Rip Carlton began fishing crab in Alaska about 46 years ago, starting out as a deckhand, and working his way up to captain. When he’s not helming his boat, the Patricia Lee, he lives with his wife in Bend. The Discovery Channel has asked him a number of times to appear in its show “Deadliest Catch.” After many years, Carlton says, his son convinced him to say yes. One of the episodes he’s featured in airs tonight. He joins us to tell us more about the dangers of deep-sea crab fishing and what filming the show was like.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: Forty-six years ago, Rip Carlton of Bend, Oregon, went to Alaska for the first time in search of adventure and a paycheck as a commercial fisherman. It was the beginning of a long career. Carlton has worked his way up the ladder and for 35 years he’s captained his own boats. Now Captain Rip is being featured on the latest season of the Discovery Channel show Deadliest Catch at 8:00 PM. And Rip Carlton joins me now. It’s good to have you on Think Out Loud.
Rip Carlton: Good afternoon, good afternoon to you.
Miller: You were 18 years old when you first went to Alaska. What was that first trip like?
Carlton: It was eye-opening, that’s for sure. I just went up to try to earn some money to go race cars in Europe like every 18-year old, I mean why not? And when I got up there my eyes were open wide, I knew nothing about fishing, absolutely nothing. And I just remember being on the deck of a boat working for the processor unloading it. And I asked the guys about fishing and they go, oh yeah we can make a lot of money. And I’m like, oh yeah, really? They go yeah, but it’s really hard and it’s really dangerous and the light went off in my head and I said, oh that sounds perfect.
Miller: For them that was a warning, for you that was enticing.
Carlton: That was the perfect job application for me, dangerous and hard, perfect.
Miller: And it didn’t hurt that in a short number of months. You can make a lot of money for an 18 year old.
Carlton: No, you know, I am so fortunate. I was in on the very beginning of the King Crab boom in 1977 through 82. It was a huge boom and I was right there in the middle of it and it was so exciting and so much fun.
Miller: Did you actually go out on a boat that first year?
Carlton: I did. It took about four months to get hired on and I was befriended by some Norwegians. It was almost all Norwegians back then. As a worker on their boat, unloading their crab, they could see I wanted to impress them with my work ethic and I did and they told me they heard a job might be opening up on another boat. So I went over and I got hired about 6:00 AM when the guys woke up with a hangover and nobody wanted to go fishing and I was standing there.
Miller: What was it like to actually be out there, not moving boxes around, but actually doing the work on the boat?
Carlton: Well, at first it was kind of like, what the heck is this? It really took me three or four trips before I really got that understanding and the hang of what was going on. But really the clincher for me at first was when I got my first paycheck; I went, all right, I got it.
Miller: Did you actually then take that money and go race cars in Europe as per your original plan?
Carlton: No, I bought a nice Porsche and I drove that for a couple of years and then I did buy race cars and I raced up and down the West Coast for about eight years trying to become a professional driver and never quite got there. But I gave it a good effort.
Miller: So the adrenaline need is baked in there?
Carlton: Some people tell me that, yeah.
Miller: Was your plan always to move up and become a captain of a boat?
Carlton: No, no. I thought I was going to be a professional race car driver for sure. I was convinced and once I decided that that wasn’t the route I was going to go, I decided that I was going to try to become a captain. And I do tell the funny story that after I had been on the boat for a few trips, I was looking around, I knew what was going on and the guy was running hydraulics over in the corner– because I was filling bait cans and sorting crab–but the guy running the crane over in the corner, I’m going, oh yeah, that’s that’s the job you want. And then I looked around a little more and I go, no, that’s not the job. You want to be the engineer because he doesn’t have to be out of the deck all the time. That’s it! And then I look up in the wheelhouse and you see the captain, you got, no, that’s the guy. But the funny part is, I got down to Seattle. When you work on the boat in the shipyard, I see this guy drive up in this nice car, walk around the boat for 20 minutes and leave and I say, who’s that? They go, oh yeah, that’s the owner. I go, that’s the guy.
Miller: You’ve just described capitalism in a nutshell. It’s best to be the owner in this system. Did you watch the Deadliest Catch over the last 17 seasons, a very popular TV show all about your niche of a job?
Carlton: Well, my son who’s 23 right now used to love to watch it and I would watch it. It’s been nothing but great for crab fishing and showing people how difficult it is to catch these crabs. So my son and I would watch it and he even asked me all the questions and then he came up fishing with me and he did it for a while too. So yeah, I watched it a lot.
Miller: And is it fair to say that most of the people who have been featured over the years because it seems like a small world, very small?
Carlton: Yeah, I know all these guys.
Miller: What has it been like to see a television portrayal of a world you know really well yourself?
