Captain Keith Colburn

Captain Keith Colburn

In the winter of 1985, Keith was a Lake Tahoe ski bum looking for a change. At the age of 22, Keith jumped on a plane with his lifelong best friend Kurt Frankenberg. They landed in Kodiak, Alaska with no experience, a tent and $50 dollars. Spurred on by the romantic vision of working at sea and the rumor of big paydays, Keith was determined to try something new and exciting. He started as a true greenhorn on the Alaska Trader, a 135 foot crabber/tender.

The hook was set instantly. The fishing lifestyle and camaraderie of being part of a crew working in and against the elements captured him immediately. While initially looking only for adventure in Alaska’s unknown waters, Keith also found something unexpected: a career. In 1988, he became a full share deckhand on the Wizard. He earned his USCG 1600 ton Mates license in 1990 and made the move from the deck to the pilot house. In 1992, he received his 1600 ton inspected Masters (Captain) license and has remained at the helm as the skipper.

In 2002 Keith purchased the 100’ crabber F/V Sirene (pronounced Sea-Wren), but continued to operate the Wizard. In 2004, they sold the fishing rights for the Sirene in the Federal Buyback, a fleet reduction program. When the fleet downsized in 2005 from 250 crabbers to 80 under a new Individual Fishing Quota (IFQ) system, Keith and Florence purchased the Wizard, but without its valuable IFQs.

Keith’s Leadership

As a captain, Keith takes pride in being a pro. When asked about his demeanor as a captain his reply is: “I’m a gambler, big time! But my heart never left the deck. I’m safe and cautious but I don’t follow the pack. There’s a fine line between being a gambler and a professional.” With lives at stake and the captain responsible for them, Keith takes great pride in the fact that no major injuries have occurred under his command. Indeed, when he pulls the Wizard back into town, his gauge of success is:

  1. Is everyone okay?
  2. Did we catch any crab?
  3. How is the boat?
Keith learned the craft of crabbing from old pro John Jorgensen, whose father and grandfather emigrated from Norway to Seattle in the pioneer days of commercial fishing.

John instructed Keith to “tune out the rest of the fleet,” referring to the radio that connects all commercial fishermen. “If you want to catch crab, turn this thing off…if you want to follow people turn it on.”

Keith did just that- he turned his radio off and followed his instincts, which often led him North. He traveled far North, like in 2002 when the Wizard went 200 miles further North than any other boat and found themselves fishing all alone next to the ice–with freight car sized ice chunks floating all around. That decision led to a record breaking year, when Keith and crew delivered 540,000 lbs of snow crab in a year where the average catch was 130,000 lbs, and the second highest catch was only 300,000 lbs.

The risky strategy paid off again in 2004 when the Wizard went far North again and ended up with a total take of 400,000 lbs of crab with the second highest producing boat at a mere 250,000 lbs, and the fleet average was 125,000 lbs.

Keith’s philosophy is to go with his instinct- “You have to cross great stretches of desert. You see, I don’t think of the ocean as waves on top, I think of the bottom of the ocean. I try to picture the bottom and figure out what nook and cranny the crabs are in and then find the heart of the schools of crab–and sometimes you need to go a long way to find them.”

Keith adds, “Fishing so far up North is dangerous because you can lose your gear and you can lose days of valuable fishing time if you don’t find the crab. If you’re wrong it can ruin your whole season.”

But gambling usually pays off for the Colburn brothers. As captains of the Wizard, Keith and his brother Monte (a seasoned captain as well) have had their share of success: the Wizard is usually in the top 10 out of 200+ boats in the fleet year after year. To put it in perspective, the Wizard has produced the most snow crab since 1999. And from 1996 to 2000, Keith was the #2 king crab producing captain out of a pool of 180 captains.

The Wizard’s size helps it achieve top crabbing honors. That very strength accounts for dangers as well. With four 4000 cubic foot size crab holds filled up, the vessel is very stable, but in heavy seas the Wizard tends to cut through waves instead of bobbing over them like lighter boats. The vessel’s low water line means there is a larger chance of big waves coming on board. With the tanks always full, the crew needs to keep a watchful eye to avoid slack tanks, (partially full) an effect called “free surface” which can cause a crabber to capsize.

The dangers persist but Keith and his brother Monte continue to gamble like seasoned pros while keeping safety first.