Book Reviews

Book Review: North by Northwestern: A Seafaring Family on Deadly Alaskan Waters by Sig Hansen and Mark Sundeen

It might surprise some people that I’m a *huge* fan of the reality television series Deadliest Catch. Sure, I know there’s a lot of drama played up for the cameras, and I know a lot is edited for good viewing, but I really admire the men (and some women) who go out there on ships to catch food for the rest of us. I think it’s pretty sobering to realize that people lose their lives for our privilege of eating Alaskan crab. At the same time, it’s obvious they love what they do for various reasons.

Sig Hansen is the Captain and owner of the Northwestern, a fishing vessel that’s been featured on the show since it began. He and his two brothers inherited the ship from their father, who was a Norwegian fisherman who emigrated to Ballard, Washington. The book he’s written is not only a look at his history as the Captain of a crab boat but also back to the history of crab fishing in Alaska and his father’s part in it.

Sig tells a lot of the history, going back to Norway and the reason so many fishermen left there to find a life elsewhere back in the 1950s and 1960s. This part is the story of Sig’s father, Sverre, coming to the U.S. with little money and relying on others who had arrived before him to help him out. That’s not to say he didn’t work hard. Sverre was a very hard worker and took advantage of every chance he found to get himself ahead. He even served in the U.S. Army and was stationed in Germany to help speed up his attempts to become a citizen so he could be a boat Captain, rather than just a deckhand.

The community of Ballard, Washington was very insular at the time, mostly with Norwegian fishermen. When Sverre married a woman from his hometown in Norway and brought her here, it wasn’t a complete culture shock as there were so many other Norwegians in Ballard. She gave birth to three sons, Sig being the oldest.

Framing the history lesson of the Norwegian fisherman is the tale of one of the numerous times Sverre almost didn’t come back from the sea. The pacing of this throughout the book gives it a sense of drama. When he’s discussing the current state of things, Sig is quick to point out just how many things can go wrong on a crab boat. There are numerous tales of close calls experienced by Sig and others.

As a fan of the show, I really enjoyed North by Northwestern: A Seafaring Family on Deadly Alaskan Waters. Sig is a good storyteller and there’s so much here that’s interesting to learn. There are the technical aspects of fishing and crabbing as well as the rules and regulations and what they mean. Learning how things changed from the old “derby days” of crabbing and why so many people died trying to make a quick-grab fortune was very interesting and educational while still being entertaining.

As for the brotherly rivalry, it seems to come naturally in the Hansen family. Sig is quick to point out that his youngest brother Edgar loves to use the cameras to get digs in on his older brother. It makes for a good show. The third brother, Norman, is usually the quiet one who works hard but doesn’t like to be on camera. Fans of the show will learn a lot more about him in this book. Unfortunately, this was written in 2011, well before Sig’s daughter Mandy decided she wanted to be a Captain. In fact, he’s lamenting that he and his brothers will probably be the last generation of crab fishermen in the family. I would love to read how Sig handled all of the decisions and barriers that had to be broken down for Mandy to achieve what she has. I guess that’s another book, though.

If you enjoy books about fishing in the vein of Linda Greenlaw and Sebastian Junger, I think you’d enjoy reading North by Northwestern: A Seafaring Family on Deadly Alaskan Waters. You don’t have to have watched the television show to appreciate all that goes into putting that crab on your plate.

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