Sig Hansen has been captain of the crab-fishing vessel Northwestern for almost 20 years, and he and his boat have starred on the Discovery Channel's Emmy-winning reality show "Deadliest Catch" for all 8 seasons. In this candid interview, the captain -- widely regarded as one of the crab industry's top providers -- reveals his deepest fear (and no, it isn't his boat sinking).
First of all, I want to say that if I ever become a crab fisherman, I’m going to try to sign up on the Northwestern.
I don’t know if I have the physical strength, but I would really try hard.
You’d love it!
My first question for you is, what’s your definition of “fearless”?
It’s overcoming. That’s all it is. Pushing through.
What makes you fearless?
Well, I never really looked at myself as fearless, to be quite honest. But it seems like the older I get, the luckier I even feel to be here. So I guess if we’re going to call it “fearless,” then that’s what it is. There’s been many times where you look back and you think to yourself, How in the heck did we manage? How did we get through that?
Do you think of yourself more as lucky, then?
No… I think that we -- the fleet in general -- I think we’re experienced. To us, it’s just another day on the job. The older you get, the more experience you have, and we definitely have been through our ups and downs. To a guy that’s new to an industry like that, it would be probably the most frightening thing they’ve ever done.
Can you tell me about a few of your scariest moments as captain?
Even this year… I would give it a 50/50 chance to where we almost sank the Northwestern. It was one of those things where it was just a series of events: Alarms failed us, and we had taken on a bunch of water in one of the crab tanks. That creates what’s called a “slack tank,” and when that happened, we had no idea. But the reality is, more boats have sunk because of that situation than any other. A slack tank will roll the boat over faster than you can blink an eye. And so we put ourselves in that situation. We didn’t even know it.
Can you define what a slack tank is?
On a boat, when you have a tank, it’s either full or empty. “Slack tank” would be half-full. And that’s what you don’t want. So we had an empty tank, and because the alarms failed and we had what’s called an airlock in the pump that keeps the tank empty, all of a sudden the tank starts taking on water a little at a time to where she filled half-full. You can imagine all that water rolling from one side to the other. All that weight and inertia is what flips these boats over. The year before, the cameras were off the boat, and [there was] the same kind of a deal: We were taking in our gear, the season was over, we went out to retrieve our pots that were empty and bring them to the beach, and going across Unimak Pass, the same kind of thing [happened]. The weather blew up, it was unexpected, the tide was against the wind… next thing you know, you look back and you can’t even see your deck. You can’t see the railings of the boat. We were submerged.
Things like that happen. We’ve had times where the boat was so iced down that she was literally sinking in front of you. It took us 18 hours to break the ice off that boat to where she was buoyant enough to get her back upright. She was laying on her side.
What was going through your mind when you had that slack-tank situation?
Honestly, that was preparation. The first thing was fear and panic, and the next thing was just what you learn through time. And that was: "Assess the situation." Those words echoed in my brain. So rather than panic and scream and yell, I just stopped for a second. I just forced myself to become calm, think through it, and then guide the boat and the people on board and do what we needed to do. Had that happened 20 years ago, I think I would have just been panic-stricken!
But how do you force yourself to become calm?
We do a lot of training in Seattle. The fleet goes through safety drills. And I mean, those words just echoed: "Assess your situation." It doesn’t matter what it is: if you’re sinking, or you’re in a fire, or flooding, or anything like that. And that’s all I did. It really pulled me together. Training really does pay off.
So you were really young when you started….
I was 12 the first year. Yeah.
Wow -- 12! Do you remember any of the fears you had back then?
At that age, the pots were so much bigger to me. So the fear was just trying to avoid being squished by a pot.
That’s a pretty big fear!
The reality of the boat sinking or capsizing… that fear came later in life. Before, it was an ego thing: The more pots you put on and the worse the weather was, that was like an egotistical thing for a younger guy.
And also you didn’t have that leadership role, so maybe in your mind you delegated that fear to the captain.
Right. Right. Now [I'm] worried more about the stability of the boat itself. That’s always in my mind. I mean, there’s times even now at my age where, when I leave the dock and I have a full load of pots on -- that’s when the boat is most unstable -- I can’t sleep. Every time we leave the dock and we’ve got gear on, I can’t sleep. I’m afraid. I’m conscious 24/7 about that.
How many pots have to come off before you start to breathe easier?
Until you’re down to a deckload. But really until you pull the boat out of gear and start setting. That’s when I breathe easier. As soon as it’s like, “Okay, we’re here. We’re going to set.” Whereas 10, 15 years ago… never would have blinked an eye. Again, that was ego.
How did you have that ego change?
I think the ego change came not just with the responsibility, but over time. Because when you go through so many close calls, you feel like eventually your time is up. Eventually, it’s going to really happen to where… you’re done. I don’t know how many lives I have. You feel like a cat!
