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

Dave Bartlett talkingtelevision@gmail.com
Published on February 26, 2014
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

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.

“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.