Cast off 

Northwestern floats for television fans only

Die-hard fans of the Discovery Channel's hugely popular documentary series "Deadliest Catch" (now airing its sixth season) will no doubt eat up Sig Hansen's new memoir, North By Northwestern. In it, the captain of the now-famous crab-fishing vessel (the titular Northwestern) tells the story of his and his brothers' upbringing in the largely Scandanavian neighborhood of Ballard in the northwestern part of Seattle (Sig and his brothers spoke fluent Norwegian at home, prompting Sig's first-grade teacher to send home a note that read: "TEACH HIM ENGLISH. STOP SPEAKING NORWEGIAN.")

Some fans will respect Sig's no nonsense approach to life: "As far as I could see, the only worthwhile thing about high school was auto shop," and others will be attuned to his occasional sentimental offerings, as when he relates the story of telling his mother he loved her for the first time. He admits, "When I was younger, the whole idea of saying you loved someone was foreign to me." When a buddy shamed a then-18-year-old Sig into telling his mother he loved her on the phone, Sig acquiesced, quietly whispering, "Okay, love you, Mom." Mom was noticeably touched: "I could hear her choke. 'Ja, ja,' she said, nervously, in her Norwegian accent. She'd never heard that from me. 'Love you, too.' Click."

Hansen's memoir, co-written by Missoula-based outdoor writer Mark Sundeen, not only tells the story of how Sig and his two younger brothers, Norman and Edgar (deckhand and engineer, respectively, on the Northwestern), were raised to live up to their father's intimidating command of the Alaskan waters where he taught his sons to fish ("Deadliest Catch" regularly reminds its viewers that Alaskan crab-fishing is the most dangerous occupation in the country), it is also the story of that father himself, Sverre Hansen. As Sig himself points out, "The media portrays my brothers and me and the other captains and crew [on 'Deadliest Catch'] as the ultimate tough guys. To which I say: You ain't seen nothing. You should have seen my granddad, my Uncle Karl, and all the men who came over from Norway or ventured north from Seattle to pioneer the crab industry long before cable television, GPS, satellite phones and computer depth finders and plotters. Hell, they were doing it in wooden boats."

click to enlarge North By Northwestern - Sig Hansen and Mark Sundeen - hardcover, Thomas Dunne Books - 336 pages, $25.99
  • North By NorthwesternSig Hansen and Mark Sundeenhardcover, Thomas Dunne Books336 pages, $25.99

As best he can, Sig does let us "see" Sverre, who died from a heart attack in 2001. He interlaces his own story with that of the earlier generation's emigration from Norway, specifically the island of Karmoy (Sig's family still visits Karmoy at least once a year). In tributary detail, Sig discusses his father as both a fisherman and a parent. A third-generation deep-sea fisherman, Sverre and his own brother Karl were among the first to fish the dangerous waters of Alaska's Bering Sea. It was Sig's father who built the Northwestern in 1977, the same boat Sig took over as captain in 1990, at the ripe old age of 24.

The Hansen brothers knock on wood each time they say the Northwestern has had no fatalities, permanent injuries or major mishaps—under their father's tenure or theirs. Sverre Hansen wasn't as fortunate with his earlier boat, the wooden Foremost, which burned and sank in the Bering Sea in 1969, leaving Hansen and his three-man crew bobbing in stormy waters for hours until another fishing boat came to their aid. Each chapter of the memoir opens with an installment in the story of the Foremost's harrowing end, soberly reminding Sig's fans that the fishermen on "Deadliest Catch" are merely inheritors of a truly deadly legacy. Hansen admits he doesn't know what his father would make of the modern-day Northwestern franchise: the brothers sell T-shirts, camisoles and, yes, ladies' thongs with the ship's emblem on them.

Segments describing the Foremost's story are the most gripping of the entire memoir. By contrast, the sections that make up the majority of the memoir wherein Hansen tells his own story and attempts to weave it in with the history of Norwegian sailing in general, are lacking by comparison. Truth be told, the sea captain just ain't much of a storyteller (let the hate mail commence).

The book's narration ultimately echoes some older relative who begins telling a story, loses his direction somewhere in the middle, but keeps talking anyway. While there's no doubt Hansen knows more about the legacy of Norwegian fishing traditions than most, his summary of that history reminds me a little of that history teacher I once had who, years later, admitted he was only a chapter ahead of the class the whole semester. In one instance, Sig informs us that the "Hansens are not the first Norwegians to set sail in search of adventure and riches."

For some, the shortcomings in storytelling won't matter. The book, after all, is already a bestseller, and it does possess charm and a genuine voice. If anything, North by Northwestern is a fine book for those who are already fans of "Deadliest Catch." Nothing wrong with that but, next time, I'm going to reach for something a little less franchise-oriented and a little more story-worthy.

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