The longest three minutes of Faresa "Face" Iaulualo's life came 16 years ago in the frigid Bering Sea as he watched the F/V Bountiful bob in 30-foot seas three stories above him. One minute the Eagle River crab fisherman was standing on deck, pulling pots. The next he heard the word "rail!" from his captain a warning to hold on, a big wave is coming. Then he flipped like a rag doll into the water.
"I was holding on, but the wave picks you up like a piece of paper," said Iaulualo, one of the stars aboard the F/V Ramblin' Rose in this season's "Deadliest Catch." "I hit that water, and everything I'd done, lied to my mom, lied to my dad, all that bad stuff came back to me."
It's a story Iaulualo tells with an uncanny calm, using no hand gestures or animated voice to enhance the gravity of the situation. He knew he could die "everything is family you're thinking about before anything else," he said of those miserable moments in the water. As the Bountiful turned in the huge waves to retrieve him, Iaulualo concentrated on that. His son was just a year old. His wife, Trenae, was so young.
The only alternative was to survive. As his boots filled with water and began to weight him down, he kicked them off. He tread water, and he waited.
Today, Iaulualo is not just surviving but thriving. From his home overlooking the Eagle River Valley, he and Trenae, 16-year-old son Stefan, and 8-year-old son Brendan, shared what life has become for them since Iaulualo began working aboard the F/V Ramblin' Rose, the newest addition to the "Deadliest Catch" fleet. The job that for so long simply put money in their bank account and food on their table is now the fodder for reality television addicts the world over. Iaulualo's conversations with Trenae over the satellite phone are recorded for viewers to share. If he makes crude jokes, the cameraman is there to document it. His every move his very life is being devoured by millions of viewers at a time. The show's premiere last week attracted a record 10 million viewers, according to the program's Web site. And as the drama of the 2010 season unfolds, those numbers are sure to climb.
"It's so funny because for us, and our friends, nothing is different about fishing, there's no fame," said Trenae, who works full time as a paralegal and single parents while Face is out to sea. Stefan is a sophomore at Eagle River High, and Brendan, the spitting image of his father, is a second-grader at Alpenglow Elementary. "Then someone comes up and wants his autograph, and we think, 'This is so wild.' It's almost funny."
Still, Trenae said she was thrilled when Face ended up on the Ramblin' Rose, his life's work being recorded for the masses.
"It's just a legacy for our children," she said of the program. "Ultimately, he wants to work on the (North) Slope, and when he's done fishing, this will be something for them to have."
The wildly popular "Deadliest Catch" has indeed changed the face of the commercial crab fishery since it first began airing in 2005. In reality-show format, it follows the drama and danger of fishing vessels and their crews as they pursue crab: opilio, red, the much-revered king and now, blue crabs. It's a lucrative but extremely dangerous trade, and the characters it attracts have proven to be a hit among the reality TV set.
Face is a natural for the show. Born and raised in Samoa, he came to Alaska after graduating school, following a brother into cannery work. He met Trenae in Seattle, where she'd come from Texas, and their life together has been a series of adventures ever since.
They chose Eagle River as their home in 1999 and say they have no plans to move.
"We love Eagle River because ...it is more family oriented," Trenae said. "We have no family here and our friends are our family. We have lived so long on the same street and know many of our neighbors.
"It's nice to walk into stores and people say hello and are friendly whether they know you or not," she continued. "I truly believe that if anything happens to a member of the Eagle River community, people will come together and help out."
For Face, being in Alaska keeps him closer to his job, which means less travel time from the family.
"There was nothing for me in Samoa," he said. "Jobs are like $2 an hour. My brother was working in Sand Point and told me to come, so I did."
With hair pulled back in a samurai-style ponytail and tattooed biceps larger than most men's thighs, Face has an easy smile and mellow demeanor. The Ramblin' Rose aboard which he worked the 2010 crab season is a newcomer to the "Deadliest Catch" fleet, nicknamed the "Frat House of the Bering Sea" at the beginning of the season due to its mostly under-30 crew.
Crew members do not get additional pay for being on the program, and must sign a release allowing themselves to be filmed, the Iaulualos said.
Face, at 36, is the oldest fisherman on board. He is likely also the toughest. He's worked as a crab fisherman since 1995, spending weeks, sometimes months, at a time at sea working in conditions that quickly weed out the weak.
"I'm just a calm guy. I'm a happy guy. I smile a lot. The captain's going to do what he's going to do so it doesn't matter if you get upset," he said. "As long as you work hard and stay out of trouble, you will do well."
Still, the work is not without its dangers.
Everyone's heard the statistics by now: The show is not called "Deadliest Catch" for nothing. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2009 ranked commercial fishing as the occupation with the highest fatality rate at 200 per 100,000, more than twice that of loggers, pilots and other high-risk jobs. For Alaska crab fishermen, the numbers rise even higher.
Injuries, too, are prevalent. In 2006, Face lost a finger while fishing for opies aboard the F/V Royal Viking. He was the deck boss, trying to pull a pot overboard while another crewman operated a crane to help lift it.
A 10- to 15-foot tall wave came toward the boat "not big at all," Face said but for some reason he still does not understand, the crane operator let the pot fall back into the water.
He didn't warn Face, whose hand was still on the pot and was crushed beneath the weight of the metal when it hit the boat.
The photos of the injury are gruesome. The smashed pointer finger of his left hand swelled to the size of a bratwurst, oozing blood, then pus. It turned all shades of green, then black.
"The doctor said, 'You have one day to decide,' " Face said. "I didn't want to lose my finger but the infection could have spread."
It took a year to recuperate from the injury, Trenae said, and in the back of her mind she hoped it would be the end of crab fishing for her husband and perhaps a stable job on the North Slope.
She said she tells herself she'll get used to the idea of the person she loves going off to sea and logistically, she has. She's learned to manage when Face is not at home.
But when he's gone during the cold winter nights, and the days stretch into weeks without getting a call from him via satellite phone, she begins to worry.
"That's when I stop sleeping," she said. "After 10 days, that's when it hits."
Still, Trenae said, even after the injury, she said she knew Face wouldn't be able to walk away.
"You can't go out of fishing not on your own terms," she said. "I knew he wouldn't be able to leave."
In the off season, when he's on land, Face works in construction, mostly in roofing, which incidentally is the fifth-highest most fatal occupation, according to labor statistics.
Iaulualo insists he does these jobs simply to provide for the family. It's what he knows, what he is good at, he said.
"I just think, 'how am I going to pay the bills, and help the wife,' " he said.
But when the fishing season approaches, the thrill that he must get from such a high-octane job begins to mount, and it's clear crab fishing is more than just a job.
"I know it's getting close to the fishing season because I'm amped up and I can't sleep," he said.
The seventh season of "Deadliest Catch" premiered this month and continues Tuesdays on the Discovery Channel. The Iaulualo family knows how the season ends but is staying tight-lipped, as required, so viewers can watch the action unfold.
This article published in The Alaska Star on Thursday, April 28, 2011.