The A Plus Interview: Nick ‘Sunshine’ Tokman of ‘Deadliest Catch’
The stories in our lives are as important as the stories of our lives. Stories — whether handed down through the shadowed passages of history as legend, brought to life on the silver screen, or in the pages of a novel — serve as the vehicle by which a culture communicates the things it values, the principles it honors, and the ideals that it serves and upholds.
Stories are how we share our experiences of what it means to struggle, to succeed, to fail, to start again, to love, to live. Stories help us make sense of the world, of the human condition. Stories help us understand one another and ourselves.
At A Plus, we strive to tell stories that affirm the best parts of humanity: resilience, kindness, integrity, persistence, devotion, love.
By seeking out a variety of experiences from a diverse array of people, we can share stories that will — we hope — inspire you to live out and write your life’s story with vitality, curiosity, and hope.
The A Plus Interview is one way that we help people tell stories. As I’ve said before, the goal israpport, rather than simple reporting. The aim? To restore the interview to its place in storytelling, as rooted in its etymology in the French verb s’entrevoir: to see each other … and ideally to begin to understand each other.
For this interview, we take you on a journey to the dark and frigid waters of Alaska’s Bering Sea.
Nick Tokman hails from Massachusetts, a state whose shoreline once teemed with whaling barks — the homes of men who, seeking fortune in whale oil during the 19th century, ventured to sea for years at a time, each hoping to capture their “lay” or percentage of a catch, while risking their lives in the black squalls of the North Atlantic, the high seas of the Indian Ocean, and the farthest reaches of the remote Pacific and Arctic whaling grounds. But Tokman isn’t from New Bedford or even Nantucket, where as a teenager he caddied to help pay his way through the prestigious MacDuffie School.
He is instead from Springfield, nicknamed “The City of Firsts” — an appropriate place for a man of many beginnings.
Nick Tokman didn’t stay in Springfield long. After high school, the then-18-year-old headed to business school at Concordia University’s John Molson School of Business in Montreal, where he learned to speak French while earning his degree and working as a suit salesman, janitor, and pizza delivery driver.
It was while visiting his grandfather one summer that Tokman first saw the Emmy Award-winning “Deadliest Catch.” In an interview with The Huffington Post, he described the epiphany he had while watching the ice-hard crab fishermen and sailors battling the frozen waters of the Bering Sea.
“Something about it made me want to try it. I had good job offers, but I didn’t really want to pursue them. Fishing popped into my head, and I just thought about going to Alaska. I had called people looking for a job, but no one wanted to hire me. They didn’t know if I was a druggy, or if I was a hard worker. I started walking the docks. The goal was not to get on the show, but to just go crab fishing.”
His family disapproved and, in an effort to dissuade him, cut him off financially. “They didn’t do it to be mean,” Tokman told HuffPo. “They were looking out for my best interests. It’s a dangerous job. I also came up with the realization that this was my life, and my own decision as an adult.”
Like so many others who’ve fallen under the spell of the Alaskan wild, Tokman was met with a harsh reality, forced to camp in the woods or find bedding in homeless shelters before finally finding work in the shipyards.
Four years later, Tokman was brought on by Capt. Sig Hansen as a greenhorn and cook aboard the F/V Northwestern — the same ship that first brought him to Alaska — being filmed by the crew of “Deadliest Catch” for the first of four seasons.
His willingness and happy-go-lucky demeanor quickly earned him the nickname “Sunshine,” and through trial and error, his diligence and attitude eventually earned him a place as cook and deckhand.
Now Nick Tokman is leaving “Deadliest Catch” and a six-figure salary to pursue a new adventure: a calling to help others find theirs. We asked the fisherman-turned-motivational speaker over email about how the lessons he learned at sea can help young people navigate the waters of their own lives, following their dreams to whatever horizons await them.
You grew up in Springfield, Mass., but at 18 you left: at first for Montreal and then later to try your hand as a fisherman on the opposite side of the world. Where did home play into this? What does home mean to you, especially after your brush with homelessness?
