River Rats

"We nuked it, is what happened," says Capt. Jim Ratican, gesturing from the wood-paneled pilothouse of the Miami River tug Big Al toward the SW Second Avenue bridge. The battered southern span of the bridge, out of commission since December, when it was struck by the Panamanian freighter Rio Miami while under tow by this same tug, juts upward, one of its massive steel girders twisted as if it were made of tinfoil.

Moments after a quick breakfast of a hot dog smeared with relish and mustard and rolled up in a slice of Holsum white bread, 44-year-old Ratican is back on the river, heading toward the Port of Miami, the downtown skyline beckoning in the mid-day sun like the spires of Oz. Below the deck, the 850-horsepower Caterpillar engine rumbles, sending vibrations through the cabin, spitting out oily diesel smoke as Ratican aims the bow toward another towing date with the Rio Miami.

"See, what we do is we have the tow tug in front pulling, and a second tug on the tail to swing the back end around," Ratican explains, recalling the Rio Miami's inopportune rendezvous with the Second Avenue span. "Up here in the front boat, I basically just pull straight ahead, but in the back, he's the one steering, you know, going from side to side and pulling that end of the freighter whichever way it needs to go. On this bridge, the way we set them up because of the bend in the river, we bring the ship kind of aiming right at the spot we hit, and then we start swinging it from behind.

"I'm up in front here in this boat, and the tail tug, which was the Hercules, loses its steering at the worst possible moment, just as we're pulling that ship through," says Ratican. "If it'd been 30 seconds before or 30 seconds after, you know, we wouldn't have hit. But it was right at that perfect spot. The steering just took a shit, and we just reached that spot and it was, `Okay, okay, turn it, turn it' - and nothing. Handcuffed. I was giving it hell from up here, but it wasn't enough. The next thing I know, `Buffffff.' I just see concrete flying, and I'm thinking, Oh shit. We nuked it. My first crash and burn. I guess that shit's bound to happen to you sooner or later."

Ratican, a pudgy, bearded river rat crowned with a mane of thick brown curls, can barely stand still as he talks, darting out the open doorway of the pilothouse to call out to friends on the shore - "We call it the coconut telegraph," he says - popping back inside to drag on a Winston while manning the wheel and easing the brass throttle back and forth almost by mind control. With each stretch, each curve, each steel span over the river, the stories flow.

"Back when I was working for Backus, they had this one character, he was something else," Ratican says. "Well, this guy, a real cowboy, he and his dad worked together. Dad, you know, he ran a little towboat, and he'd sit up on the bridge, oblivious to everything. He loved jai-alai, so he'd be going up the river figuring out his jai-alai numbers. Meanwhile Junior's in the tail boat, raising all kinds of hell." Ratican, three years a tug captain and nearly twenty on the river, is having trouble getting the story out between explosive fits of laughter at this memory, fumbling now and then for the volume switch on the cabin radio that crackles with incessant static and the chatter between tug captains and drawbridge tenders.

"He used to do stuff you wouldn't believe. He worked at night, you know, so he was always out here terrorizing the river at two, three in the morning. Then he'd come out later and go, `Well, I wonder who hit that? I didn't.' So one time, this was in broad daylight, he came 'round this bend going way too fast and the ship got too far over to the south side and crunched a U.S. Customs boat. It was a Scarab. A real nice one.

"I tell you what, it was like kicking the top off a red ant pile. There must have been 200 people on the Customs dock in ten minutes. And all of them mad and glaring at us like we did it on purpose or something. I mean, c'mon. They probably took the boat away from some drug smuggler anyway, the fuckers. Yeah, that was back in the old wild and woolly days.

"You know, all those guys I was working with back when I first came to Backus, their parents were tugboat captains," says Ratican. "I mean they grew up pushing a sand barge or pulling up to pump sand at Cape Florida. So they were running barges up and down this river when they were eight years old. You know, they couldn't hardly see over the wheel. Not many of those guys around any more. Moved away or dead and buried. I guess we're carrying on the spirit of the river for them." He punctuates the tale with a blast of the tug's horn.

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