Over-the-top narration aside, ‘Cold Water Cowboys’ captures the gritty reality of the fishery

Dave Bartlett
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I really like the phrase “creative nonfiction.”
Those words best describe a reality TV show shot on the waters off the island of Newfoundland, which premiered on Discovery Tuesday night.

Conway Caines, right, and the rest of the Seadoo crew are one of six fishing boats from Newfoundland and Labrador featured on the reality television series, “Cold Water Cowboys.”
— Submitted photo

“Cold Water Cowboys” follows six fishing crews as they brave the hostile North Atlantic hunting whatever aquatic species is on the go; catch enough to pay the bills, the crew and maintenance; battle the elements and environment and get back to shore safely.

In the pilot episode, which I watched last week, three of the crews take to the water.

Richard Gillett — out of Twillingate — is captain of the Midnight Shadow and Paul Tiller captains the Justin & Jason II out of Valleyfield. Both are catching crab.

Meanwhile, on the west coast, Conway and Rick Caines are after caplin aboard the Seadoo, out of Cow Head.

All three have dramatic voyages during the first hour-long episode, including: navigating growlers in an icefield; a break to a stabilizer; an injured crew member; finding a shark in their nets or realizing the crabs in the hold is dying because the ice used to keep them alive is melting faster than expected.

The journalist in me wanted to peel back some of the TV magic and ask questions, such as: how many days did the crew spend on the water gathering these dramatic events? Maybe the camera guys lucked out. Or maybe working on the water is a daily battle with one setback after another.

Basically, I’m looking at where the creative begins and the nonfiction ends.

But the TV fan in me — and remember, I tend to stick to fiction — wants to just sit back and enjoy the action, the thrill-seeking characters and the salty dialogue.

There’s no question, “Cold Water Cowboys” is entertaining, and captures some of the dangers and triumphs of going to sea.

The captains are all proud of what they do, and they are not shy to express themselves when something goes wrong, nor cheer when they land a hold-full of species that is as good as money in the bank.

If you’re a fan of these types of docudramas, I recommend it. But a little part of me couldn’t stop thinking some people in this province who watched last’s night premiere were yelling at the screen about an inaccuracy or something perceived as a subtle dig at the province’s culture.

Maybe they were angry that the captains’ comments are subtitled, for example.

I know I cringed as one crewmember hung over the side of a boat, without a life jacket on, while trying to hook a broken piece of gear. Meanwhile, the captain shakes his head and mutters something about safety.

When Discovery sent me access to the advanced screener of the show, it also offered up Gillett for a chat.

I was curious how he became involved in the production — if he was recruited by the producers, or if he applied to be on the show.

“I was surprised at how it happened.” he told me. “We were at the herring in the fall of 2012, and I got a phone call. I was aboard the boat at the time.”

On the other end was Tyson Hepburn, one of the guys who came up with the idea for “Cold Water Cowboys.”

When the boat docked, said Gillett, Hepburn jumped on board and spent a week and a half with the crew shooting footage to show potential producers.

After selling the idea to Discovery, the camera crew came back to shoot the bulk of the show before blending it all together and polishing it up.

He said it took a bit of time for his crew to adjust to the cameras, extra gear and people on board, but “It was only a short time before they become one of us,” said Gillett.

“Seeing the finished product, I’m very, very pleased with it,” he added.

When asked about all the perils faced by the three crews in the first episode, Gillett said fishing crews know, every time they go out, something could go wrong.

“When you’re dealing with high winds, you’re dealing with ice, you’re dealing with mechanical gear on deck and everything … it’s just a high risk fishery we’re in,” he said.

Gillett said fishing crews try to do everything they can to keep their boats maintained and to be prepared for adverse conditions, but  too many factors are uncontrollable when fishing out to sea.

“Somebody could fall over in the blink of an eye and, you know how cold our water is, you only got minutes to get them out.”

 “Cold Water Cowboys” airs in 10 parts on Tuesdays on Discovery at 11:30 p.m. island time.

Gillett is hoping the show does well and is picked up for a second season.


Did you watch “Cold Water Cowboys”? What did you think of the program?

Send correspondence to Dave Bartlett at talkingtelevision@gmail.com.

