'Deadliest Catch' producer on arctic storm that threatens the fleet

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Image Credit: Discovery

Season 10 of Discovery’s Deadliest Catch comes to an epic close tonight with a two-hour finale that finds the fleet facing an Arctic storm with hurricane-force winds. Each boat deals with its own form of danger and drama, but fans who were happy to see the Cornelia Marie back in the Bering Sea will be especially tense.

Having finished its Opie season, the Cornelia is docked at Dutch Harbor when the storm strikes. All the camera equipment is already off the boat when Ben Staley, a producer with Original Productions who’d been embedded with the Cornelia, hears from Capt. Casey McManus that 100 mph gusts are snapping lines at the dock and they have to get down there. Unable to reach boat owner Josh Harris, who’s already caught a flight out, McManus has to decide whether to keep the Cornelia put and risk all the lines snapping, sending her into the rocks some 200 feet away, or to try to run the boat to a safer location (and risk ending up in the rocks in the process anyway).

Phoning in to Entertainment Weekly Radio, Staley said the entire ordeal—which is edited down to an excruciating 15 minutes—actually lasted four or five hours. “Casey, who has been a fisherman since he was about eight or nine years old, [has] finally got the chance to captain a boat—and it’s the Cornelia Marie, which is kind of a legendary boat,” Staley said. “And here he is at the end of the season having to make these life or death decisions on if he’s gonna destroy the boat or not. Nobody would want to be in those shoes, and one error would be disastrous.”

Viewers will see how Scotty Hillstrand and other Time Bandit crew members come to Casey’s aid. But Staley also had to call in reinforcements. “We were wrapped. I was waitin’ for the weather to calm down so I could get on a plane to go home. I had one camera, one battery, one tape, and then all the sudden this happened,” he said. “I’m calling for help. I’m calling the hotel. It’s 10 o’clock at night. Everyone’s having dinner, some people are sleeping because they haven’t slept in a couple of months. I’m just like, ‘I need help down here.’ I’m on the phone, and I’m like, ‘I don’t know, this boat might go on the rocks,’ and Scotty was standing there, and he turned around and really gave me a mouth full. ‘Don’t say that.’ But I’m on the boat, [and] I’m thinking this is one of the scariest things I’ve ever been involved with. And I’ve been in 40-45 foot seas. Like, I’ve been at hurricanes at sea a lot. But I didn’t know what was going to happen with this boat.”

You wouldn’t think it, but one of the most dangerous moments working on the show in general, Staley said, is simply getting on and off the boat. “I’ve seen a lot of fishermen fall in the water. I’ve seen cameramen fall in the water and have to go to the hospital. And then here we are in this situation where the boat is getting slammed against the dock, and it’s pulling out and it’s stretching lines, and you had literally two or three seconds where the boat was close enough to the dock where you could actually get on it. If you missed, or you slipped, you would fall between the dock and the boat, and you would be crushed,” he said. “So once I got on it, I didn’t get back off. I’m like, ‘I’m gonna be on this boat, and if Casey gets it out of here, I’m gonna be on it. If he doesn’t, I’m gonna be on the rocks with the rest of the crew. And that’s just a choice you have to make.”

Our exclusive sneak peek below, featuring the crew of the Wizard, shows what it’s like to be at sea when the storm hits. “Any time we get one of those extreme weather systems, we just kinda hang on and hope for the best,” Capt. Keith Colburn says. “At the end of the day, we just chipped a lot of ice and just made sure we kept the boat as safe as possible. Sometimes the ice can grow faster than you can stay ahead of it—it’s probably the most dangerous thing we have to deal with in the Bering Sea during the winter.”

While this storm was dangerous, Keith still considers the storm that struck at the start of Opie season the worst he’s ever experienced. “I had more ice on the boat than I’ve ever had on it. I generally take evasive action pretty early to get the ice off, but that storm was predicted to be about 24-30 hours, and it was almost 2.5 days where it never relented. That’s why we got into a pretty precarious situation with the amount of weight that we put on top. When you put weight up top, you’re adding ballast in the wrong spot,” he says. “As soon as you put more weight up top than you have for ballast in the keel, then that weight’s gonna basically flip the boat right over.”

Of course, fishing near the Russian border added extra pressure to the Wizard crew’s Opie season. “When you’re 300 miles from the nearest land, and they don’t have a helicopter stationed that can reach you; you’re pretty much on your own. You’re taking an extremely risky situation and trying to minimize it,” Colburn says. “Even if they’re exhausted, they gotta go out there and continue to work to make sure the boat’s safe.”

Colburn doesn’t expect to return to those same grounds next year. “I think it’s highly unlikely. Even though we succeeded—we had a fantastic year—it’s too risky because of the extra distance you have to travel to get back to town to deliver, and the fact that your exposure level is so high when you’re pretty much almost off the grid. That’s not saying that the Coast Guard can’t respond: They can always try to send a C-130 and drop pumps or do things of that nature. But it’s a gamble that paid off very well for us this year,” he says. “If you could predict that you weren’t gonna get an arctic blast, I’d probably go there every other year. But the fact that the odds are that we’re gonna get hit with at least one or two of those arctic hurricanes a year is enough to pretty much tell you, ‘You know what, maybe it’s better to stay a little bit closer to home.'”

The two-hour Deadliest Catch season finale airs Tuesday, Aug. 5 at 9 p.m. ET on Discovery, following “The Bait” at 8 p.m. ET.

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