‘Deadliest Catch’ leaves Portland chuckling into its bait bag

Posted Sept. 13, 2010, at 11:03 a.m.

PORTLAND, Maine – The Northwestern and the Time Bandit pulled into Portland Harbor Sunday night.

OK, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. Instead, it was Sig Hansen, captain of the Northwestern, and Andy and Johnathan Hillstrand, co-captains of the Time Bandit. These stars of Discovery’s “The Deadliest Catch” came to Merrill Auditorium in Portland Sunday night for 90 minutes of entertaining though often profane storytelling.

In an event moderated by WPOR morning radio personality Joe Lerman, the three captains, two of whom smoked throughout, delved more deeply into their lives and histories, giving the near sellout crowd a look behind the scenes of “Deadliest Catch.”

Hansen, of Norwegian descent like many of the crab fishermen in the Bering Sea, and the Swedish Hillstrands all come from fishing families.

Danger is something all fishermen face. When asked about the most frightening situation he had ever faced, Johnathan Hillstrand said, “I almost got married … once.”

Then, seriously, he recalled one time when he was out in 80-foot seas.

“A 120-foot rogue wave hit us,” he said. “That’s as high as that exit sign [indicating one above the auditorium’s second balcony]. It drove us down below. I thought we were dead.”

Pranks help cut the tension at sea. Andy Hillstrand recalled the time he tied a line to a crewmate’s blanket, then ran the line through the ship. “When we pulled on it, it looked like a ghost was moving it,” he said.

“Deadliest Catch” has been a mixed blessing for the captains. For the first time, their families really get to see what goes on at sea.

“Every time my grandmother watches a show, she says that she’s never watching again,” Johnathan Hillstrand said.

“My 14-year-old daughter is on the Internet, checking for storms and calling us at sea,” Hansen said. “I don’t need her worrying about us.”

Crabbing is still the captains’ main source of income, but “Deadliest Catch” has made some of them unlikely sex symbols.

“They wouldn’t say that if they’d seen us in the showers,” said Hansen, who has been dubbed “The Great Blond God.”

Andy Hillstrand told of one scary experience: “I was shopping in a mall with Jonathan when these four 21-year-olds came running toward us. I figured they were going for him, but before I knew it, they were ripping off my shirt and hat. I yelled, ‘Security!’”

The three captains raised a glass to Phil Harris, a fellow captain who died of a stroke last year.

Johnathan Hillstrand couldn’t stop laughing as he told the story of how he mistakenly led a motorcycle procession to the wrong graveyard for Harris’ burial.

“Deadliest Catch,” in its own way, is about family, and that was clear at the Portland event.

“Love your family,” Johnathan Hillstrand said.

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