So you feel the superstitious, “The more time that goes on where nothing happens, the more something’s bound to happen”?
Well, yeah. We’ve had so many damn close calls that I can’t count ’em anymore. There’s times when we were setting pots and the crane grabs a pot… and then the line snaps. For no reason. And they fix it, and then it happens again. Because it was so cold it was freezing the knot that attached to the hook. When the line snaps, this 900-pound pot comes tumbling down, and it barely missed a guy. It brushed his shoulder… the pot hit the deck, drove a hole in the deck two feet deep… and then bounced over the side. So that was lucky. It was just one of those things that happen. And it happens all the time.
Okay: The pots are on deck, you’re not sleeping for however many days… how do you function when you’re in the midst of fear like that?
It’s a higher level of anxiety. So you actually function better! [laughs] You’re on full alert!
I love your leadership on the show. Even the writeup on the Discovery Channel website talks about how you’re tough but compassionate. Can you talk about the link between being fearless and being compassionate?
Honestly, I think that that just comes from my father [founding Northwestern captain Sverre Hansen, whom Sig wrote about in his book North By Northwestern]. I take after him. He was a big guy; he was in the service for a while… and he was a legend. But at the same time, in the fishing industry, he was very compassionate. He just didn’t show it that often. We have a young kid on the boat, Jake Anderson, and I have a lot of compassion for him because I feel like this kid has so much drive and he’s so energetic, and he is so compassionate about being a fisherman. I feel like he deserves that in return. And I don’t see that as being any less of a man. I think if you’re not well-rounded… that’s what it is to be a man or a role model, in my mind.
Would you say that your dad was a fearless mentor?
Dad would never brag. He always used to say, “If you do well in life, then you’ll know, because other people will brag about you.” He was a stubborn Norwegian guy. He was one of those guys who are like, “Don’t ever open your mouth and flap your gums.” That was a sin!
So he didn’t blow his own horn.
Never. And he raised us the same way.
How have you counseled someone whose fearlessness was getting to the point of being reckless?
Jake is another good example. He was going too fast, trying too hard. We had to put the brakes on him. And it’s kind of a shame, because you want a guy who’s going to go 100 percent. But at the same time, you put the brakes on them in a very blunt manner. And they don’t like it. You don’t have to even tell them why. Or if I tell him why and he can’t accept it, it’s still my way or the highway. Eventually they figure it out.
What did you say to Jake in that instance?
There were times when he’d say, “I’m going to run the crane.” And I gave him a chance, and he was too reckless, because it’s a 12-ton crane; it will kill somebody. So: “You’re done.” Or if he’s at the rail… to be on the rail, you have to have eyes in the back of your head. So if I or my brother -- or whoever has experience -- can see that whoever’s at the rail isn’t really paying attention, looking to see with peripheral vision what’s going on around them, we’ll just yank ’em. And they don’t understand why. And maybe a few months later, they’re like, “Now I understand what you guys were talking about.” It’s a feeling. And you can’t teach that. It just takes time.
When pots come up empty, the show makes it seem like you picked the wrong location. How do you handle mistakes?
That’s one of the reasons I think they have [the Northwestern] on the show. They’ve gone through a lot of different boats in the last 8 years. If I make a mistake, I’ll admit it. If I set the gear in the wrong place, or however they play it, that’s fine because it’s the reality. There’s never been a perfect season. I understand that they want the good, the bad, the ugly. And you’ve got to be able to forget about the damn camera and just do your thing. And I really don’t care anymore. If I got a bum string [of pots] or a bum day or a bad trip, I accept that. I’ve gone for a couple of months. We’ve been so in the hole that we owed money. And we made it up the next season. That’s nothing to be ashamed of. That’s what a true fisherman is: He takes the good with the bad.
And there’s a lot of stuff you can’t control, like the weather, and sometimes the crab just aren’t there….
Right. The way they depict it on TV is, when the crab’s not there, “Oh, he sucks.” It’s fishing. I don’t have to prove myself to anybody. I’ve done it long enough to where I’ve left my mark, and I can say that openly. Any one of the captains would back me up, because if you’ve been there long enough, you have created a rep for your boat, and you’ve earned it. And no one can take that away. My dad had bum trips, too, when he was alive. Sometimes you don’t [catch] anything. If you can accept that and swallow it, it just makes you a well-rounded fisherman. Person. Right? Not everyone’s going to hit the mother lode and go in full and cash this big paycheck.
You don’t go through greenhorns like everybody else seems to. When greenhorns have come to you in the past and they've been afraid, how have you comforted them?
