Captain Sean Dwyer may be a Seattle guy, but his interests lie at the bottom of the Bering Sea. That’s where the crabs are.
Dwyer, 26, is beginning his 14th crabbing season — he began his odyssey at age 13 —and is well known as a star on the Discovery Channel documentary TV show “Deadliest Catch.” Dwyer is the skipper of the Brenna A, a vessel that plies the seas looking for the best place to catch snow crab, king crab, and other species of crab that make for good eating.
The Brenna A and its sister ship, the Jennifer A, dock in Ketchikan. Dwyer, one of the youngest members of the crabbing fleet, is at home on the sea, even if there have been some harrowing experiences.
“Oh, man, there are too many of them to recall,” he said. “I find my sea legs quickly but you can sometimes go from flat water to 20-ft. waves. “ The thing about the Bering Sea is the water can get really big really fast. There are slow rollers or short, choppy quick-acting waves. That’s when it gets scary for me.You don’t know which way they’re going to go. We’ve, knock-on-wood, never had anybody get hurt. It’s fun sometimes until it’s not.”
“But the sea can go from zero to 100 in a matter of hours. You’re really at the mercy of Mother Nature.”
Dwyer says the most frightening incident for him personally was “getting knocked around the deck” one night. He was on the ship’s rail leaning over to throw a hook into the water to retrieve a crab pot. As he leaned over the rail, he got hit by a rogue wave that washed the contact lenses out of his eyes. He never saw the wave coming, but it made him appreciate the dangers his crew faces every time they go out.
“As captain I’m more afraid when the weather gets bad because you have that responsibility,” he said. “Even with a random wave you feel guilty if someone gets wet or gets hurt. But it’s fun. It’s exciting. It’s exciting but after a day of it it’s like ‘OK, I’m done now.’”
Although the sea can be rough, Dwyer said it can also be unpredictably calm. He said some days the seas are so quiet that snow will stick to the buoys. Still other times the sea is so turbulent that the buoys are under the water’s surface.
Dwyer, who has a degree in Diesel Engine and Heavy Equipment Technology from South Seattle Community College, got his start in crabbing when his father Pat bought his first boat in 1986. From then on, the young Dwyer found a home at sea with his father.
“I looked up to my dad,” Dwyer said of Pat, who died in 2005 of ALS. “He bought his first boat in 1986 and spent some 30 odd years of crabbing. We worked together sometimes well and sometimes not so well. But after working with him, over time I knew I wanted to be a fisherman. It was my mom’s worst nightmare. It’s the last thing she wanted for her boy. She knew what it’s like being in a fishing family and that as a fisherwoman herself you can’t ignore the call of the ocean.”
Dwyer’s mother, Jenny, writes a blog known as the “Crabby Mama” to, as Sean puts it, “vent her frustrations” about the family’s crabbing life and also write about the fact that she is “still very crabby about the disease ALS” while raising money for research. In fact, Dwyer said his mother’s blog caught the attention of a Discovery Channel producer, and the result was a gig on “Deadliest Catch.” Because of Sean Dwyer the family business “crabs” on, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I’m pretty happy with where I’m at,” he said. “But there’s always room for improvement. I’ve had plenty of seasons where I spent more time looking for crab than I should have, and there’s always something you think you should have done better, but I’ve learned more than I would if I had started out with the answer.
“There’s something about why we go out there. Sometimes it’s a hard battle out there, but at the end of the day you’re victorious and you feel good.”
Dwyer likens the search for crabs to the board game, “Battleship,” where opponents blindly guess the whereabouts of each other’s fleets.
“There’s different strategies,” he explained. “Think of the Bering Sea as a grid, and say your opponent likes to be on the edges or in the middle of the grid, just like in ‘Battleship.’ You have to be methodical. You can’t really tell what’s out there until you start throwing off pots. There’s more to it than that, but at the end of the day the crabs are pretty deep down there. You’ve got to set pots and prospect.
“Once you find some crabs on the bottom, you let the pots tell you where they all are. There’s a little bit of strategy and skill in being able to find the crabs quickly. Once you’ve honed in on them you box them out and before you know it you’ve filled the boat.”
But, all strategies aside, Dwyer sometimes has to remind himself, it’s called fishing, not catching, for a reason.
So what about all that yummy crab they do catch? You would think that dinners on the ships are a crab-lover’s delight. But no.
“People always ask me if we eat crab whenever we’re out there, and we don’t,” he said. “I like it once in a while but I’m not a huge fan. Maybe it’s because I’m always around it. But I sure do appreciate what it’s done for us.”
The Dwyer family has teamed up with a local Ketchikan restaurant owner, Doug Andrew, who owns Dwyer's and Annabelle's restaurants in Ketchikan, to donate a part of its share of Dwyer's profits to the ALS foundation.
Two great Ketchikan restaurants for king crab legs are:
(2) Annabelle'sDownload the Voyij app here to skip the line and order your Dwyer's or Annabelle's king crab legs ahead of the lunch rush.