As the phenomenally popular and enduring reality TV series, Deadliest Catch, enters its 16th season (premiering April 14, 2020) on the Discovery Channel, one of the most colorful and hard-driving skippers, Captain Keith Colburn, owner of the F/V Wizard, took some time out to share with Boating readers his thoughts on boats, safety, crew morale and more. Colburn’s Alaskan fishing career spans 35 years, and unlike many skippers, he is a first-generation fisherman, starting from scratch as a greenhorn at age 22 in 1985. By 1992 he had worked his way up to captain and purchased the 152-foot Wizard in 2005. He is a 14-year-veteran of the TV series that follows the exploits of boats and crews that commercially fish for crab in treacherous Alaskan ocean waters. Here’s just a slice of what Colburn has learned in his long career. By the way, he reads Boating magazine.
Q. What’s the biggest mistake that captains make when crab fishing?
A. There are so many mistakes, but the worst is not preparing for a worst-case scenario, be it anything from bad fishing to mechanical failures. If you don’t have contingency plans, things can get tragic. Boaters can apply this by having a float plan so someone knows where you are. Also, make sure you have a safety talk before you depart to point out safety gear, fire extinguishers, operating basics, and how to use the electronics. What happens if the captain hits his head? The crew can’t respond if they don’t where the safety gear is located. I am also a huge advocate for wearing life jackets. Ask if everyone knows how to swim. If not, make sure they wear a life jacket. “Safety First” is not just a billboard. It’s a way of life, and it inspires confidence in the skipper.
Q. What’s the biggest problem you regularly encounter while fishing, aside from lack of crab?
A. It comes down to crew and making sure they are competent. If you have a good crew, you don’t have to think about it. It is not a pleasant job, so it’s a challenge keeping morale up. The same applies to boating with friends. You keep morale up by having a good boat and good equipment, as well as good food. But the best morale booster is catching crab, or fish for recreational anglers. Many times, they put too much emphasis on the captain, but everything has to work together – crew, boat and equipment, as well as leadership.
Q. Are the verbal outbursts and physical altercations seen on the TV show real or set up?
A. I don’t know about other captains, but on Wizard, anytime there is yelling, it is real. For one thing, my brother, Monte, drives me crazy. He is a captain himself, and he doesn’t always do what I ask. He’s my brother, so what can I do? He takes liberty with being a family member versus a crew member. Things are super high-stress, so you’re already on the edge. Add fatigue and danger, and yelling becomes common. Plus, it’s very noisy – engines, hydraulics, wind noise, water noise, banging traps. You have to yell to be heard over all the noise. You sound like a jerk, but you’re just trying to communicate.
Q. How many more seasons of the show do you plan to do?
A. I don’t plan on retiring. Many boat owners eventually hire another captain to fish the boat, and they stay ashore to manage the operation. And believe me, there’s a lot to manage. I don’t foresee myself not fishing, but I might fish less and let my brother take the helm more. My most peaceful moments are when I am at the wheel, cruising back up on the gear at night. I really love what I do. The TV show will go forever, otherwise no one will know what to do on Tuesday nights.
Q. Does the TV production ever interfere with fishing?
A. Yes. And no. The challenge is making sure that the videographer on deck is safe, and yet has every opportunity possible to get his shots. If we let them run rampant, we’d never get any fishing done. For the new season, they brought big cameras with harnesses that strap to crew members. I asked the producer, “Would you wear this thing?” He said, “No.” I said, “OK, then neither will we.” The production quality has improved so much since we started this thing. There weren’t even HD cameras or drones back in the day. Now the quality is so good, the visuals tell the story, and very little narration is needed.
Q. Superstition seems to play big role aboard Wizard. Has it always been that way?
A. My mom told me I was superstitious as a boy, but mariners have always been superstitious, since the time of Christopher Columbus. To this day, there are so many supersitions—no whistling in the wheelhouse, no leaving port on Friday, coffee cups all have to hang the same way—that sometimes I can’t do anything. One of my good luck things is using a Cup O’ Noodles styrofoam cup as a spittoon, because I chew and we had our best trip ever when I started doing this. On one trip, we forgot to get Cup O’ Noodles for the boat, and fishing was lousy, 2 or 3 crabs per trap. I called my brother, who was skippering another boat about 15 miles away and asked if they had Cup O’ Noodles. “Yes,” he said. I said, “Can you bring some to us?” “Are you crazy, do you know how much time that will waste?” he said. I asked him how fishing was, and he said it was bad. “Then what do you have to lose?” I said. Long story short, he brought us the Cup O’ Noodles, and our counts jumped up to an average of 68 crabs per trap. Ultimately, superstitions are about surrounding yourself with things that make you feel good.
Q. Do you own recreational boats?
A. I just bought a 36-foot Sea Ray Sundancer built in the late 1990s that I keep near my house on Seattle’s Lake Union. It’s perfect for me and a guest for overnighting. I am putting in new engines and electronics, and the plan is to outfit it for fishing. By I have to tell you something: I am really good at docking the Wizard, a single-screw steel boat that weighs about 1 million pounds full of water. But I am more intimidated and afraid of looking bad when I am docking the Sea Ray, even though it’s much smaller, lighter and has twin screws. It’s because I haven’t used the boat enough yet, but I will get there. The most important thing to remember when docking is to have everyone on board know what to do. If they don’t know what to do, it’s the captain’s fault for not teaching them. Teach them well, and they will make you look good.