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Capt. Phil Harris 1956-2010 Great Catch

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He was as fearless as any pirate that sailed the high seas. But Phil Harris, the gruff fisherman and Deadliest Catch star who died Feb. 9 at age 53, was also a puppy at heart. “The best way to remember my father,” says Harris’s son Josh, “is like Benji, the dog at the pound that’s just shaggy and dirty but looks so cute you’ve just got to take him home.”

Which is exactly what television viewers did. The colorful Captain Phil was a fan favorite on Discovery’s hit reality series Deadliest Catch, which chronicled the lives of crab fishermen plying their dangerous trade in the Bering Sea. “To him, it was just a job,” says best friend Dan Mittman. “He couldn’t believe anybody would sit around and watch crab fishermen!”

As a scrappy teen growing up in Seattle, Harris found his way onto a fishing boat at 17 and began a lucrative but dangerous 36-year career. Harris loved spending up to 10 months a year on his ship, the fishing vessel Cornelia Marie. “I’m an adrenaline junkie,” he told PEOPLE in 2008. Though life on the rough, icy seas carried the constant threat of death for him and his crew (which included his sons Josh, 26, and Jake, 24), “he was a giving guy, a loving guy. He tried to have fun every day that he lived,” says Jake. But, says Catch executive producer Thom Beers, “you could look in his eyes and know he felt the weight of the world.”

After suffering a massive stroke while off-loading crab in Alaska on Jan. 29, Harris held on for 11 more days, which gave him time to say goodbye to family and friends. (He will continue to be featured on Catch‘s sixth season, which begins in April.) “He was one of the meanest-looking people you’d ever meet,” says Josh, “but one of the softest hearts you’d ever find.”