Sometimes reality TV is fake; sometimes it’s very real; and sometimes the lines get a bit blurred. That’s the case with Discovery’s Tuesday reality mainstay “Deadliest Catch,” the F/V Cornelia Marie and the Harris family.
Years ago, at a Discovery Channel presentation to advertisers in Beverly Hills, I got to sit down to lunch with Captain Phil Harris of the F/V Cornelia Marie (F/V meaning fishing vessel) and his two deckhand sons, Josh and Jake. Phil seemed fully recovered from the pulmonary embolism that kept him from fishing for quite a while; Josh was sharp-witted and funny; and Jake was already showing signs of the substance-abuse problems that would continue to plague his life.
Then, in early 2010, Phil suffered a stroke, the effects of which ultimately took his life. In the years that followed, fans watched Josh and Jake deal with the loss of their dad, and all the financial and emotional repercussions — including the fate of the Cornelia Marie, which their father skippered but didn’t own outright. Josh eventually pursued ownership of the boat, but it was a rocky road. You can debate whether Josh would have done this but for the pressure from fans of the show — for all I know, Josh debates this himself — but one thing’s for sure, the show’s just not the same without a Harris at the wheel.
This season, the show’s 14th, Josh is back in the wheelhouse of a refurbished Cornelia Marie, with co-captain Casey McManus. We got on the phone recently to catch up and see how the thirtysomething captain’s life is progressing (edited for content and clarity):
What’s up with the boat?
The boat is doing great. It’s doing fantastic. I’m going to have a really good season, and so, there’s no complaints there. Everything is coming together the way it needs to come together. That’s for sure. We got good quota. It’s just been nonstop chaos, to be quite honest with you. There’s no other way to put it, I mean that’s crab fishing at its height. We’re doing good with that, though.
Who exactly owns the Cornelia Marie right now?
I own a majority of the boat. I own 45%, Casey owns 5, and then I sold 50% between two people, to my partners. They have 25 and 25. That is correct. People are like, “Discovery bought the boat.” And I’m like, “I didn’t realize Discovery likes to get into the fishing industry. Pretty sure they’re about TV.” “No, I know a guy, and he said this is the truth.” Well I’m here to tell you that it’s not.” They’re like, “No, you’re lying.”
There’s a ton of people out there saying that. I think it’s cute. Like, I didn’t know they went into the fishing industry. I’m pretty sure they’re more focused on TV than they are fishing.
Any moments of regret for following in your father’s footsteps?
Yeah, every time I’m looking out the window at 40-foot seas. You bet. Like, “Should have went to school.” I love my job,. I absolutely love it, and maybe one day there’ll be something else out there for me. [My father] always wanted me to get out of it. You know he said “This is a timed industry, get out.” But yeah, I’m still here.
If you don’t want to study in school … if you’re gonna be dumb, you better be tough. That’s about all. That’s about all I would say.
What do you think about the enduring popularity — now more than 200 shows — of this show that just, year after year, shows boats going to sea after crabs?
A lot had to do with the fact that when it came to people’s lives, there was a certain point where they’d never been filmed like that. Like just to be able to see the struggles that everybody goes through. Being able to be relatable to it. Very strange.
Yeah, actually. I was like, “this is really weird.” Sometimes people, they come up with their ideas and propaganda and stuff like that. I’m like “how could they come up with something like this?” What happened to make them think this? Hmmm.
It was actually about the biggest mystery of life and death. You just get into it.
With the interest in the family stories and struggles of the crabbers, I’ve often thought of it as an acceptable soap opera for men. What do you think?
Real Crabbers of the Bering Sea. (laughs)
Your father died at 53. How are you thinking about not suffering the same fate?
We’re all deteriorating at a fast rate when you do this job. It’s not fun. That’s why we try to stay a little more upbeat. Smoke less cigarettes. Drink less booze. The good stuff, just kind of be a bit more active. We’ve all had issues in the past. It’s just one of those deals.
I will obviously take care of myself a lot better than my dad did.
How is Jake doing?
Jake’s just scampering around being Jake. He was doing good there for a little bit. Then he was back to being a little monster. Then he was doing good. So we’ll see what he brings this week. I want him to get back on the boat, but it’s like herding cats.
What’s the core of his problem?
Stupidity. That’s to sum it all up. The simplest answer I can give you. He comes to me, all right. Usually he goes limping back to wherever he came from.
Because of your family’s issues, do fans tell you about theirs?
Oh, yeah. That’s why we became extremely relatable. A lot of people are going through the same issues, especially up north here. We have a massive epidemic of people using meth and heroin. I mean, it’s out of control. So it’s like a lot of people will come up and discuss their family’s addictions or their deaths in their family they’ve had.
How do you react?
Well, I’ve heard them so many times. At this point, I’m just thinking about how they’re related to me, how relatable they are. They ask questions; all sorts of questions. I give them my best opinion. You just give ’em a high-five and a hug and skedaddle.
What’s that feeling, when the sun’s out, the wind’s blowing, the boat is plowing through the Bering Sea, and you’re on your way to the crab grounds?
Successful day. That’s what I’d call it. Yeah. I don’t really know, you can’t really describe that day, but it’s something else. One day if you ever make it up to Alaska, you’ll fully understand.
Image: Courtesy Discovery Channel