Captain Keith Colburn from the Discovery Channel’s popular series Deadliest Catch knows a thing or two about taking risks. At the age of 22, he and a friend flew to Alaska on a whim with nothing but a backpack, a tent, and $50.
“We bought a one-way ticket with no friends, no relatives, and no contacts. And it was 1985, so there was no Internet,” Colburn says. “I wrote the Chamber of Commerce to find possible jobs, and we just started walking up and down the dock looking for work.”
He ended up becoming a fisherman and falling in love with it despite the hard labor and long hours. He quickly learned the importance of not taking any risks when you’re out on the water.
Now, 30 years later, Colburn is the captain of his own ship, the star of a reality television show, and an advocate for water safety. He teamed up with Coleman and Stearns flotation devices to share his tips for safety and avoiding risks on the water.
Let’s talk about safety. Can you elaborate on why safety is so important to you?
“I’ve done a lot of stuff over the last seven or eight years where I’ve met and been around people that have lost somebody in the water, so I do my best to become a spokesperson for safety on the water. But it’s not just safety on the water; it’s safety in general. I think a lot of people don’t realize and take for granted that if you’re not prepared for anything from going backpacking, to hiking, to getting in a canoe, it can go from the best day to the worst day really fast. It’s really simple stuff.”
What do you do on your boat to ensure safety?
“On the boat, we drill. We train in similar fashion to what the military does—everything from man-overboard, to abandon ship, to damage control. We train all the time, and they don’t show it on the television show because I guess it’s not dramatic enough for them, but crab fishing was the most dangerous job on the planet for about 30 years. It’s gotten better in the last decade because of training. The guys are professionals and are taking safety more seriously. You can’t fish if you don’t have a crew. You can’t put crab on the boat and head back into town if somebody is injured. And the last thing you ever want to do is lose somebody. I’ve been fortunate enough throughout my career where that hasn’t happened to me.”
What are some key items that you need for safety on a boat?
“You definitely need a life jacket. I was just up in Cordova, Alaska, and a guy took his son out to go fishing. The weather got bad, and they flipped. The boy wasn’t wearing a life jacket, and the dad managed to get the boy close enough to shore where the boy could manage to get to shore by himself, but by then, the dad was exhausted, and he’s no longer with us. He’s no longer with us because he wasn’t wearing a life jacket—the simplest form of on-the-water safety.
That’s why I think it’s important that people wear their life jackets and not just know where they are. It’s a requirement to have life jackets on boats, but a lot of people take them for granted and don’t even know where they are stored, let alone how to put them on really quickly. With today’s technology, the life jackets are comfortable, they don’t get in the way, you can fish in them, and you can paddleboard in them. They make different models of jackets for almost anything out there so that you have that added level of confidence and comfort while you are out on the water. The number one thing is people need to take wearing and having life jackets seriously.”
What else can you do to stay safe?
“I always make sure to let someone know our general plan: where we’re going, what we’re doing, and what time we plan on returning so that if that time comes and we don’t return, they know to make a phone call and start looking for us. But just in general, we have a wealth of safety equipment. I think anyone using a boat for recreational purposes should at least have a life jacket, a fire extinguisher, basic first aid kit, and communication. Don’t always trust your cell phone to have service. It helps if you have a little VHF radio to make emergency calls. And make sure more than one person knows how to use the radio and navigational equipment, as well as how to drive the boat.”
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received on safety?
“The main thing my mentor always told me was just to make sure to get everyone home safe. He never said, ‘Go kill it and catch lots of crab.’ He just said, ‘Get home safe.’ If you are thinking effectively instead of winging it, the chances of you actually getting into some sort of accident are far less likely to happen. Pay attention to your surroundings, pay attention to the weather, and pay attention to the time of day. These are really simple things that I think more times than not get taken for granted when the accident or tragedy occurs.”
Captain of your own boat and star of a hit TV show—could you have ever imagined this for yourself?
“I started fishing my first year, and for whatever reason, I committed myself to working and focused on becoming a fisherman at first. I didn’t know that I was going to become a captain, but after about five years, I set my sights on trying to run a boat. When I became a captain after 10 to 15 years, I bought the boat that I had been running. I just worked my way up from the bilge to the bridge, and now I own and operate one of the nicest crab boats in Alaska.”
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