaghetti, turkey…high carb meals.

DW: Do you have laundry facilities?
AH: Yes, a washer and dryer.

DW: Does the boat have sat-phone and/or email access?
AH: Sat phone, no email anymore.

Going Fishing
DW: Does the vessel ever stay in Dutch Harbor year round or do you always take her south?
AH: We move it to Homer [Alaska]. We hardly ever go south.

DW: How often does the boat go into the yard?
AH: Once a year it goes on the beach, it’s not really a yard.

DW: Do all crew stay with the boat during a yard period?
AH: Not all, just whoever is around.

DW: How long does it take to get to Dutch Harbor by boat?
AH: It’s seven days from Seattle to Dutch Harbor by boat. From Homer, it takes 5 days.

DW: How many crew typically do that delivery?
AH: All hands on deck.

DW: How long does it take to gear-up for a season: once the crew arrives and you start with taking on fuel, bait and provisions?
AH: About one week.

DW: Once you leave Dutch, how much time is spent underway before you start fishing?
AH: Normally, a day and a half, maybe two days.

DW: How many crew hold a ticket?
AH: Right now, three of us have captain’s licenses.

DW: Are all boats under the Alaska quota system US flag boats?
AH: All crab fishing boats are.

DW: So are all Bering Sea fishermen American?
AH: Yes.

Rough Weather
DW: Everyone who makes a living at sea and has found themselves in rough weather has tried to take some pictures or video to show others just how bad it was, but the images never seem to look that bad. Watching the television series, there are plenty of times where the weather looks really bad. In your opinion, has the show ever really captured just how bad it gets?
AH: A little bit, it’s always worse than whatever they can capture, but they get close though.

DW: How rough does it have to get before you consider shutting down the deck?
AH: Forty or fifty foot seas. It depends on how you feel the boat is handling and which way the weather is coming, and how your gear is lined-out. Forty we can deal with, but 50-60 is not good.

DW: If your brother Jonathan is at the helm and you disagree with him, will you argue with him?
AH: Hell no. He’s the captain. Captain is the ultimate law.

DW: Have you ever been in a weather scenario that scared you?
AH: We were in 60- to 80-foot seas when we took a 100-foot wave that nearly capsized the vessel…we came out of it though.

No Shit, There I Was…
DW: What is your favorite personal sea story?
AH: One time John and I were really tired and we thought we saw a boat on fire, which turned out to be the sun rising. Then we saw what we thought was an overturned boat at the same spot, and it turned out to be a dead whale with barnacles all over it…but it really scared us.

DW:What is the oddest thing you ever found in a crab pot?
AH: Scale crab, it’s a really small crab with snake-esque skin.

DW: What is the most amazing thing you have ever seen at sea?
AH: Two hundred porpoises coming at the boat, jumping and doing everything you would see them do at Sea-World…flipping and everything.

DW: What are the biggest seas you have ever seen.

AH: 100-foot seas.

DW: What is the most dangerous element of your job?

AH: Every aspect of life on the boat…getting on the boat is probably the most dangerous.

The Business

DW: The television series loves to wave a bunch of big numbers around, but there are some figures that are not mentioned that our readers wonder about. For example, how many gallons of fuel do you burn in a season?

AH: About 80,000

DW: If you have to take-on fuel in the middle of a season, where do you go for fuel?

AH: Wherever you unload crab, Dutch Harbor or St. Paul.

DW: Are there high speed pumps or does it eat up a lot of time taking on fuel?

AH: There are a lot of high-speed pumps, some are too fast.

DW: Does fuel cost more up there.

AH: Yes.

DW: When the price of fuel is high, does it affect where you fish?

AH: Not really for King Crab, but kinda for Opelio, but you have to go where the crab go.

DW: Are fishermen ever offered health insurance or retirement benefits?

AH: No, it’s too expensive.

DW: Who insures your boat, and do they watch the show?

AH: Wells Fargo/Acordia Insurance and yes, they watch the show.

DW: Is there any financial benefit to having the camera crew aboard?

AH: We get paid a little bit.

DW: Has anything that has aired on the show come back to bite you?

AH: Not us, but other boats.

Life as a Captain and Deck Boss
DW: How do you keep your crew motivated and working through a 30-hour shift?
AH: A lot of coffee and yelling. But they are motivated, they want to make money.

DW: Why do you still work 30-hour shifts now that there is a quota system?
AH: Because you’re burning more fuel and you have two day runs into town when you sleep. The crab migrate, so when you’re on ‘em you have to stay on ‘em.

