New Kid on the Dock

"Deadliest Catch’s" Newest, Wildest Captain is Steel-City Tough.

Wild Bill Wichrowski has one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. The Irwin-born sea captain, 52, is the newest cast member on Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Catch,” the popular documentary series that chronicles the adventures of Alaska’s king-crab fishermen.

Commercial fishing is the most dangerous job in the U.S., according to a 2008 Bureau of Labor Statistics report, and crabbing is especially treacherous. The giant fishing vessels are often ice-crusted and rocked by three-story waves in the frigid Bering Sea offshore from Alaska. One-ton crates, or “pots” in crabbing lingo, dangle from ropes above the crew, and captains routinely go 72 hours without sleep in order to keep up with competing boats. Wild Bill calls it “NASCAR at nine nauts.”

But as a senior at Norwin High School in 1975, Wichrowski had plans for business school and the white-collar world. That is, until he earned his nickname on homecoming night when he took his father’s brand-new Buick Electra out for a joy ride through Union Cemetery. “Thirteen overturned gravestones and an oak tree later, I had bent the car into a banana,” Wichrowski says. The cops turned the young rebel over to his father, a no-nonsense ex-Marine and a member of the town’s juvenile-corrections board. “Life at home got uncomfortable real quick, and I joined the Navy to get out of town.”

At sea, he discovered peace and a love for mechanical engineering. When his military service ended, Wichrowski headed to what he calls “the last frontier” of Alaska, where he took a job in the swaying bowels of a crab-processing ship working on machinery. After countless six-month expeditions with little contact with the outside world, he worked his way up the ladder of the crabbing meritocracy, ultimately becoming a captain with a reputation for hiring known troublemakers and shaping them into great deckhands. This season on “Deadliest Catch,” Wild Bill takes on his greenest crew member yet—his 25-year-old son, Zach. At the start of the season, when Wild Bill catches his son slacking off on deck, he radios down from the captain’s cabin, “Zach, you better not be the one slowing this operation down or I’m gonna stick a flip-flop in your (expletive).”

“I’m a sarcastic, tough-love kind of guy,” the captain explains. “I got that trait from my parents while growing up in Pittsburgh.”

Recently, when Wichrowski called home for the first time after six months at sea, his 84-year-old mother answered the phone on the last ring. “Billy, don’t you know the Penguins are on?” she grumbled. “Call back later.” She’s a huge fan of the show, which you can catch on Tuesdays at 9 p.m.

Categories: Arts & Entertainment, From the Magazine