Geographic location: Cold Water, North Atlantic, Twillingate Valleyfield

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Recent comments

  • CL
    July 07, 2014 - 01:35

    Disappointing article. I just watched an episode and couldn't make it 5 minutes without getting irritated with the narrator. I googled him and got this article which has Over-the-Top narration as part of its title. Only thing, there's no mention of it anywhere in the article. Curious reporting.

  • David Young
    March 26, 2014 - 10:10

    Great show. Seems real to me. I have fished all of my working life too.(34 yrs). Hope the show does not become over produced and turn phoney like most of the American real life shows do. Get a different voice over man. Maybe someone with a slight Newfie accent. All the best -- DY

  • Ol' Daver
    March 01, 2014 - 22:52

    This is one if the better shows I've seen recently. Solid cast and well shot. The only problem is that the voice over man kills the show. Worst voice man in the business I my opinion. You should never underestimate the importance if having a good voice man, and this guy ain't it.

  • Barry Vineham
    February 27, 2014 - 15:32

    Great show Richard, I hope many seasons to come and your catches are Great!

  • MMM
    February 26, 2014 - 21:38

    I am a professional, university educated Newfoundlander and loved every moment of the first show. Can't wait for the next. Enjoyed the humour we are known for, and shook my head at the perils experienced while at sea. Hats off to all of them!

  • Robert
    February 26, 2014 - 21:34

    Of course not everyday is life and death but the shadow is always in your mind! Many things can go wrong and the North Atlantic does not give back prisoners! The best example of all this was the hug from the captain's daughter.......it can be the last and we know it all too well! We can only hope that those not from here will get a foggy glimpse of why this foolish place never gets out of our blood.

  • J Gaudon
    February 26, 2014 - 18:19

    Loved the show. Enjoyed the accents and the pride if the men. Great for Newfoundland.

  • Gary Carey
    February 26, 2014 - 18:01

    i am from nfld and i know how dangerous the north atlantic can be at times,i love seeing the coast line and the boats and the icebergs and such ive been living in alberta for over 30years and i never mind seeing pictures of home and the different places,and dialects.i am from the southern shore and the different dialects brings me home for sure.god bless all who ply the waters off newfoundland.its a hard place to make a living.

  • Not so Quiet Observer
    February 26, 2014 - 17:46

    Alex, you should probably change your name to Richard and abbreviate it to Dick. As an expatriate Newfoundlander, I do not relate well to the term Newfie.

  • Kevin Power
    February 26, 2014 - 17:31

    I personally enjoyed the show. I liked the humour. While I have never been a commercial fisherman, I know enough people who have spent their life on the sea and I think it is a fair enactment of real life. For non-professional actors, I think they were realistic and their own personalities showed through. I look forward to seeing the rest of the series and I believe this will be a boost to tourism for the Province of Newfoundland & Labrador.

  • marg hancock
    February 26, 2014 - 17:19

    being a true Newfoundlander and bursting with pride of place I find the screening of this show far too late in the evening. Did no one give consideration to the time difference in the East?

  • B. Straub
    February 26, 2014 - 15:01

    I grew up in NL but have lived on the prairies on many years. Really enjoyed the show. My family fished for many years and as a child growing up there I understand the struggles trying to make a living from the unforgiving North Atlantic.

  • Alex
    February 26, 2014 - 14:25

    I only made it through about half the show before I turned it off. It is a bad newfie version of Deadliest Catch. It portrayed Newfoundland fishermen as a bunch of outport hicks.

    • Krista
      February 26, 2014 - 20:53

      Can we say "Townie" anyone?

    • Alex
      February 26, 2014 - 21:14

      Note to Krista... FYI , I am from the west coast and worked on a local boat in my younger days for a few years. I still stand by my statement "It portrayed Newfoundland fishermen as a bunch of outport hicks." especially the end where they are all drinking on deck.

    • Jay
      February 28, 2014 - 07:31

      Well then, can we just stop saying "newfie" It's a pejorative word, used to put us down.

    • Michael
      March 19, 2014 - 11:59

      "Outport hicks?" Seriously? They came across as hardworking and dignified.

    • Krista Stephens
      April 09, 2014 - 03:24

      Oh I see Alex, your just ignorant... They are outport people, they live on an isolated island in the Atlantic Ocean... That kind of cultural and geographical isolation will create different dialects and a different way of life. So what if they want to have a beer at the end of a hard trip...Sorry we can't all be like you. Condescending and pompous....and let me guess you've never even been there...Sad...

