I asked Harris about his closest brush with death. It turns out that's a stupid question. "Death?" he deadpans. "Oh, shit, there's not enough fingers and toes.... I've broke every bone in my body except my neck. I've broke my back in two places, I've broke my shoulder blades, one leg, two arms. I mean, the list goes on and on. As far as death, there is no one particular incident -- that stuff happens to us on a daily basis. We don't give it a second thought." Harris says crew members frequently lose 25 pounds in a season and tape up their own broken fingers. Sometimes they perform their own dentistry. With pliers.
Harris emphasizes that "99.999 percent of people can't do this job, and that's just a fact, not bullshit. That's the real deal. What happens is people just get terrified, seeing an 80- or 90-foot breaking wave coming at 'em.
"All that stuff on the show is real. The only thing that I had an issue with is they say it's 43 deaths in the last five years, and it's more like two hundred and 43 deaths. I don't know where they came up with that figure, but I lost 15 guys from one boat alone. They underscored it." I think he means that they understated the fatality rate.
I thought it might be funny to get Capt. Harris' opinion of a pretty-boy movie star like George Clooney. "A Perfect Storm, I guess, was an OK movie for that kind of fishery, for over on the East Coast," he says. "But we work in weather tougher than that. That last wave, where they show the boat being toppled over? We're in that stuff constantly. Something like that, to us, would have been nothing." (No trash talk about Clooney, then, but maybe some incitement for a East Coast/West Coast fishing rivalry.)
Since most of us are lucky to be able to listen to our iPods on the job, working on your own boat does have some big advantages. "I have a stereo system that you can run in the Kingdome," says Harris, who's apparently not well versed on Seattle stadiums. "We've got it cranked so it will absolutely blow your drums out." So what do crab fishermen rock out to? "Creedence Clearwater, Pink Floyd, a lot of old classic rock 'n' roll -- some newer stuff, but you know, good old kick-ass music. What we use it for is to stay awake. All night long, that stereo is absolutely maxed out." Harris tries for a schedule of 21 hours on and three hours off, but the current record for staying awake on the Cornelia Marie stands at five and a half days.
With the fame from Deadliest Catch and the additional lure of a Harley between his legs, does Harris ever encounter any crabbing groupies?
"Oh, all the time," Harris says. "I was at Lowe's Motor Speedway [in Charlotte, N.C.] and the announcer announces I'm there, and there's 180,000 people shouting, 'We love you, Captain Phil,' and you've got to pinch yourself to make sure that's really happening. But you always have to keep it in perspective in that we're just fishermen. It's neat how people treat you, and it's really cool to see the kind of recognition we get. People really genuinely care about you, care about what happens to you. But I have to keep it in perspective. I'm not a big superstar actor or rock star. I'm just a fisherman."
I don't think Phil and I were using the same definition of "groupie." But I dropped it because he's a star in the previously unimaginable field of celebrity fishing. I wanted to be on his good side.
"100 Years of Motorcycles" will let out the throttle on Friday-Saturday, Aug. 17-18, in Rosalia, Wash. Tickets: $25; $45, both days; $105, V.I.P. Camping spots are available. Visit www.100yearsofmotorcycles.com or call (509) 892-2111 or 325-SEAT.