A skipper and the fisherman he rescued reminisce for Discovery series
By Jack Broom
Bering Sea storms are a fact of life for the crew of the Time Bandit.
Two prayers for you to say tonight:
One, that you never have to learn, the way Josh White did, that the Bering Sea can change in a heartbeat — its mood, its behavior, its unforgiving manner.
And two, that if you ever do learn that lesson first-hand, someone like Johnathan Hillstrand is close by to help pluck you out of icy water that can kill a person in minutes.
"If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be here today," said White, whose 31st birthday last November was almost his final day on Earth. If you didn't see White's rescue on Discovery Channel's hit series "Deadliest Catch," no worries: A midocean near-tragedy with action, color, emotion and two manly men hugging isn't the kind of thing TV producers like to keep tucked away in a vault.
"After the Catch," a four-part series on the Discovery Channel, 10 p.m. Tuesdays beginning May 29 (following "Deadliest Catch" at 9 p.m.)
The rescue, and the recollections of those involved, will be among a boatload of fish stories covered in a four-part spinoff series, "After the Catch," beginning at 10 p.m. Tuesday immediately after "Deadliest Catch."
Skippers and crewmen from this season's "Deadliest Catch" crab-fishing boats were in Seattle last week to hoist a few cool ones and share salty tales in front of Discovery Channel cameras at the Lockspot Café in Ballard.
Bering Sea rescues, both successful and failed — Hillstrand has been part of both — provide the fodder for much of the first "After the Catch" installment.
"Deadliest Catch" viewers first saw White, an Alaska fisherman for five years, as a small orange speck on the side of a tower of crab pots aboard the 134-foot Trailblazer, 266 miles northeast of Dutch Harbor. The boat's hold was filled with a handsome catch of king crab, and it was time to chain down the pots and head to port.
But within minutes, White said, the wind picked up 15 knots, and five-foot swells became 15-foot rollers, rocking the Trailblazer dramatically side to side.
"I knew I was in a bad spot, and I felt myself slipping," said White. "I tried to get a good grip, but I couldn't. Before I knew it, I was gone."
A few hundred yards away, White's precarious position had caught the attention of the crew of the Time Bandit, including captain Hillstrand of Maple Valley at the helm and his brother and co-skipper Andy, who was shooting video with a camera provided by "Deadliest Catch."
Although the Hillstrands didn't see the moment White fell, they heard their radio crackle with the words every mariner dreads: "Man overboard!"
"It's something you never want to hear, and we hear it too much," said Johnathan Hillstrand, noting that last year's king-crab season had already claimed three lives at that point. "After five minutes, you figure they're not going to make it. And after 10, you know they're gone."
Every second counts
From his boat's position alongside and slightly behind the Trailblazer, Hillstrand knew he could get to the bobbing man faster than White's own boat, which had to completely circle around.
He also knew there was little time to spare: Nine years earlier, his crew pulled aboard the skipper from a vessel that sank in front of their eyes. After only six minutes in the water, the man could not be revived.
Limbs go numb quickly in frigid water. The boots and rain gear that protect a fisherman aboard ship can doom him in the water, pulling him under. Even a man wearing a life vest like White's can swallow a lot of water as waves break over his head.
"I went under three times," White said, before he remembered to pull the cord that inflated his vest.
Fortunately, he avoided what Andy Hillstrand said is a common and fatal mistake: the instinctive reaction to swim toward his own boat as it pulled away. "He saved his energy, so when we threw him a life ring (it took two tries), he was able to grab it and hang on."
About four minutes after he hit the 36-degree water, White was pulled aboard the Time Bandit, but the danger of hypothermia wasn't over until he was out of his wet gear, wrapped in a dry blanket and led to the warm galley, where he collapsed, totally spent.
Johnathan Hillstrand, 44, came down from the pilothouse, his own legs shaking beneath him as he embraced White, whom he'd never met. "Last time that happened," he told White, "we pulled a dead guy out of the water."
Getting back on the boat
Hillstrand, who has fished for 27 years, said rescuing White partly eases the ache he's felt since that earlier incident. In a sense, he said, the impact of the rescue didn't entirely hit him until he saw it on the TV show. Even now, viewing the tape makes him emotional. "You know something like that can happen. You never think it's going to be you."
Perhaps the good deed of saving White bought the Time Bandit some karma: The boat went on to win a bet among skippers for the season's highest average number of crabs per pot.
White, in the aftermath of the near-tragedy, "took a little break, just some time to travel, clear my head and think about what I wanted to do."
He spent three weeks visiting his mother in northern Arizona, where he had a chance to relax, play golf "and put on 10 pounds."
He won't forget his dip in the icy water, or the crew who pulled him out. But he doesn't plan to dwell on it, and can't afford to let the memory paralyze or distract him the next time he's at sea.
And there will be a next time, possibly as early as next week, when he expects to join the crew of another Alaskan boat for salmon-fishing season. He's wiser and more seasoned than last year, but no less enthusiastic about his work.
"There's the freedom, the time off to travel and just the physical work itself — keeping in shape and feeling like you're accomplishing something."
"I'll never quit," he said. "I love it to death."
Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or firstname.lastname@example.org