Cornelia Marie is one of the most recognized commercial fishing vessels used in the freezing Alaskan waters, because of its participation in the hit reality television series, “Deadliest Catch,” aired on Discovery Channel. It was under the command of Captain Phil Harris for many years until he died in 2010. Aside from the immense danger F/V Cornelia Marie encountered during the crabbing season, it also underwent a series of misfortunes such as a potential fire accident and a government shutdown due to the pandemic along with being mentioned in lawsuits and scandals. It was nothing short of a miracle that it stayed afloat despite the many incidents that could have sunk the fishing vessel literally and figuratively many times in the past two decades. A recent scandal may change the shipping vessel’s luck, and fans believe that they may never see it again on TV.
Thank you to Deb Rhoades of Dutch Harbor, AK for this shot of us pulling into port. We came in to offload our pots and our crab as our King crab season comes to a close. #CorneliaMarie #DeadliestCatch #DC14
Posted by Deadliest Catch – F/V Cornelia Marie on Monday, October 30, 2017
The Origins of F/V Cornelia Marie
Contrary to what newer “Deadliest Catch” fans believed, the F/V Cornelia Marie wasn’t named after Captain Phil Harris’ first wife, even if the fishing vessel would be forever identified with him. There was a real-life Cornelia Marie, a native Alaskan married to Ralph Collins who was in the commercial fishing business. Sometime in 1989, the couple invested in a $1.5 million-worth 106-foot crabbing boat, which they had built by known shipbuilder Elmo Horton in Bayou La Batre, Alabama. It was powered by twin Mitsubishi engines with 630 horsepower, and could hold 25,800 gallons of fuel. Ralph named it as such to pay tribute to his wife who deserved it as she was the one handling the accounts books of their fishing business.
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His initial plans for the F/V Cornelia Marie were to sail to Seattle by going to the Gulf of Mexico and then passing through the Panama Canal up to the West Coast. However, the US invaded Panama to topple its dictator, Manuel Noriega, and for military reasons, the Panama Canal was closed that one night in December of 1989. It resumed operations the next day, but the fishing vessel was stuck there for a little over a week, and by the time it reached Seattle, the crabbing season was well underway. Ralph became its temporary captain as there wasn’t any time to find a new one, however, staying at sea for long periods of time wasn’t good for their young family, so they looked for someone they could trust at the helm of the boat. They found Phil Harris, and when they offered him a quarter stake of ownership as well as a chance to run a newly-built state-of-the-art boat, he was stupefied. Ralph said that he had seen others easily walk away to better offers, so he made sure that the new captain would be a part owner of the boat to persuade him to stay as long as possible.
Cornelia Marie and Phil Harris
When Captain Phil Harris was hired to command F/V Cornelia Marie at the end of 1990, the owners didn’t realize that he lacked a formal technical engineering education. They only knew that he was knowledgeable about it, and that he had this in-your-face confidence, and Phil was smart enough to hire the most competent engineer he could find to help him run the boat. Most of what he knew was from experience and gut instinct. He was astute enough to learn every single piece of gadget or equipment inside the boat, so it was uncanny that he would know, even before his crew or engineer did, if something was wrong with the ship just by its sound. During the early years, Ralph would sometimes be the skipper of the boat when in halibut season, but when it was time for crab hunting, Phil took the wheel.
Scariest moments in F/V Cornelia Marie
Accidents do happen, but everything is scarier if one is in the middle of a wide ocean. It reminded everyone in the crab fleet of the hazardous aspect of their profession, but Phil would often tell his sons, ‘You can’t take it personally or it will drive you insane.’ However, his son said that one couldn’t help but take it personally, especially if dead bodies were floating around!
Those who hadn’t been onboard a crab fishing vessel in the Bering Seas couldn’t relate to the type of risk that the fishermen faced. Phil knew that his sons should accept it if they wanted to continue in this profession. One time, a deckhand was swept overboard, and it took about five minutes for the rest of the crew to realize that he was gone. However, with the kind of waves that they encountered, no one could find him and all they could see was empty waters around the boat. It was the reason why Captain Phil would constantly observe from the wheelhouse window just to check if everyone was where they were supposed to be.
