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Seattle fishermen find riches and fame on "Deadliest Catch"
Seattle Times staff reporter
Before I decide exactly how to ask the question, Sig Hansen, never one to wait for an invitation, asks it for me.
"You want to know how a fisherman ended up selling [bleeping] underwear?"
Well, yes. And not just underwear. Coffee cups, baseball caps and refrigerator magnets with catchy slogans, à la "There's a right way, a wrong way and a Norwegian way."
Hawking souvenirs over the Internet isn't something Sig, Norman and Edgar Hansen learned from their late father. Norwegian-born Sverre Hansen taught his boys how to read the sea, how to find salmon and crab in remote Alaskan waters, how to push themselves to the limit.
Dealing with fan mail from around the country and beyond is something the Hansen brothers have had to figure out on their own, thanks to the success of their fishing boat, Northwestern, on the Discovery Channel's hit series "Deadliest Catch."
"Sig is so hot !!!" writes Nancy of Georgia.
"I'll probably never eat crab again without thinking of the Northwestern," notes John of Michigan.
Season finale tonight
"Deadliest Catch," 9 p.m. Discovery Channel. Crab fishermen make their last gamble in icy waters, and loved ones welcome the Northwestern crew home.
On the Web
"If you need someone to model the thong panties in your store, you let me know," writes Amy of Ohio.
The subjects of all this attention are products of Shorewood High School, who, before this show was beamed to more than 150 countries, were content to work far from the spotlight, battling the fierce and frigid Bering Sea for king and opilio crab.
"We learned how to be fishermen," says Sig Hansen. "Not stars."
Edgar still can't believe it. "Down in Longview I was standing on a street corner smoking a cigarette, just waiting for my wife to get out of a store. I had my back turned to the street and a guy pulls up at a stop sign and yells, 'Edgar!' I turned around and he goes, 'Hey. Love the show!' He recognized me — from my back."
Fueling the Hansens' fame is that for two straight crab seasons, king and opilio, the Northwestern took $250,000 bonuses awarded to the show's top-producing boat.
The go-for-it attitude starts with Capt. Sig, 40, who delights in working his four-man crew for days on end to "plug the boat" with crab. At the wheel, he has stayed awake for three days at a time, fueled by coffee, chocolate and cigarettes.
Sig Hansen was 14 when he started fishing in Alaska with his dad and remembers his teachers being annoyed that he'd leave early for summer vacation and arrive a couple of weeks late in the fall. "A kid could make $10,000 to $15,000 in a season — a lot of money in the late '70s and early '80s."
Sig, the only brother with the classic Nordic blond hair, confesses to being "an absolute jerk" at times when the boys were growing up, tossing lawn darts at his siblings or pinning them to the ground.
Norman Hansen, 39, is dark-haired and quiet, usually avoiding the camera. He spent more than a decade away from fishing, working as a mechanic in Yakima — and bull-riding for fun — before returning four years ago to the Northwestern, the boat the Hansens have owned since 1977.
Edgar Hansen, 35, is the deck boss, orchestrating the handling of massive, baited pots which are dropped into the ocean to snare crab. Although he's seasoned and serious about catching crab, it's Edgar's playful side that lightens up the Northwestern's mood, whether he's mugging for the camera, wrapping a crab around a fellow crewman's neck or only half-jokingly referring to his hard-driving boss/brother as "Psycho Sig."
And for the record, only Norman is single, despite the fact the Northwestern's Web "store" offers camisoles, tank tops and yes, thong panties, emblazoned with each of the brothers' names in pink.
"I'm totally fine with it," said Sig's wife, June, amused by fans' affection for her husband. "But in Vegas last year there was one girl who almost ripped his shirt off, and I thought that was kind of strange."
It's not just women who are captivated. "Three guys at the pool kept looking at me," says Sig, "and I thought, uh, well let's just say I didn't know what to make of it. Turns out they were cops from Boston, and they said their police station pretty much just shuts down when they watch the show."
So says Capt. Sig
On his crew: "These guys don't get tired. They're robots. You just plug in their little batteries, jam some food in their mouths, lay 'em down for four hours and then it's like the Eveready [Energizer] bunny, they keep going."
On roaring through a line of crab pots: "This is the art of jamming gear down your throat ... one [pot] on the block, one on the bow and one on the stern. ... That makes skipper happy. Crew not happy when skipper does that."
On other skippers: "I don't talk to them that much. Some, but not much. And half the time you're lying to them anyway."
On his unusual name: "Try growing up with a name like Sigurd Johnny. You get a lot of black eyes."
Sources: "Deadliest Catch," Discovery Channel online chat and interview with The Seattle Times.
As an indication of the closeness of the Norwegian-American community, both Sig and Edgar ended up marrying women whose parents hail from the same village in Norway as the Hansen clan. The Hansens traveled to Norway almost every year while the boys were growing, and if there was a chance to go fishing there, they wouldn't pass it up.
June Hansen is used to having her husband gone half the year, leaving her with daughters Nina, 14 and Mandy, 10. "Sometimes it's hard, but we deal with it. We talk every day on the Tag [satellite] phone."
Viewers of tonight's season finale, which includes the Northwestern's homecoming to Seattle, will see Edgar Hansen's first opportunity to hold his baby son, Logan, born in February during cod-fishing season. He and his wife, Louise, also have a 9-year-old son, Erik, and 5-year-old daughter, Stefanie.
Although Sverre Hansen died of a heart attack in 2001 before any of this TV fuss started, his widow, Snefryd, says he'd be proud of the way his sons work together and how they represent their profession.
For Sig, a key point of satisfaction and gratitude is that no major mishaps have occurred under his leadership, in an industry that can average a death a week in peak seasons.
"I started running the boat when I was 22, and insurance guys had bets on me that I was going to hurt somebody, 'cuz I was so young," he said. "We haven't had that problem, but it's something I don't like to brag about because you could be jinxing yourself." He looks around for wood to knock on, settling for the mahogany rail around the Northwestern's galley table.
With heavy equipment, high seas and fierce weather to contend with, adding a camera crew into the mix on deck has taken some getting used to.
"We have to baby-sit them all the time," said Sig. "They're after the shots, and they'll do anything to get them. There was one guy filming outside the rail and his neck is right there and I said, 'Get the [bleep] out of there!' He takes like three steps and bam! — a pot hit right where he had been standing. He was like ghost white and said, 'I think you just saved my life.' "
Matt Renner, a "Deadliest Catch" producer who spent two months on the Northwestern, has seen the Hansens' working relationship first-hand.
"I think they almost forget they're brothers sometimes," Renner said. "The dynamic really is that Sig is God out there. The captain is always king. But I know that Sig respects Edgar's opinion. He has told me, off camera, that if Edgar doesn't think something is a good idea, he [Sig] won't do it."
The family connection has helped make the Northwestern a fan favorite. In fact, it was the steady stream of e-mails and message-board postings asking for some memento of the Northwestern that prompted the Hansens to set up their Web store last year, paving their way into the underwear business.
"When you get your 15 minutes," said Sig. "You might as well go with it."
Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company