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But if the river's tugboat business has changed, the people who work it have not. "A lot of people call all us river rats a bunch of wild men, and I guess we really can't argue with them. These guys have always been like that and I think they always will be. We probably would have been pirates in the old days," laughs Ratican. It might not be a treasure chest, but a seasoned captain doesn't exactly earn small change either, averaging about $45,000 per year.
The twin-screw, 1800-horsepower Tiburon, the big daddy of the Florida Marine fleet, slips past the Big Al near the mouth of the river. In the distance, the target, the 275-foot freighter Rio Miami, relatively unscathed after her encounter with the Second Avenue bridge, returning from the Dominican Republic, pulls into the channel south of Dodge Island. The Big Al will take the ship's bow, the Tiburon the tail.
Within the port, tugs often move large ships around by nudging them with their bows, covered with shredded rope that resembles a giant kitchen mop. On the river, though, one tug hooks up to the bow of the freighter, a second to the stern. Once both tugs have the vessel in tow, they become a carefully coordinated team. To guide the freighter, the tail boat passes from bank to bank all the way up the river, tugging the ship's stern from port to starboard. When the tugs are in synch, company owner Barr says, they can spin a freighter in a full circle.
The river tug operation is unique even in the towing world, Barr says. In major ports such as Miami's, a harbor pilot, versed in the area's currents and sea bottom, boards a freighter before it enters the channel, becoming its temporary captain, steering it to the dock under its own power or with the assistance of tugs. For those ships that head up the Miami River, the harbor pilot disembarks once the tugs hook up near Dodge Island, the nucleus of the port.
"After the pilot's gone, the tug captain takes total control. He's the man in charge," says Barr. And he's also the one responsible for damage to a freighter, tug, or yacht, or to the bridges that make the river a challenge to navigate. The Second Avenue bridge, perched on a loop in the river, has always been a problem. The Fifth Street bridge is unusually narrow and placed at a cockeyed angle to the river. The 17th Avenue bridge also sits near a funky curve. But even the easiest spans can be a nightmare when equipment fails.
"That boat right there, the Tiburon, the first time we used it as a tail boat was a real mess," says Ratican, stopping to point out a manatee poking its head above water in the wake of his tug, gesturing to the spot where an alligator used to sun itself "when it wasn't out dog hunting." The fits of laughter begin anew. Ratican gestures toward the other tug's bow, where the tow lines will be tied off to a pair of steel posts, each of which contains a single hook. The deck hands, Ratican explains, ran the tow lines under the steel hooks and tied them around the posts, rather than around the posts first.
"Captain Roy [Tollette] had just started as the captain of the Tiburon - Roy worked for Backus for years, he's an old hand, but he quit for a couple of years and he was just getting back - we'd come through Second Avenue, and we got a big one. I don't remember which one it was, but it was one of the big ships we bring in. Well, the first time Roy backs his boat down one way, both those hooks cut his lines like, you know, like a can opener, and he calls me up in front, really excited like, `Jim, I broke my line.' And I said, `Which one?' 'cause one goes to one side and one goes the other, you know, and if he backs down I know which way the bow's going to go. Well he yells, `Both of them!' So he has nothing on it." Another fit of laughter.
"So the ship was headed between the fender system and the concrete column on I-95. And I'm thinking, Oh shit. Oh my God. Oh my God. I could just see it, calling the Department of Transportation and saying, `Remember that highway that used to go from Coconut Grove to Maine? Well it only goes from the Miami River to Maine now.'" Ratican explodes, grabs the radio mike, answers a call from the Tiburon with a burst of laughter. "Luckily some guys on the ship had the presence of mind to throw down a couple of their lines until he got the lines back up on it. It was another one of those close calls. But that's just another day at the office around here."
The bridges and highway spans, thirteen of them between the river's mouth and the ship terminals northwest of 27th Avenue, are the greatest peril for tug captains, who must be U.S. citizens older than 21, with proof of 1080 days working on a boat in order to receive a license. In 1988 the freighter Vanessa, towed by the Hercules and the Ringpower, struck the Fifth Street bridge, putting the span out of action for nearly a year. The Hercules's loss of steering power that caused the Rio Miami mishap at the Second Avenue bridge, says company owner Barr, is akin to "losing all four engines on a Boeing 707, 2000 feet in the air. You ain't got a prayer. It's sure disaster." (Capt. Rex Barnes, who was piloting the Hercules at the time, prefers not to comment about the incident.) Lawyers for the towing company and Metro Dade County are still arguing about who will foot the nearly $300,000 bill to repair the span, which is expected to be back in service by May.