Carlton: That’s a good question. It’s been interesting. Like I said, they do a really good job of showing just how difficult of a job it is because it’s really hard. I love it and I never wanted to do anything else once I got going, but they do a pretty good job of showing how hard it is. There might be a few added twists of spice in there, but it’s a pretty accurate description or portrayal of what we do.
Miller: My understanding is that the show’s producers asked you numerous times over the years to be on the show and you always declined. What made you finally say yes?
Carlton: We’re pretty busy. We have a pretty successful operation. We have a lot of crab to catch, like a lot. We don’t have time to do much screwing around. That’s what we would call it when they had all the boats that were on the show would have to be in town at a certain time and we’re just in and out of town cranking out trips. But what changed my mind is actually the gentleman, Arom Starr, that’s running the show now (the executive producer) had talked to me and I kind of told him my hesitation and he said, well, I think we can work around that. You’ve got so much crab to catch, we’ll work with you. But the kicker was my son, Derek, he was telling me they were trying to get me to do the show. And he goes, dad, you have to do it. And I go, what do you mean? And he goes, dad, you’re so much a better fisherman than those guys. And you are so funny. And I go, well, yeah, maybe. And then he goes, and dad, in 20 years when you’re gone, I’ll be able to stick that little memory stick in the computer and show my kids and go, that’s my dad. And that was the kicker. I went, all right, I get it, I’ll do it.
Miller: Were you right though, that having a camera crew around got in the way of your desire to catch a ton of crab?
Carlton: Well, I think at the very beginning maybe everybody was a little bit wary of having a crew on board. But like I said, these guys are pros and especially the guy we had on board, two great producers and two great cameramen and these guys are pros and after a couple of trips, they were just part of the crew, part of the fishing show. So it really it’s no big deal.
Miller: I have to ask you about a tragedy that is featured briefly in the first episode of this season. We find out that a 30-year old fisherman named Todd Kochutin died last year on your fishing vessel, Patricia Lee. You say in that episode that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time on a really icy cold night. How did you handle his death as the captain of the boat?
Carlton: Well, that’s a really tough question. I think everybody can put themselves in my shoes and the shoes of the crew members because everybody’s had a family member die or somebody they really loved die. You can’t put into words what’s going through your brain; you can’t comprehend it. And Todd was one of my favorite guys. He worked with us for a while, five years, he was part of our family. And, if I were to pass away out fishing for whatever reason, I want the guys to keep going because I’m a fisherman and I get it and we’ve all lost a lot of people that we love up fishing, it’s just the nature of the business up there. No matter what you try to do, Mother Nature will throw you a curveball and we got one and we did some soul searching and we knew that Todd would have wanted us to keep going and that’s what we did.
Miller: Has it been hard though to go back out? For example to go back out the next season, this past season?
Carlton: Oh yeah, that’s something that you’ll never ever, ever forget and we just try to do the best we can for him and we talk about them all the time and just try to keep his spirit alive.
Miller: Can you give us a sense for what happened on your boat this season? I imagine that producers of the show don’t want you giving away spoilers because a lot of it hasn’t aired yet, but what were they able to capture when they finally got the cameras and they seemingly always wanted onto your boat?
Carlton: Well, that’s another tough one because I’ve been doing this for 35 years and I think my safety record has been second to none, especially because we pull so much more gear than anybody else out in Alaska. We literally pulled 10 times as many pots as anyone. So the longer you do something, the odds of something happening increase. So let’s just say that anybody that watches the show tonight is going to be amazed. I’m even amazed– and I’ve been doing this my whole life– at what the US Coast Guard can do. It literally makes the hair stand up on my arms. Like it is right now just thinking about it. So it’s an amazing show tonight. I got to tell you that.
Miller: You’ve been doing this as a captain for 35 years. But as somebody on a boat for longer than that, what keeps you going?
Carlton: I absolutely love it. It’s a high adrenaline environment and you work with some of the greatest guys you’ll ever meet. And once you work with a guy on the deck of a crab boat or have somebody work with or for you, it’s a bond like a brother, you can see him 10 years later and you have that bond. It’s an extremely skillful job. You’ve got to be very highly skilled to fish long lines in the Aleutian Islands like we do. So, we have the best of the best crew members, we haul more gear than anybody. We catch more crab than anybody. And I don’t say that to say we’re the greatest because we’re not and I’m definitely not the greatest fisherman. It’s just that we got a great team and I’ve always been able to get good deckhands and I just, I love it. It’s like you’re the coach of a football team that everybody is going the same direction. It’s hard to replicate down here in the real world.
Miller: So there was going to be a 36th season for you?
Carlton: (laughter) Well, let’s just say my wife tells me I light up like a Christmas tree when I’m getting ready to go fishing because I get so excited because I love it. I love what I do. I love the people I work with and it’s just been the greatest life I could have ever imagined and I never could have imagined.
Miller: Rip Carlton, thanks very much.
Carlton: You’re very welcome. Nice to speak with you.
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