A Rookie Skipper Takes On The Bering Sea
The following interview appears in the May issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
BY CHRIS COCOLES
It was a classic mentor/rookie moment for Sean Dwyer.
In the dangerous world of commercial crab fishing off the coast of Alaska, Dwyer’s debut as a fishing vessel skipper couldn’t have been more pressure-packed. The cameras of Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch followed Dwyer’s boat, the Brenna A, during his maiden voyage as a captain. If that wasn’t enough of a welcome-to-crabbing moment, his mentor on this journey was venerable and wonderfully gruff Sig Hansen, who set a 290,000-pound bairdi crab benchmark for the 24-year-old Dwyer to reach during this 12th season of the popular series.
“One of the pieces of advice that Sig gave me is, you’re only as good as your last season,” says Dwyer, who was at even more of a disadvantage given that he didn’t have a last season to measure himself against. “You don’t know what’s going to happen next season. You just can’t predict it. I’d like to think that when I stop learning about crab fishing is when I’ll stop crab fishing.”
But once a fisherman, always a fisherman. It’s the kind of career Dwyer was destined to fulfill from the start. Sean’s dad Pat Dwyer was one of the most respected commercial captains along the Pacific Northwest coast, and Sean tagged along from the beginning, soaking up the lifestyle and dreaming of a similar career path. Fate intervened along the way, but this was meant to be a family business from the start.
Pat Dwyer passed away at age 52 on June 4, 2013 after battling amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease). Before that, Pat’s dream of his son following in his footsteps became reality when he purchased a new fishing vessel, theBrenna A, which became the younger Dwyer’s home-away-from-home on Bering Sea.
Dwyer, who grew up in and still calls the Seattle area his home base, says he spends at least eight months out of the year plying his trade in Alaska. We chatted with Sean about his father, life at sea and just how difficult the crabbing game can be for both the young and young and heart.
Chris Cocoles So what was the experience like for you – captaining your own fishing vessel and having all of it captured on camera?
Sean Dwyer I don’t know if it was a good year, but it was what I wanted to do. It’s definitely a challenge to do it on TV and being a new captain at the same time. But I think I do better under pressure, so why not bring it on all at once? It was a good opportunity, and whatever it entailed I just couldn’t pass it up. The TV thing wasn’t top priority, but it’s pretty fun. And what I really appreciate is that Discovery and Original Productions have done a really good job of keeping it real. It’s been a lot of fun.
CC With your background in this industry, were you preordained to do this too?
SD It’s almost been my passion and dream. I followed my dad around when I was a little kid and I started salmon fishing when I was young, like 12 years old. Once I actually got my feet on the boat and I started working, I knew that’s all I wanted to do – much to my mother’s dismay, initially. Because it was my passion, I’m really fortunate that I was able to share that with my dad because in that, he taught me a lot of valuable information that I used going forward.
CC Can you share one of your early experiences on your dad’s boat?
SD It was during the summer and we used to go out on Jennifer A, which was named after my mom [his current boat, theBrenna A, pays homage to Dwyer’s sister of the same name]. We used to go out on the Jennifer A for two to three weeks at a time. I remember being in Southeast Alaska and there were icebergs and whales; I was just a kid running around in my life jacket watching the big guys work. It was awesome to see the big-boy stuff: the machinery, fish flying around. I think I was probably like 5 or 6 years old. It just stuck with me ever since.
CC What kind of impact did your dad have on you? And it had to be such an emotional time for the family when he was sick and bought the Brenna A.
SD It was a huge impact. He bought that boat after he was diagnosed. It was one of those things where my dad would buy equipment, machinery, 4X4s – whatever – without telling my mom and just show up with them. It got to the point where, once she heard a big truck outside the window, she just hoped it was the garbage man and not my dad showing up with a new piece of equipment. But he kind of did the same thing with the Brenna A. He always wanted to have two boats and he figured no better time than the present. The one thing we all learned through my dad’s dealings with ALS is that time is really valuable. If you want something and have a passion, you should just follow it. And that’s what he did; he just went out and bought another boat.
CC When he passed away was it in your and your family’s mind to be able to carry on his legacy with the new boat?
SD I definitely did. For me, I’ve watched my dad go through that whole thing, and he was always a hands-on guy. And for him to be sitting in his wheelchair for the last four years of his life, not being able to go down to the boat every day and work, it was tough. What he did was teach me to be his hands. I would go down there and take pictures and send them to him midway through the day. And he’d call me and say, “Hey, you need to do this, or, This is in the wrong spot.” We did that for awhile and he taught me a ton that way. And because of the unfortunate later stages of ALS, I think, for me personally, I was relieved when he finally did pass because he just wasn’t happy. He was frustrated but he held his ground until the end. He passed in June and in May I was with one of the boats in the shipyard. And he was still telling me I was spending too much money on paint and I needed to do this and that. Right after that he finally said, “OK, you’re good.” And after that, he passed away.