DW: What qualities do you look for when you hire on green crew?
AH: A team player who shows the desire…and not that bad of a drinking problem.

DW: Does having cameras on board change your management strategy at all?
AH: I suppose we’re a little nicer.

DW: Does it change the deck dynamic at all?
AH: Yeah, you can’t listen to music which makes it tough to stay up.

Good Mojo
DW: Do you have any good luck rituals?
AH: We knock wood and do a left handed Swedish turn.

DW: Are there any bad luck superstitions?
AH: Nah, that’s why we knock wood…don’t whistle in the wheelhouse.

DW: Are fish finders useful technology for crabbers?
AH: Yeah, not the fish finders but the depth finder can tell if it’s hard bottom or soft.

DW: Do you ever fish for fun, and if so what for?
AH: Yeah, we fish for King Salmon, Halibut, Marlin…anything we can get a hook into.

A Family Ashore
DW: How did you and your wife meet?
AH: At a party in Homer, Alaska when we were 19 years old.

DW: Does she enjoy being around boats and the water?
AH: No.

DW: How does she handle the stress of managing the house alone and worrying about your safety when you are fishing?
AH: It’s been 24 years, so she’s used to it and realizes that we don’t control that much.

DW: How much of the year (on average) did you spend away from home while the kids were growing up?
AH: Six to ten months a year, with a month home here and there.

DW: How often do you call home once you leave port and start fishing?
AH: Everyday.

DW: Does it sometimes feel a little strange when you come home?
AH: Yes.

DW: How long does it take for you to settle back into a normal routine once you leave the boat?
AH: A day or so.

DW: Which is harder: returning home after being at sea or returning to the boat after being home?
AH: Returning to land. I was born on a boat.

DW: What is the greatest personal sacrifice you have made having spent so much of your life at sea? And was it worth it?
AH: The greatest sacrifice was not being around for the family. It was worth it, I’ve got two great kids and a great wife.

DW: How important is it to you that the tradition of fishing is carried-on by future Hillstrand generations?
AH: Very important, but you have no control over it. You have to want to fish. It can’t be forced.

DW: How did your parents feel when you decided to fish for a living?
AH: My dad loved it…my mom hated it.

DW: Has a wife or girlfriend ever tried to convince you to try another profession?
AH: Yes, my wife did.

DW: How did that conversation end?
AH: I owned a doughnut shop for a while, but it didn’t work out well. And she got pregnant so I needed the money [and went back to fishing].

DW: If you hadn’t become a fisherman, what would you have done?
AH: I would have been a horse trainer.

DW: Does it make an already dangerous profession more dangerous with “guests” (a film crew) on board?
AH: You have two more guys so you are watching out for two more. They are getting pretty good though. Anytime you add extra people, it’s just one more guy to worry about.

DW: Do the camera crew ever help out with daily chores (cooking, cleaning, breaking ice)?
AH: Not really – they try to keep a hand’s distance so they can catch us acting natural.

DW: Do you have trouble with fans trying to sneak aboard when you are in port?
AH: Fans come to see the boat, but there’s nothing we can’t deal with. We aren’t in Seattle like everyone else, so it’s easier for us.

DW: Do you have to be careful of which marinas you use to make sure fans do not get into mischief?
AH: Yes.

DW: How do you feel about having fans?
AH: They’re all great. We love seeing them show up wherever we have events wearing Time Bandit gear and calling themselves Banditas.

DW: How do you feel about being famous?
AH: We’re almost famous.

DW: Do you feel as though people in your industry are better understood because of the TV show or do you think you are more misunderstood?
AH: Much better understood and respected.

DW: Have you seen a sudden burst of interest in becoming a crabber in the wake of the show’s success?
AH: Yes.

DW: What advice do you offer those people?
AH: Go get a job at a cannery, get paid, have a place to stay and you’ll meet the fishermen.

The Book
DW: Was the book you own idea?
AH: Yes.

DW: How much did you participate in the style of the book?
AH: Tons. We wanted it to portray who we really are – we were totally hands-on.

DW: How do you feel about its success?
AH: We’re amazed so many people love it.

DW: Does it portray your lives better than the show?
AH" Yeah, it tells a lot more about us and our lives.

DW: In you wildest dreams growing up did you ever think you would have a hit TV show and a successful novel to your name?

AH: No, not at all…I’ve fished my whole life.