(December 19, 1956 – February 9, 2010)
Captain Phil got his sea legs while working on fishing boats beginning at the tender age of seven. Ten years later he started crabbing on the F/V American Eagle. When Phil turned 21, he ran a boat, the F/V Golden Viking, out of Seattle making him one of the youngest captains in the Bering Sea. Phil went on to work on another boat shortly after, but some of his friends stayed on the F/V Golden Viking. It capsized and sank in 1983 near St. Mathew Island, Alaska. Phil lost some very close friends that day and found the disaster difficult to talk about.
In 1990, Phil bought into the F/V Cornelia Marie with its namesake, Cornelia Marie and her husband at the time, Ralph Collins. Ralph and Cornelia divorced and Cornelia retained the majority ownership of the boat. Phil stayed on as captain, and Cornelia attended to the business. The boat is unique in that is the last one operating of only three crabbing boats designed by Elmo Horton of Horton Boats, Inc. out of Bayou La Batre, Alabama. Horton normally built tug and other working boats.
Phil’s pride and glory were his sons Josh and Jake, and his father who helped make him who he was… Captain Phil Harris of the F/V Cornelia Marie. Phil stated more than once that his favorite memory was “hanging out with the family, and continuing the family tradition”. When his son, Josh, was asked, “What was the most important thing your father taught you?” There was no hesitation, “How to stay alive… It’s all about being smart on deck and staying alive.”
Listening to his friends, you’d always hear words like, ‘friendly,’ ‘honest,’ ‘strong,’ ‘hardworking,’ and ‘caring.’ And all of them said he loved his sons more than life itself. Capt. Phil was the kind of guy who took Deadliest Catch T-Shirts to sick children in the hospital. Capt. Phil loved people, he loved interacting with them. He loved helping them.
The rough and tumble business of crabbing, and years of lessons from working with his father, made Capt. Phil the man of honor that he was. Having lost a man over twenty years ago, Phil was often among the first to volunteer for rescues. One year he actually picked up 22 men.
Phil Harris acquired his fame from Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Catch” a reality series about Alaskan King Crab fishing in the Bering Sea. Discovery installed producers and cameramen on different fishing vessels as Captains fished for Red King Crab and Opilio (snow) Crab.
Phil captained the F/V Cornelia Marie for twenty years. He was joined on board by his two sons, Joshua and Jacob, as well as crewmen who had been with him for many years. During the five seasons Capt. Phil was on the “Deadliest Catch” show, Americans found themselves enthralled with these men, the bravery they exhibited and the difficult labor of endless hours of crabbing.
One of the many reasons “Deadliest Catch” is such a hit is because it isn’t scripted. The boats and crew members are the actual crews, the action is real, and nothing is staged. That, coupled with the danger of the wild seas and cold temperatures, draws viewers in. Like Capt. Phil often said, you couldn’t really understand the danger and life-threatening work they’d been doing all their lives, when he’d try to explain it to people. Seeing it first hand, viewers got caught up in the ruggedness of these men, the chances they’d take, and the life and death decisions they had to make.
Toughness is a trait of all these men. His sons would tell you that Capt. Phil would have eaten a shot glass with his teeth to prove he’s the toughest, but no one can watch the show and not admire the grit of all of them. They have to put up with pain and injuries and the harshest weather Alaska can throw at them. In 2008, Capt. Phil had what turned out to be a Pulmonary Embolism. He could easily have died while waiting out stormy seas which kept rescue helicopters grounded for hours, unable to reach him.
Capt. Phil once broke his back in two places, helping with the loading of some heavy hoses. Thinking it was just a kink, some of the guys walked on his back trying to fix it. It was an injury that would have paralyzed 95% of people who had it, but Capt. Phil was lucky again.
A real family business, Capt. Phil’s entire life was in fishing, spending around 8 months a year at sea. In addition to King Crab and Opilios in the winter, in the spring and summer the boat tenders herring and salmon. Capt. Phil was the youngest fishing captain, at 25. Not surprisingly, Capt. Phil didn’t eat crab. He ran a catcher processor once and had to eat crab every day. A good steak was his favorite meal.
Even after many popular television seasons, no one was more surprised by his fame than Captain Phil, himself. He was grateful to the show which opened new worlds for him. Having never travelled further east than North Dakota, Phil found himself the subject of interviews and talk shows, as people couldn’t get enough of the Deadliest Catch Crews. Phil even released his own coffee called “Captain’s Reserve Gourmet Coffee.”
Phil hadn’t even watched all the episodes, and from the ones he had seen, he was most troubled and embarrassed by his language. He was completely amazed by people who approached him, either for autographs or to ask questions. “I think it’s important to talk to them and visit a bit, because if it wasn’t for the fan base, we wouldn’t have anything. They’re sweet people, and I try to treat them with respect.”
