Thanks to the smashing success of Discovery Channel’s hit series “Cold Water Cowboys,” Twillingate-based Richard Gillett might now be considered Newfoundland and Labrador’s most famous fisherman. The show’s first season documented the fishing life with a visceral, in-your-face style, following Richard and several other crews of inshore fishermen as they put their lives on the line to make the most of their fishing season and haul in a huge catch. Viewers from across the country flocked to the show in droves, lured by the drama inherent in the lives of fishermen doing one of the most dangerous jobs in the world: the ecstasy of a net filled to bursting with fat, flopping mackerel and the agony of another net rising to the surface completely empty; the viciousness of weather versus the hulls of boats dwarfed by the sea’s expanse. Watching an episode is like being right there on the boat with the crew. A rogue wave smashing into the starboard side sends spume over the rail and, even though you’re sitting safe and sound on your couch, you can’t help but duck and cover.
With the show now into its second season, Richard and the rest of the Cold Water Cowboys are familiar faces onscreen and off. But it wasn’t always that way. Before the show came calling, Richard was just a Twillingate fisherman doing the job he’d done since he was a young boy; the same job his family had done for four previous generations. This year marks his 31st year fishing the waters of Notre Dame Bay.
“I started when I was 13 years old. I didn’t have no summer holidays, none of that stuff. Before the last day of school, Dad used to take me out of school, put the lobster traps out. Once he had them out, he could handle them himself. So I’d get a scattered day off. I didn’t argue with that, when we’d go do that for a couple days, you know what I mean?” Richard says.
From that point on, Richard’s summers were spent on the water. “After the last day of school I was in the fishing boat, up at 3:00 right until - some days it would be 10:30, 11:00 before you get to bed, then you’re up again at 3:00. That’s just the way it was.”
In 2012, two men, Tyson Hepburn and John Driftmier, showed up in Twillingate looking to talk to local fishermen about an idea they had: documenting a fisherman’s life on the high seas on a TV show. That’s when they met Richard.
“In the fall of the year, we had two guys come to the island who had a vision of starting some kind of fishing show,” Richard explains. “They asked around about who would be on the water and my name kept coming up. [Tyson] got my number from somebody. We were out on the outside part of Fogo fishing away - December, this was - and I told them to come on. I said, ‘We’re on the way in Carmanville now with a load of herring. You be there 5:00 tomorrow morning and you can come out with us. Don’t be there five after five.’ He said ‘Why?’ and I said ‘Because I ain’t going to be there. I told you 5:00, you be there 5:00. If not, I’m setting the lines and I’m gone,” Richard says.
As it turns out, Tyson showed up early. John went to St. John’s to work on some further details, while Tyson tagged along with Richard and his crew for 10 days. “He showcased that around that time of the year there was freezing spray, there was lots of wind, big swells, good catches, almost anything you could ask for and what you see today in the show,” Richard says.
From that 10-day trip, “Cold Water Cowboys” was born. Tragically, John Driftmier was killed during the shooting of another documentary series he was working on in Kenya, only a month after the pair had sealed the deal with Discovery. But Tyson carried on and the first episode of the series premiered in February 2014.
Just over a year later, many parts of Richard’s life have changed. Though he disagrees that he’s a “celebrity,” his newfound fame follows him wherever he goes. “Honestly, I can’t go anywhere [without being noticed],” he says, laughing. “When we come in to ports, or when I’m at the store or the shopping mall or anything like that, the thing I find now is that your own is not your own anymore. But I accept that. That’s not a problem. I’m a feller that likes to meet new people, and I get to talk to people all around from everywhere and get their stories and things like that. The interaction with so many people has just been phenomenal.”
The show’s Facebook page is full of pictures fans of the show have sent in of them smiling and hugging Richard, or sharing their stories with him, genuinely excited to meet the man they’ve watched risk his life for his profession. And many people want more than pictures; Richard and his wife, Joyce, had some merchandise made - T-shirts, hats and sweaters bearing the name and logo of his boat, the Midnight Shadow - to give fans the opportunity to own a little piece of the show, and the demand was completely out of control. “It’s been really good. I can tell you there’s Midnight Shadow merchandise almost in the four corners of the world now,” Richard says. “There for a while we couldn’t keep hands on it, and it’s starting to ramp up again now that the second season is out.”
Though much has changed for Richard since “Cold Water Cowboys” began, some things will always stay the way they were, the way they’re supposed to be. “The fishing has always been the same,” Richard says. “Everything stays the same in regards to fishing.” And, as the Gillett family has done for five generations, the father still passes the trade on to his children. Richard’s young son, Cameron, whose first appearance on the show featured him struggling with seasickness aboard his father’s boat, blossoms into a capable young man in season two. “He was on the boat again this summer,” Richard says, proudly. “When you see the show this year you’ll notice that last year he looked like a little boy, but he grew five and a half inches this summer. He’s almost as tall as I am now. You’ll see the transformation of him going from a boy coming into his own as a man. You’ll see him do some things this year that are like a rite of passage. He shot the seine for the first time, and I can guarantee you that he’s not going to forget his first shot!”
This coming summer, one of Richard’s daughters is also planning to try her hand at the family trade. “Abigail is graduating this year, so this is going to be her summer job. I always took [my kids] on the boat, even when they were younger. I always took them out mackerel fishing, cod fishing, everything. It didn’t make a difference to me if they were boys, girls, whatever. I treated them equally. I didn’t treat [my daughters] differently because they were girls, and I surely didn’t tell them they couldn’t do it because they were girls. I went the other way: ‘you guys can do it just as good or better than boys.’”
Beyond the show, beyond fame, beyond even fishing, the one thing that will never change is Richard’s love for Newfoundland and Labrador. “I’m a proud Newfoundlander,” he says. “Very, very proud. And anytime I can get a chance to promote Newfoundland and Labrador and to tell people about our little secret in the world, [I will]. Because we’re far richer than a lot of places in the world, not by minerals or by money, but just by the simple freedoms of not having to lock your door or take your keys out of your vehicle, and not having to worry about your kids if they’re gone for five or 10 minutes. That says a lot about small communities - a lot of people in the world don’t have those luxuries.”
Like thousands of viewers across the country and beyond, Richard will be sitting down on Tuesday nights to watch the show. He doesn’t see the episodes in advance. “I look forward to it just as much as you’re looking forward to it,” he says, promising season two will be filled with “more wind, more ice, more fish and definitely more goings on!” - By Grant Loveys
Cold Water Cowboys airs on the Discovery Channel Tuesday Nights at 11:30.