CC Is there a lot of solace for you in that you’re able to do what he spent his life doing?
SD Definitely. He was proud – he is proud. And it’s pretty cool. Obviously, it’s not a job that everyone can do; and it’s not a job that everyone loves. A lot of people go up there and their heads are not in the game. The thing about it is, you can be the biggest, the strongest and toughest you guy you want. But if your head’s not there, you’re not going to make it. And I think on all those promos – “The Bering Sea will make you or break you” – but what it does is test how mentally strong you are and how bad do you want something. And when he saw that in me, he was proud and he wanted to fuel it because he knew the potential. And it took us a little bit of time after he passed, but we’re at the point now where we’re doing what he wanted – fishing crab – and it’s great.
CC You have an engineering degree. But you’re at heart a fisherman. Tell me how it was to be stuck in classrooms when you could have been on a boat.
SD [Laughs] It was tough. I have a two-year technical degree in diesel engines and heavy equipment technology. What that meant was over the course of the two years, basically half the time we were in the classroom doing the books; and the other half we were out in the shop. South Seattle College was where I (studied) and we mainly worked on trucks, though there were a few marine engines and some pieces of heavy equipment. So it wasn’t the field I wanted to go in, but it all applies. Mechanics are mechanics, and having that mechanical mind is really what benefits you. Whether it’s a car or a boat, you can eventually figure it out if you can troubleshoot. The cool thing about the program was that it was from 7 a.m. to noon, so from noon to 5 p.m. I’d go into the shipyard and go work on boats. I was able to kind of do both at once.
CC How challenging was it to hire a new crew for the
SD It’s tough because everybody has the best intentions. But when you’re out there on the banks there’s nowhere to hide, and like I said, your head has to be in the game. It doesn’t matter how good you talk and how strong you are or how far you can push the pot. If you’re not into it, you’re not into it. What was challenging for me was trying to find guys that, first, were best for the boat and best for us as a team. And I was concerned that I was going to get guys who just wanted to be on TV. But I hired one guy who I’d worked with before on a deck crab fishing; he’s my engineer. And the other guys – with the exception of my greenhorn – the others were just word of mouth or some had left me a card and they said to call if there was ever a spot. So you just start going through the list to see who’s available. I was kind of scrambling but was happy with the way things turned out. We had our ups and downs, but the guys really pulled through at the end. And they came as long a way as I did. It was a learning experience for everybody.
CC Did you have to find your niche as a first-year captain?
SD Definitely. I didn’t go out there and expect to be a Sig Hansen right off the bat. I went out there and I needed to make sure that, for one, we’re safe. And two: to try and figure out and apply all these things that I learned and see if I could catch these crab. I tried to tell the crew that we’re all after the same goal; you gotta work together, and it did take some time for all those guys to find their roles. And once that was established and we knew who was where, things really flowed. It was cool to see that process, because it’s not every day that you just get to
CC You worked toward Sig’s quota demands. Has he been a mentor for you on the journey so far?
SD He’s given me a lot of really useful information. When we started this thing we really didn’t know each other; I knew of him from the show and outside the show in the industry. We weren’t friends or anything and it was business first. But he gave me some really good pointers, and I think the most important one was just to be honest with the whole TV thing. This show is such that it’s not scripted; you can’t make it up. You can’t take a second to think about what you’re going to say. Even the camera people only get one shot to film these things. But you have to be honest with yourself. When you mess up, you mess up. That was the biggest piece of advice that he gave me and it holds true. To keep it real you make the show what it is:
CC How much did Sig’s health scare – his heart attack – provide a wakeup call for you and your colleagues? He is the epitome of a tough customer, but it reflects what a challenge this life can be.
SD It’s hard on everything – the boat, the crew and your body, and it’s hard on your relationships back home. What we go through to get that crab off the ocean floor and onto the table is tough. Sig and I were the only two boats left still fishing when he had his heart attack. I was a little bit scared for him because it is a stressful job and you never know what’s going to happen; you don’t know how you’re going to react with everything. Unfortunately, sometimes that takes a toll on your body.ASJ
Editor’s note: You can keep track of Sean Dwyer on Twitter (@captseandwyer) and Facebook (facebook.com/seandwyerbrennaa