I saw people from my hometown working at jobs they hated, never leaving and going to the bars on weekends to forget about life. Clearly, I did not want to live like that. My teacher, Stan Svec, had a quote, “If your life was a book, who the heck would want to read it?” That rang true for me. I wanted to live a life the way I wanted to live it. To me, home means being in a welcome environment with positive people. I was very grateful that people welcomed me into their very homes to let me stay.
“Deadliest Catch” shows the dangers faced in crab fishing, but how did you deal with loneliness, boredom, and living in cramped quarters at sea for months at a time?
I’ll tell you what … when you’re on those boats you are NEVER bored! There is always something to do. You’re either working, sleeping, or eating. Seriously. Then, if I had time, I would reach out to my loved ones and read a few pages in a book. I didn’t mind living in cramped quarters because it was merely a place to sleep. Usually, I was happy when I got to sleep because I didn’t get much time (4–6 hours a night). I got used to it.
Tell us about the incident that led to your getting hired by Capt. Hansen.
I met Sig at a bar. He was talking to my crew members. I just didn’t stop looking at him. He turns to me and asks why I was looking at him. I told him that I wanted to make sure he was the same person that I saw on TV. He thought it was smart and asked me to arm wrestle. I lost. A couple of days later, he saw me at the bar again. The waitress came over with a virgin Bloody Mary, said “This is from Sig. He thinks you’re a pussy, so drink up.” I sent him over a glass of milk. He turns to me and asks if it came from my mother’s tit. I said, “No, but here’s to your osteoporosis.” He came over to me — all these people were trying to get him to take pictures and sign autographs — he comes over to see me, introduces himself, shakes my hand, and I don’t know why. Later, he offered me a job and I couldn’t believe it. I turned it down originally because I couldn’t walk away from the guy that gave me time of day when no one else did. His name was Hip, arguably one of the best crab fishermen ever.
Two weeks before the king crab season I put water in the fuel tank, the biggest mistake in my career, and I lost my job. Although Bill wanted to keep me, he was forced to let me go because the crab owners thought I was an insurance liability. I was embarrassed. Everyone in the fleet knew about it and laughed at me. No one wanted to hire me. I thought my career was over. I then called Sig to ask for a job. He told me there might be something for blue crab. From there I bought a plane ticket to Dutch Harbor to show him I was serious. When I saw him, I was contemplating on whether or not to tell him what I did. My family and friends said not to say anything. When he asked me what I did, the only thing that came to mind was, “When in doubt, tell the truth” by Mark Twain, and I told him. I think he respected that out of me, and from there he gave me a chance and hired me.
What did you doubt about yourself when you first started working aboard Northwestern? How did you gain the confidence of your shipmates?
I did not doubt myself at all when I was working on the boat. I just wanted to prove to them that I was a worker they wanted to keep. I worked my absolute hardest, listened to them, did exactly what I was told, and didn’t take anything personally when they yelled at me (which wasn’t very often). I feel that’s how I also got their respect.
What was the strangest thing you ever saw while at sea?
What do you hope to communicate to young people in conveying your experiences? At what point — if any — do dreams become not worth the risk?
If you want something bad enough and give it your complete all, you will get it. I don’t feel dreams are not ever worth the risk; there’s always a way to live your life as close as possible to your dreams. I do not like it when people say follow your dreams, work hard, blah blah blah … The new slogan I feel should be to listen to your heart. Whatever it is it’s telling you to do, do that.
I don’t think people grasp the idea of hard work. In order to attain what you want, you must dedicate your life to achieving whatever it is. You have to eat, sleep, breathe, and pour your heart and soul into what it is that you want. If you do that, then you just might be able to get what you want or close to what you thought you want.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Perfect happiness to me means living your life with complete integrity and doing what it is that you want to do. According to Miguel Ruiz, the Toltecs in Teotihuacan believed that you create your life like a masterpiece of art. When you take control of your life in that fashion, that to me is perfect happiness.
Many thanks to Nick for this interview.
By A Plus’ K.S. Anthony