Time Bandit: Two Brothers, the Bering Sea, and One of the World’s Deadliest Jobs – Andy & Johnathan Hillstrand with Malcolm MacPherson
I read this book on the plane home from Europe, on my Kindle. Time Bandit is the name of the Hillstrand brothers’ crab fishing vessel, made famous by the Discovery Channel series Deadliest Catch (to which, incidentally, Tony and I are somewhat addicted).
The Hillstrands describe their upbringing in the small coastal town of Homer, Alaska, and their early relationship with the sea. Their father seems to have been a hard man, who started getting drunk with his sons when they were barely in their teens, but instilled a strong sense of survival and independence in his five sons and – despite his failings – shaped the men they became.
Intermingled with the biographical details are descriptions of the crab fishing that the brothers do every winter on the Bering Sea. For viewers of the television show, much of this routine will be familiar, but descriptions of what it costs to run a crab boat, an inside view of the dangers of the job, and revelations of some of the more… salty!… conversation topics that are tossed about on board (unsuitable for a family television show!) are entertaining and interesting for die hard fans. There are also snippets of information about the crabs themselves, their migration patterns, and where the brothers go to search for their catch, that were new to me.
Johnathan Hillstrand is just as wild and funny as he appears on the television show – a modern day pirate, with a wicked sense of humour. His brother Andy seems more introspective and in his downtime from crab fishing runs a horse ranch in Indiana in the United States. Their bond as brothers is extremely strong, and they appear to complement each other well. Johnathan captains the Time Bandit during red king crab season, and Andy takes over for opilios.
Surprisingly, because I’ve developed a bit of a crush on the US Coastguard as a whole, the Hillstrands are not entirely positive about the service they offer. According to Johnathan, far from being obligingly on call and ready to assist in any situation, one has to be practically dead before the coastguard will venture out with assistance. They also complain a bit about the administrative burdens placed on them by the coastguard, and the annoyance (totally understandable) of having a twenty year old who has never been to sea come on board your crab boat and tell you how to run things before you leave port.
The Hillstrands also discuss the old derby fishing system (under which the crab fishing season was open until the fleet had caught a certain amount of crab, and then closed), and their feelings on the newer quota system which pre-allocates a certain tonnage to each vessel and allows them as much time as they require to catch it. While the newer system has undoubtedly made crab fishing on the Bering Sea much safer, to the Hillstrands it has removed an element of excitement, competition and challenge from their work, and they miss this.
The specific crab fishing events described in the book are from Season 3 of Deadliest Catch, and it was interesting to correlate the descriptions of the crew with what was portrayed on television. Life on a crab boat is hard, and the men who work on these vessels – far from being the cuddly teddy bears that Discovery Channel sometimes portrays them as – are also hard, wild, and sometimes dangerous. The Hillstrands keep an AK47 on board their boat, and are ready to assert their authority and enforce discipline with whatever it takes (fists included). The conditions under which the men work are so dangerous that a crew that is not working as a team is looking for an accident.
Above all this book is a hymn to the ocean and the perilous but rewarding life of a fisherman. If you haven’t seen Deadliest Catch it’s unlikely you’ll enjoy it or understand what the fuss is about, but if you have, this is a quick, entertaining read.