On our boat it’s a little different. Most of the “greenhorns” we go through are friends of the family. We go with a much smaller crew than most. But we’ve had guys in the past that have tried and failed. I’ve had guys that quit on the first trip. I had one kid… he was the nephew to one of the guys that had been there for 20 years. And he was complaining that his heart hurt. And I’m like, “Your heart hurts? Do I have to call the Coast Guard? Do I have to MedEvac you? Are you having a heart attack? What do you mean?” He was a 17- or 18-year-old kid. And he’s in his bunk and he doesn’t want to go on deck. So I’m thinking to myself, How can your heart hurt? So I took my knuckle and I jammed it into his chest, and I said, “Did that hurt?” And he started crying. He goes, “Yeah! My heart hurts!” And I go, “You dumb shit! That’s your muscles. You’ve just never used ’em before.” Then I got his fuckin’ ass back on deck. And then it was fiiine. We didn’t comfort him.
You creatively assessed the situation! That’s what you did there. I like that.
I’m a little old-school.
What would you say to someone who’s afraid of taking risks because they might fail?
If they’re afraid of taking a risk, they’ll never succeed, number one. Most fishermen are the biggest risktakers on planet Earth. Number two, they’re all entrepreneurs; they’re always looking for the bigger, better, badder boat, pot, fishing ground, crew, you name it. They’re always trying to make it better. For me, my biggest fear in taking a risk would be financial investment. Because we’ve worked so gosh darn hard to get the money we’ve earned. It’s hard to invest in something else that you don’t know. So we reinvest back into our boat, which is something we know. But as far as taking risks on your job, that’s just part of the deal. And anybody that can’t do that… I mean, you’ve got your worker bees and you’ve got your queen bees. It’s pretty obvious that if the guy's going to nut up and be that guy, it makes for great boat owners, captains, crews.
So you need an element of fearless risk to do what you do?
There’s no question. We don’t know from one year to the next if there’s even going to be a season. My biggest fear in our fishery since I was 10 is… my father’s boat, the Foremost, sank. They managed to save everybody; he was one of the first guys to use the survival suits in the Bering Sea. So that was great. But when that boat sank, it drove a knife into my chest. When I got into school, I remember I had a nervous breakdown. I mean, I literally… I stood there and I didn’t know what to do, and I was just crying. And one of the teachers said, “What’s wrong with you, kid?” And I told him that the boat sank that morning, and they sent me home. And from that day, I’ll never forget it: I’ve always been afraid of not having another season. My biggest fear is not being able to fish next year. Because it’s a national resource; you don’t know. So our income -- for me to provide for my family -- depends on if there’s going to be a fishery next year. And that’s a pretty goddamned scary way to live! If you work [9 to 5], you’re going to get a retirement fund, you’re going to have benefits… “Oh, maybe I’ll move up in the company.” Where the hell am I going to move if there’s nothing to fish? I’d better start flipping burgers at McDonald’s. We don’t have anything to fall back on; I don’t have a college diploma…. We have Hard Knocks Of Life, which is a great college, but at the same time, who in the hell is going to take my resume to hire me anywhere?
Right! Um… are you a praying guy?
I pray every day.
What kind of prayers do you say… and what do you say before you go out to sea?
[Laughs] Ohhh! Trust me: We’re Lutheran. Norwegians are very in tune with God. They just don’t look, act or smell like it. But on the boat, you’d be surprised how much we pray. You’re always praying to keep everybody safe. That’s just very standard. Just don’t tell anybody.
Is it like, “Please God, let there be a season next year”?
I have prayed for that. Oh yeah. We pray for weather, we pray for fishing. And safety -- that’s most important. If I listen to the radio and they say, “There’s this weather coming up,” I will pray. When I told you that I’m afraid when I have all these pots on, and we’re traveling, and can’t sleep? Trust me: I’m talking to God.
Is prayer one of the things you use to face fear?
I suppose so. I never thought of it that way, but that’s probably the truth. It works when you’re trying to sleep, I know that.
What kinds of fears does your family have when you’re getting ready to ship out, and what do you tell them?
Well, the family never had a lot of fears before, but now that the television is showing me all the time…. Our daughter, she’s now 16. Before, it was always, “Okay Daddy, hope you do good.” Now it’s, “How’s the weather?” They’re thinking consciously about the weather. So I’ve got to lie to them quite a bit. Tell them everything’s fine. As soon as I say the weather’s bad, they’re worried. Even when she was in eighth, ninth grade, my daughter was checking the Internet to get weather forecasts in the Bering Sea, which I don’t think a little kid should ever have to worry about. I never did.
Yeah, but you were on the boat!
Let’s say when I was in school and my father was out fishing. I never worried about the weather. We knew that it would get bad, but we could never visualize it the way this generation can now. Because they see it on television. It’s almost too much information, in my mind.
Information can breed fear, because you start thinking of all the “what ifs.”
Right. But anyway, isn’t the saying, “There’s nothing to fear but fear itself”? As a fisherman, greed always overcomes fear. We are greedy bastards who overcome fear. We don’t have any other way to make a living.
For more by Elizabeth Kuster, click here.
For more on becoming fearless, click here.