To fans of the “Deadliest Catch,” he was captain Phil Harris, the famous crab-killing rider of the wild Bering Sea.
But to those living at the tip of the Aleutian chain, he was just plain Phil, one of the most endearing, demanding – and sometimes downright irritating – men Dutch Harbor ever loved.
Harris, 53, suffered a stroke Jan. 29 while the fishing boat he captained, the Cornelia Marie, was in port at St. Paul Island near Dutch Harbor. He was medevacked to Anchorage and appeared to be on the mend Feb. 3, according to reports on the “Deadliest Catch” Web site.
He died Feb. 9, spurring thousands of online comments from fans of the Discovery Channel show that depicts the crab fishing industry in the dangerous waters off Alaska.
News spread quickly between fishermen, the docks, bars and businesses of Dutch Harbor and Unalaska.
“God bless him, he lived life to the extreme,” said Walt Dauderis.
He and Harris go way back. They worked together two decades ago on the Sea Ern, and before that in rubber boots and rain gear on the decks of the Alaska Monarch. More recently, Dauderis spent a few seasons as engineer and cook on the Cornelia Marie.
“People who tried to be like him, you’d watch them fail by his side. No one could keep up with him.”
Dauderis gave up crabbing for a job with the Alaska Marine Highway System, but he and Harris are practically neighbors in Lake Stevens, Wash., where they rode motorcycles together and yukked it up over fishing, Harleys and life in general.
Dauderis has lots of stories. But none of them are printable.
“I’m going to miss him. I just painted a motorcycle and was going to go by his house to show it to him and he was going to give me a bunch of s— because it wasn’t macho enough.”
Their pain is so new that people in Dutch Harbor talk about Harris in the present tense, like he’s about to walk through the door any minute amid a cloud of cigarette smoke and colorful language.
He was “friendly,” “honest,” “strong,” “hardworking” “caring.” He was the kind of guy who took “Deadliest Catch” T-shirts to sick children in the hospital.
“He was a one-of-a-kind person,” said Al Mendoza, fleet manager for Unisea, where the Cornelia Marie landed millions of pounds of crab over the years. “I don’t think he had an enemy over the years I knew him. Not one enemy, ever.”
All say he loved his sons, Josh and Jake Harris, more than life itself.
Then they tell how he used to joke about why lions eat their cubs. The words “brash,” “macho,” “loud” and “impatient” pop up. By all accounts, he could be a pain in the patoot, but that doesn’t mean they loved him less.
“We’re devastated,” said Veda Webb. And in the next breath, “I can’t count the times I told him to get out and never come back.”
When Webb started her business, Unalaska Advertiser, a few years back, Harris stopped in to welcome her, then made sure the other fishermen gave her their business.
The first week in February, she was working on getting Harris a mini computer for Internet and e-mail onboard the boat. She had a couple on order, but they got stalled in the mail.
“He’d hound me if he wanted something until he got it. He called me every night, ‘Are they here? Are they here?’ ”
His last call was the night before he left for St. Paul Island. The computers were in.
“He said, ‘Well, try to get me a Gateway with Windows 7, for when I get back.’ ”
Typical Harris behavior.
When he wanted something done, yesterday was too late, said Don Knoblauch, superintendent for Magone Marine Services, the shop that fixed the Cornelia Marie for the past eight years.
“Extremely pushy, boisterous expedience, that’s how he was,” Knoblauch said. “If he was off the boat and not pressured by the fishing, he was a pretty decent guy. I’d see him in the bar and he seemed like a relatively normal person.”
Crabbers tend to get into town, gear up, go fishing, unload and repeat until the season is over. But there’s always time to visit the bar, and Harris made all the stops over the years.
The first time bartender Danielle Williams met Harris, she served him his signature drink – a double duck fart.
“He and his two sons, one had just turned 21, and a crew member came in. His crew guy and he got into an argument, and his crew guy knocked him into the corner of the bar.”
She was about to boot them all out, but they started laughing.
“They got over it really fast. They ended up closing the bar.”
Lionel Silva, chief engineer on the pollock catcher Morning Star, said Harris’ death is a blow to the crabbing industry as well as a personal loss for him.
“He was a terrific captain, and one of the most outstanding people I know.”
There was far more to Harris than “Deadliest Catch” fame, Silva said.
“I understand he was on the show and stuff, but they’re all going to go away. When everybody forgets about ‘Deadliest Catch,’ we’re still going to be remembering Phil and everything about him.”
Rose Cox can be reached at [email protected], or by phone at (907) 348-2419