Leaning back in his captain’s chair, sometimes worried, sometimes ebullient, often just plain grouchy, Captain Phil Harris and his gravelly croak turned the deck of the 128-foot F/V Cornelia Marie into floating theater.
For fans of the Discovery Channel show “Deadliest Catch,” the drama-documentary that films in high-def the highs and lows of the Alaska king crab fleet, Captain Harris gave a glimpse into an American archetype: Independent, proud, and willing to stare danger in the face, often with a rascally wink.
But it was ultimately Harris’s pride in his two sons, Josh and Jake, and his concerns about their continuing the family fishing tradition, that made the Cornelia Marie crew one of the most beloved among the half-dozen boats regularly featured on the reality show.
Crab fishing is really a ruse for the show, as the monotony of setting and pulling huge steel traps becomes a backdrop for how families – both real and surrogate – pull together and clash (sometimes with fists) amidst nature’s roil and the constant uncertainty of the fishing industry.
Yes, the show delivered action on the high seas, but “what we got instead was an insightful human drama about the people who toil on the ends of the earth and the struggles they go through to keep a family – surrogate or otherwise – together,” writes Gawker’s Brian Moylan.
Based out of Seattle, Harris was one of only a few captains to be featured in all five seasons of the show.
“Phil was a devoted father and loyal friend to all who knew him,” the show’s producers wrote in a statement. “We will miss his straightforward honesty, wicked sense of humor and enormous heart. We share our tremendous sadness over this loss with the millions of viewers who followed Phil's every move.”
By mid-day Wednesday, fans had written more than 74 pages of condolences on the show’s website. Wrote “flightrisk”: “well i am hurt and feel pain from this, he was a heck of a man and reminded me of my own father. tough as nails and loved his boys. Just makes me cry.”
Harris’ uncanny fishing instinct and love of pranks – he once convinced viewers that he fished by looking for bubbles from crab flatulence – quickly made him a fan favorite. As his sons joined the crew, the drama increased, with Captain Phil berating them for occasional laziness, refereeing fights, and quietly worrying about their decision to follow in his footsteps. He was divorced and spent his off-seasons building bird feeders and riding his Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
Harris had to leave the Cornelia Marie in Season 4 after experiencing health problems at sea. He returned undeterred in Season 5. On Jan. 29, he collapsed during a routine off-load at St. Paul Island. He passed on Tuesday, his sons confirmed.
“Dad has always been a fighter and continued to be until the end,” Josh and Jake Harris said in a statement. “For us and the crew, he was someone who never backed down. We will remember and celebrate that strength.”
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