Confronted gigantic waves head on
Another scary moment Phil had aboard Cornelia Marie was when he was about to hand over the wheelhouse to his relief skipper, and they were confronted by a huge wave. They both saw it but there was nothing they could do. It popped open the glass window, so gallons and gallons of water entered and even knocked down the lights. It wasn’t Phil’s first time to experience it, because he was still in his teens working for his father when a similar thing happened. He had learned not to panic, so he just took on a hammer and boarded up the window with plywood. The fishing vessel had encountered these kinds of waves for many years, and while it was dangerous, it had become a normal occurrence for him. However, Phil never thought they would face a gigantic wave that they estimated to be over 100 feet high. As he knew it was coming, he made sure that it wouldn’t hit the boat on its side, so he collided with it head-on. The crew described it as if they were in a car driving on a steep mountain road going up to the peak but with no road at the other side so it was like falling off a cliff. Cornelia Marie fell loudly and broke the boat’s two solid heavy steel rudders.
Oil leakage in the engine room
During the 11th season of “Deadliest Catch,” Josh Harris took over as co-Captain of F/V Cornelia Marie, along with his father’s long-time buddy, Engineer Casey McManus. One of the things a captain wouldn’t want to hear from the radio was that there was a fire somewhere in the boat, specifically coming from the engine bay. It smelled of smoke and fire down there, but Josh immediately checked it out and saw that there was oil spillage in the room. They all knew it was a dangerous moment and so the fishing stopped so they could all focus on the problem. The oil line blew, and fire could easily flare up if it wasn’t fixed immediately. In these situations, the technical know-how and experience of co-Captain Casey McManus came into play. Josh said, ‘This is the reason why I’m not a full-fledged captain because of situations like these. I don’t even know what’s going on down there.’ Flames were averted, and they didn’t need to make an emergency stop in their crabbing operation to return to town.
Crabbing shut down due to the Covid-19 pandemic
One would think that the crab fishing industry wouldn’t be affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, considering it would involve being in the vast waters of the Bering Sea off Alaska. Each year, the industry would depend on the annual surveys conducted by the government as they advocated sustainable fisheries management in Alaska. These surveys were the cornerstone of how the industry would proceed annually, on what limitations the fishermen would have in their harvest. Unfortunately, due to uncertainties brought about by the pandemic, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in May 2020 reported that they’d canceled certain surveys. As a result, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game made an historic announcement that the red king crab fishery would be closed for the 2021-2022 season – the F/V Cornelia Marie captains then made the necessary adjustments to their fishing activities. The danger just went up many notches, as they hunted for other species in the sea, but they didn’t have any choice since their livelihood was at stake.
Fishing operation expenses soared higher
The operating expenses for Cornelia Marie went up just like most of the other fishing boats in the Bering Sea. It was hard flying in due to flight regulations, plus getting crew members to join was another matter, since most people were afraid of contracting the virus; they needed to pay up to 10 times the usual rate so they could get crew. It was even harder with restrictions on getting in and out of processing plants. To make it easier for Josh Harris, he reached out to Shane, who was Phil Harris’ son from his first relationship. Josh idolized his older brother and was grateful Shane agreed to help them out.
Golden King Crab fishing at a deeper and more dangerous level
With red crab fishing out of the equation, co-Captains Josh and Casey sailed out to hunt for golden king crabs as an alternative source of income, or else file for bankruptcy. To get these species, they needed to use 10 shots of the line instead of the regular two lines that they used for red crabs. What they normally did in red crab fishing was dangerous enough, but golden king crab fishing was harder, as they needed to place the pots out in the water 10 times deeper, such a complicated process that took a long time to do. One golden king crab pot set-up was equal to having to set up seven red crab pots. The whole crew wasn’t ready for it, and they all found it creepy and tiring.
