River Rats

While accidents still happen - the Coast Guard says the Second Avenue bridge was hit at least three times last year - Barr says they have become more infrequent than in days past, a result of changes in the tug business ranging from better organization to better equipment. As if to reinforce his boss's point, Ratican calls over to Capt. Barnes on the Tiburon, in instant touch with his partner while preparing to tie up to the Rio Miami.

"Things are always going to happen. You're going to have tow lines break, steering failures, engine failures, any number of things you really can't do anything about. There's all kinds of horror stories," says Barr. "But you have to try to eliminate everything except what you can't help. This just isn't the same business as it was years ago. Things are more complicated and the ships are so much bigger. At the very least, you have to be sure you're not going to be hitting things up and down the river."

Barr, a grizzled sea dog himself, sits behind the desk in his air-conditioned, carpeted company office at the Miami Shipyards at 615 SW Second Ave. Photographs of different tugs dot the walls, reminders of the years he spent on the water. Originally from Porterville, California, Barr retired in 1969 as a lieutenant commander in the Coast Guard after serving 23 years in the Pacific and the Great Lakes, on tugs, buoy tenders, and other work boats. Stints in a variety of enterprises followed, from marine surveying, mainly for insurance purposes, to a venture delivering oil from Freeport to Nassau, Key West, and Fort Pierce. "That business ceased because Gadhafi cut off the oil," says Barr. "If you can't get it, you can't deliver it."

In 1984, at the request of shippers who used the waterway, Barr started a small towing company on the Miami River, but that venture failed after six months due to lack of business. Later that year, a marine salvage and ocean towing company followed, getting a big boost from a contract to refloat the Wellwood when it ran aground on Molasses Reef. Another unexpected coup came in November, when the company's tug, on its way to St. Thomas, ran into Hurricane Klaus, which left scores of stranded boats in need of tows.

In late 1985 Barr joined Florida Fuels Bunking Company, refueling cruise ships. That firm opened a barge tug operation, and in September 1986, Florida Marine Towing was founded. The company's first tug was the leased Jonas H., a 75-foot, 1000-horsepower craft. In early 1987 Florida Marine began towing ships on the river. Business has boomed since, peaking with the purchase of Howard W. Backus Towing in July 1990, when company owner Fred Backus retired. Five tugs came along in the deal, bringing to nine the number of boats in the fleet, which now operates out of leased space in the old Backus boatyard on South River Drive.

Three pairs of tugs now work around-the-clock shifts - the Big Al usually teamed with the Tiburon, the Anita Backus with the Hercules, and the Howard W. with the Atlas. Each lead boat carries a captain and a deck hand, each tail boat, which bears the brunt of the steering, contains a captain, a deck hand, and an engineer. The two-boat team is on duty 48 hours straight, another full crew is on call for those two days, the remaining two are off during that time, an arrangement that exists because of the complex towing timetables, which are dependent on everything from the harbor pilot's schedule to the tides (once they are fully loaded, some ships can get out of the river only at high tide) and bridge curfews (to help ease rush-hour traffic, drawbridges don't open on weekdays between 7:30 and 9:00 a.m. and 4:30 and 6:00 p.m.).

A tug's squat outward appearance belies the surprising dimensions within. Each comfortably sleeps captain and crew, its small galley serving as a gathering place during dull moments. When tow time comes, the captain scrambles up to the cramped pilothouse, the engineer to the cavernous engine room, and deck hands to the gently sloping deck and their tow ropes.

In a matter of minutes, the Big Al and the Tiburon have been tied off to the Rio Miami, one of the four largest freighters the tug company regularly pulls up the river, always in daylight. Rio Miami crew men toss down two lines, which each tug's deck hand ties off to his boat's two thicker tow lines. These are then pulled back aboard the freighter and wrapped around two thick steel posts on its bow. In the meantime, the harbor pilot, who has steered the large ship into the port, climbs off the freighter onto a small tan launch and departs. Then the Tiburon pulls up to the side of the freighter, and Capt. Rick Winfield, a former Backus tug man who now works as Florida Marine Towing's operations manager, climbs aboard the Rio Miami. Communicating with the two tug captains by radio, he will serve as a lookout on the freighter's bridge. Either Winfield or Barr always rides the four larger ships, an extra pair of eyes to detect potential problems with bridges or river traffic.

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