How to escape a society that is all at sea

Deadliest Catch celebrates fishing, smoking and bashing crabs over today's dry-land health-and-safety culture.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Culture

One of the surprise successes of 2005 was the documentary series Deadliest Catch, a programme charting the travails of crews of crab fishermen in the Bering Sea. Who would have thought such unlikely fare would have become such a worldwide phenomenon, being nominated for four primetime Emmy Awards this year? And now its success is being emulated by a seeming proliferation of programmes that centre around fish and the craggy fellows that hunt them.

The premise of Deadliest Catch, now into its third series, was simple, and it was genius. A camera crew followed a fleet of trawlers around the North Atlantic in not only the world’s most dangerous profession – commercial fishing – but in what is the most perilous variety of commercial fishing: catching crabs. It features crabby (pardon the pun) boat pilots whose parched voices suggest they either smoke 80 Marlboro a day or eat broken glass for breakfast, and men on the deck who come from otherwise prosaic backgrounds – being farmers in Idaho, or truckers from Montana – who have taken a few weeks out of the year to make an enormous amount of money, or be killed. At best, they can make $800 an hour each, at worst become the one in five who never returns, having been swept overboard or having succumbed to hypothermia.

No wonder this year has seen the Discovery Channel follow up the programme with Deadliest Catch: Lobstermen (which I caught for the first time the other night). This is basically the same as Deadliest Catch, except set in the North Atlantic, in which craggy men with parched voices, subjected to the most terrible conditions, are merely catching a different form of crustacean and in a different ocean.

Not content with this, Discovery this autumn also broadcast Tuna Wars, set in the South Australian Ocean, which, as Discovery elucidated, is ‘one of the most remote and dangerous places on Earth’. The two-part series chronicles the adventures of the blue-fin tuna fishermen as they take on the unique challenge of spending two intense and dangerous months rounding up, caging and dragging home millions of dollars worth of live southern bluefin tuna.

Such a profusion of fishing programmes may seem queer. To a landlubbing British audience, I always imagined we thought of commercial fishing as a rather prosaic job: one thinks of Grimsby, moaning about EU quotas, ‘wars’ with Iceland over cod, the soporific effect of the Shipping Forecast. And I suppose the public image of fishers as men never recovered from so many of their members being mates of Jesus: nice, well-meaning, but a bit boring.

From the tales of Mutiny on the Bounty and Moby Dick, to the success of the author Patrick O’Brian and that of the Pirates of the Caribbean films, the sea has always had a romantic allure. But the objects of fascination have usually been obviously dramatic: sharks (see Jaws), whales (see Jonah), pirates, the forlorn submarine crewmen as portrayed in Das Boot, or the terrible fate of the crew of the USS Indianapolis, as so memorably recounted by Robert Shaw’s character in Jaws.

But this is the first time that fishermen have caught the imagination and to have been perceived as heroes, rather than, as the 1929 documentary Drifters did, portraying North Sea herring fishers in a rather matter-of fact manner. My theory is that the allure of the sea derives from the allure of escape, and programmes about dangerous fishing journeys represent a desire to escape from Western society, to observe an environment where many of the malignant norms now accepted in our culture are inverted. This is why even fishermen are now heroes.

These deadly television shows portray environments in which risk and courage are the norm, not health and safety. The bravery of the crew members is something to behold, as was seen on the Deadliest Catch on Wednesday night, when the crewmen of the Northwestern, stuck in pack ice, thought it a great laugh to jump off the ship and not only walk around on the floating objects but also jump on them to see if they could break them. On the same episode this week, a member of a different vessel ate a cod’s heart – as it was still beating. These people make the Jackass team look like softies and amateurs.

‘Oh’, you may say, ‘but these people’s fearlessness derives only from their desire to make a huge bundle of cash’. But what’s wrong with that? We all want to make money, and the more the better; it is only rich people who bemoan our culture of ‘greed’ or ‘Mammon’. Yes, having loads of money may not make you happy, but having no money certainly doesn’t, as you will understand if you ask any person who has been penniless. And I certainly prefer the sight of these fishermen actually earning their way to a pot full of gold to the currently increasing perception in Britain today that you can gamble your way to riches.

I love these programmes for the way the fishermen have cigarettes dangling out of the corner of their mouths as they harvest and sort the crab, a beautiful affront to our culture of paranoid public sanitation (as I live in a communal flat, I can’t even smoke in my own home!); for the benign competition between the different ships, in which they all try to out-do each other, but keep in touch by radio, joshing with each other. Also, the celebration of masculinity within the crews, which involves bonding, making sure your co-worker is safe, but also ripping the piss out of him when times are quiet.

It is sad, in a way, that some of the mores that made Western society so great have become reduced to the seas, and then only appear on our television screens. But it is also good to be reminded of them.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV reviewer. Visit his blog here.

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