Cornelia Marie and Time Bandit joined forces
If putting down the crab pots in the deep water was extremely exhausting, hauling them up was even more so, and quite tricky as well. As a result, they lost some of them so they needed to do it differently. Since they were all quite new to this type of fishing, the Cornelia Marie crew asked for help from another fishing vessel, the Time Bandit. Its captain, Jonathan Hillstrand, was cool enough to give them a hand. The captains of both vessels came up with a plan, which seemed great on paper, but Josh Harris said, ‘To be quite honest with you, I didn’t quite understand what Jonathan and Casey had going on.’ He said that they had all witnessed crazier things in their boats, but the plan worked out wonderfully without anyone getting hurt or ending up in a body bag. The funny thing was that the production crew of “Deadliest Catch” asked them if they could do it again at a slower pace, but they all said no, as it was just a one-time deal. The co-Captains even told them there was no way they could slow it down – it was as if telling them to jump out of a car at 60 miles per hour.
The scandals and lawsuits surrounding the Harris Brothers
The F/V Cornelia Marie had always been associated with the late Phil Harris, so any controversial news that came out about his sons, the fishing vessel was always mentioned. Also, both his sons, Josh and Jake, worked in the fishing boat after he passed away. The legendary captain might have been wild during his heyday, but he had never been in serious scandals that involved law enforcement.
Jake Harris was in and out of jail
Growing up in a dysfunctional home and without a great role model, Phil’s younger son Jake turned to alcohol and drugs to cope with his problems. Just a week after his father died in 2010, Jake was arrested for driving under the influence. He crashed Phil’s BMW 3 series into another car, after driving erratically and with a suspended license, so spent a night in jail before he was bailed out.
The second time he was arrested was in 2017 for drug possession and theft. He ditched the married woman he was having an affair with after spending the night in a hotel, which wouldn’t have been a problem if he hadn’t taken her car. When the police caught up with him, they found illegal drugs on him such as meth and Xanax. He failed to attend the subsequent hearing, and so the judge issued an arrest warrant.
His run-ins with the law didn’t stop there, as Jake was involved in a police chase after he refused to present his ID when he was confronted by park rangers in a state park. He looked unkempt and out of it that when he bolted out, and they chased after him; apparently, he had heroin with him along with a stolen firearm. He was arrested and sentenced to 18 months imprisonment. He was also required to install an ignition interlock mechanism in whatever car he was to drive after completing his jail sentence. After he was out of prison, it didn’t take long for him to be re-arrested for DUI.
Josh Harris was fired from “Deadliest Catch”
Cornelia Marie’s absence in the latest season of “Deadliest Catch” sparked curiosity among fans, as most of them wanted to see Josh Harris continue the legacy of their father. Some of them thought that the boat’s absence might have something to do with the younger Harris, because he was the one who was always in trouble, so fans were shocked when it was reported that Josh Harris was fired from the reality TV series. Several speculations surfaced, but nobody was prepared for the exact reason why his services were terminated. Apparently, a report came out in September 2022 that one of the favorite captains from “Deadliest Catch” was a pedophile.
The reports said that Josh Harris was embroiled in a sexual abuse case dating back to 1998. At that time he was around 15 years old, and it was the mother of the girl who reported the abuse to the police. The entertainment site, Factz, wrote, ‘Josh Harris digitally, vaginally and orally raped a 4-year-old girl 7/14/1998.’ He was able to commit the nefarious act because the victim was a neighbor, and the daughter of a deckhand. While semen was found on the scene during the investigation, Josh wasn’t arrested immediately since DNA processing wasn’t that advanced yet. It took the investigators quite a while to make a case against him. As a minor, Josh was initially put into house confinement under the watchful eyes of his father and stepmother, and charged with Fourth Degree Assault and Communicating with a Minor for Immoral Purposes. He was imprisoned for nine months, and was ordered to undergo a psychological sexual examination.
Discovery Channel was one of the last people to know about it, but once it came to light, they quietly cut ties with Josh Harris and removed the spin-off series in which he featured back in 2022 from the menu program of its streaming service.
The F/V Cornelia Marie survived all the misfortunes and challenges that came its way in the past, but many people believed that this incident might figuratively bury the fishing vessel at the bottom of the sea, never to resurface.