  • Ashley
    February 26, 2014 - 13:58

    I loved the show and know some of the men personally! I think they did great even with some of the jokes aside it was a well thought of episode. Being from the Northern Peninsula myself and living currently in St. John's it's nice to see other parts of the province get recognition.

  • Craig
    February 26, 2014 - 13:56

    The subtitles are no different than having subtitles on Swamp People not meant to insult but to help others understand the dialect of the area

  • Original BayMen
    February 26, 2014 - 12:55

    Loved the show. Thought the sub-titles were good because it was hard to hear the conversations sometimes because of the waves, wind, etc.

  • Former BAYWOMAN
    February 26, 2014 - 12:44

    LOVED it! And I did like/appreciate the subtitles which I chuckled about-it's not about 'that they do speak English' but we/they speak very fast and it's easy to miss some of the words/conversation. It had a Duck Dynasty feel to it for me and I look forward to more episodes. The b'ys did us proud!

  • Jim
    February 26, 2014 - 12:44

    I did enjoy the show. However i hope they keep it real and not try to overdo or "act" beyond their real personalities. I have many relatives that are fisherman and i have never heard one of them call themselves hard as#%s or talk about how tough it is and so on. They are very humble people as i am sure these men are as well. Keep it real and good luck with the show. Safe sailing.

  • Townie
    February 26, 2014 - 12:31

    I loved it! It was just as good for tourism as the Government commercials! Great job boys!

  • Scott M
    February 26, 2014 - 10:52

    First off i loved the show , Very educational for me and my wife that come to NFLD on holidays and see the boats in the harbor and have no idea how they operate (Now I Do) Like the stabilizers I thought when i seen them they were for nets , Now I know better. We don't see those things cruising around our prairie lakes. As far as the accent subtitles leave them on for anyone who has never heard it before it is hard to interpret , especially when they get excited or forget the cameras are there , Be proud of your accent's. This is one Sod Kicker from the prairies that is very proud to have NFLD as one of our province's . I Just hope they keep the show real without writing story lines . 120 days till we come back for holidays and can't wait!!

    • Kevin Power
      February 26, 2014 - 17:26

      Very well said.

  • Anne Hoskins
    February 26, 2014 - 10:13

    I was so proud of the fishermen in the show. As for the Newfoundland accent I was also very proud of that too. That accent is over 500 years old. One time people were ashamed of it and tried to get rid of it. Now people are trying to hold on to their heritage. I believe all ethnic groups should do likewise. Way to go Newfoundland!

  • Zelda Pinstripe
    February 26, 2014 - 09:53

    The subtitles may be a little insulting to people here, in Newfoundland, but this show is intended for more than us, rather the whole country in general. Speaking as a come-from-away, it takes time to understand the dialects. Someone who has never been east won't understand a lot of the words without subtitles. Decent show, though. If anything, maybe Canadians will learn that we do what we can with less, like smaller boats, unlike the American shows.

  • mainlander
    February 26, 2014 - 08:52

    I thought it was good - but subtitles? Really?! We do speak English in Newfoundland...don't think subtitles are necessary!

    • Roddy
      February 26, 2014 - 15:58

      Besides too much narration, the show is great. Maybe if you grew up in Twillingate you wouldn't have a problem understanding every word the fishermen say, but Discovery Channel doesn't just air in Newfoundland, b'y. It airs all over North America and some dude in North Dakota is not going to understand a word of it without those subtitles. It's no more of an insult to subtitle these boys than it is to explain what a "growler" is -- believe it or not, other people who are not from the Rock, call them icebergs. It's a fast, poetic, charming dialect, but it is not the same language that Peter Mansbridge speaks on the nightly news on the mainland. But great fun to watch and pretty much as real" as TV gets these days. Blows Duck Dynasty right out of the water, if you ask me, because Duck Dynasty is just scripted nonsense, totally staged and absurd. Good work! But I do wonder what the boys really think about being "Cowboys..." : )

    • Michael
      March 19, 2014 - 11:43

      "Outport hicks?" Seriously? They came across as hardworking and dignified.

  • R Tarrant
    February 26, 2014 - 07:19

    I watched the show last night and I must say I really enjoyed it,I hope they can keep it going and we can see the beauty of province and what the fishing people have do for a living.Great show maybe it will do as good as ROD