When facing fans, Capt. Phil always thanked them for watching the show, and being interested in their life aboard the Cornelia Marie, and what they did for a living. “It’s probably the most flattering thing that will ever happen to me in my life – to have people come up and shake my hand and tell me they’re interested in what I’m doing.” Amazed that people would consider him a hero, Capt. Phil is completely in awe of those he considers “real heroes,” our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Capt. Phil left us with many memorable lines…, “When the weatherman issues a hurricane warning, there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to get your ass kicked,” or “There’s fart bubbles, there’s crabs.” Another favorite was, “Ya gotta be a little bit twisted to do this job!” Capt. Phil summed up crabbing with this quote, “That’s the deal with crabbing. Every day you’re going to encounter something where somebody almost gets smashed (or) thrown over the side. The stories you hear, you think, ‘Well, maybe they’re exaggerating.’ It isn’t an exaggeration. These guys are the toughest guys there are.”
Like all good Captains, Phil never had to look for “greenhorns,” they found him. Greenhorns add new life to a crew, but their inexperience also makes them dangerous to the other crew members. Capt. Phil also felt that the greenhorns who were turned away from the other boats were a little “sue happy.”
Like most of the Bearing Sea crabbing business, Phil followed a few superstitions. Capt. Phil’s biggest was to never leave on a Friday, ever! Yes, he had tested it several times. He once blew his main engine on a Friday, so Phil always respected the ‘bad juju’ of Fridays. He wouldn’t shave while at sea, another superstition, though he did shave at dock once, when things were already going so bad, he didn’t think it would do any more harm.
As is often the case with men and women in stressful jobs, occasional pranks helped break tensions. Phil was most pleased with the time his crew put a toilet in one of Capt. Sig’s pots (Sig Hansen of F/V Northwestern). The guys loved talking about the pranks almost as much as carrying them out. When asked, Capt. Phil would have told you about the pipe in Capt. Sig’s pot, doors welded shut, pots tied together and upside down, and the dressed-in-rain-gear mannequin inside a pot.
When asked about working with his sons, who he jokingly referred to as ‘Ding’ and ‘Dong’, Capt. Phil described that situation in his usual manner. “The kids are both so different. If he wants something, Jacob will bug you and bug you until it drives you insane. Joshua is more like his mother – he has to get the last word in and always has something to say. That drives me absolutely haywire, too. So, between the two of them, when they get going, I don’t know whether to shit or go blind, to be honest!”
Phil often laughed at how his sons spent their money, especially when they’d buy designer rainwear and boots, in quantity. When he was their age, Phil only had one of each.
When it came to crab fishing, Phil could be intense. “When he wanted something done, yesterday was too late,” said Don Knoblauch, Superintendent for Magone Marine Services, the shop that repaired the Cornelia Marie since 2002. Don described Phil as “extremely pushy and boisterous,” when he needed work done, but “much like a relatively normal person” when not pressured by the fishing. Other friends called him ‘brash,’ ‘macho,’ and ‘loud,’ but they loved him nonetheless.
Like most of the crews, Capt. Phil visited the local bars in Dutch Harbor when they were in port, and he was well known for his signature drink, ‘a double duck fart,’ a mixture of Kahlúa, Baileys, and Jack Daniels or Crown Royal. Apparently the name was derived from how one would smell after drinking.
Capt. Phil’s friends consider his passing, “not only a blow to the crabbing industry” but a personal loss as well. The Chief Engineer on the Morning Star, Lionel Silva said, “I understand he was on the show and stuff, but… the shows… are all going to go away. When everybody forgets about “Deadliest Catch,” we’re still going to be remembering Phil and everything about him.”
Phil had a hobby of making wood birdhouses. He said they calmed him. And before 2007, Phil had never been further east than North Dakota. His fame with the Discovery Channel show gave him the opportunity to travel, and to meet and speak with people he would never have met otherwise.
Suffering the pain of four crushed discs in his back, Capt. Phil’s last fishing trips were much affected by his medical problems, according to his son Josh. And from Todd Stanley, the “Deadliest Catch” producer and cameraman, who’d spent years with Phil, “he seemed like he’d just gotten tireder and tireder over the last year or more.” On January 29, 2010, Captain Phil Harris had a stroke while the Cornelia Marie was in port offloading. Medevacked to a hospital in Anchorage, he underwent a long operation from which he was recovering from before he died, on February 9, 2010.
Phil’s best friend for 36 years, Dan Mittman, commented, “I think that miraculous recovery that happened so rapidly and blew the doctors’ minds away was so that Phil could say the things that he had to say, to the people he had to say them to. Between catnaps, we talked in detail. And he had regrets, and he shared them with me and he probably shared them with his sons. He accomplished what he needed to get done so he could be at peace.”
When asked once what lesson he most hoped that Jake and Josh learned during the last season, Capt. Phil again showed who he was. “I don’t know if there’s one lesson, but in general, if I died tonight and was gone, I hope they’d have the integrity to do what they say, be honest, and do honest work for an honest wage and not short change themselves or anyone else. To be honest about how they live and work. Don’t sidestep things or try to cut corners. Do an honest hard job, and do it to the best of their ability.”
Capt. Phil did many interviews, so I hope to add more links to them here in the future.
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We have all of Capt. Phil’s great quotes here.