River Rats

The Big Al's tow lines groan briefly as they stretch, then go taut. Although the tug crawls along at 1.5 knots, tops, much more slowly than before, there is almost no sign that a 2566-gross-ton freighter is in tow. As the two-hour trip back up the river wears on, the freighter begins to blend into the background, nearly forgotten, only occasionally calling attention to itself at bridges and around the sharper curves, its long shadow looming over the Lilliputian tug.


Rex Barnes, a David Crosby look-alike minus about 200 pounds, mans the Tiburon. "Back here you get to rock and roll," says the 35-year-old captain, dressed in worn bell-bottom jeans and a green-and-gray-striped button-down shirt. "I get to maneuver back here. I don't have to stay straight. I go from side to side and look at everything. This is where it's at. Rock and roll."

Like a sheepdog nipping at the heels of its herd, the Tiburon wheels around the stern of the ship as they approach the drawbridge at Brickell Avenue. The tail boat weaves, rolls, turns sideways as it yanks the vessel's stern from starboard to port. The water around the tug's hull, changing from turquoise to Miami River green near the bridge, froths as the twin screws kick into gear.

One tow line tenses, the other goes slack in turn, each straining as it comes to bear the weight of the freighter. Barnes, truck driver turned river cowboy, tenses and shifts his body with the force, pokes his head out the open doorways to get a better view, acutely aware of everything from his pilothouse perch two stories above the water. "We might have a popped line today," he says, pointing to a fray in one rope, warily eyeing the upcoming bridge and its wooden fenders. He makes adjustments with a small switch above the wheel, an electronic device that sends instant commands to the rudder, making the wheel temporarily superfluous.

Barnes uses every available foot of space from shoreline to shoreline, at times braking the tug inches from the bank or the wooden fender railings guarding the bridge columns. Bridges and structures he might hit with the freighter are a threat, but so are the houseboats, yachts, and pilings he might strike with the tug while weaving from side to side, paying attention to the ship.

Trips after sunset, like the one he took the night before, can be a real adventure, Barnes says, because even with the tugs' powerful spotlights, the subtle currents and curves of the river are obscured by darkness. A captain for nearly four years and a deck hand for seven before that, he constantly looks up the river, noticing two Haitian boats doubled up, docked side by side - "right where I need to turn, dammit" - in spite of the tow company's requests that they not do so.

"You have to know what the river's like, the current and everything there, especially at night," says Barnes. "A lot of it just comes from being on the river, just watching it and seeing what's going on. You gotta keep it at a safe enough speed where you can control it, but you can't go too slow, because if you go too slow, you can also lose control of it because you gotta maneuver too much."

This trip is uneventful, though, save for a close call with the bridge tender's viewing mirror at First Avenue. When a bridge is up, tenders' view of the river is blocked by the raised span, and they rely on small round mirrors jutting out under the bridge in order to keep an eye on the progress of the boats. "Goddamnit. Goddamnit," Barnes yells as the stern of the freighter comes ominously close to the mirror, then he breathes a sigh when the undamaged reflection comes into view as the big ship passes. "Hit the bridge, tear off the damn bridge tender's house, do anything you want, but don't touch their mirrors," he cracks as the bridge tender, a stern-faced woman, glowers at him from her perch.

Boat yards and single family residences, rows of houseboats and yachts that haven't moved in years, pastoral relics of the river slip by, giving way to gravelly, canal-like shore just past the 27th Avenue bridge. Here the river no longer follows its natural meandering course, now diked up, dredged out, rechanneled. Blue-, gray-, and white-hulled freighters - Lady Micheline and Sylvia G., God is Able and God is Good, Carib Trader, Hybur Clipper, and Windward Passage - crowd the banks, some ships laden with Audi sedans and Toyota pickups, mattresses, plasterboard, empty paint buckets, and Clorox bottles, others filled with tractor-trailer-size steel containers. Behind them, on the shore, rusted containers are stacked two, three, sometimes four high, front-end loaders zipping in and out of the bottom ones like worker ants.

The two tugs guide their charge through the tight quarters; at one point the ship harmlessly scrapes with a high-pitched squeal against the side of another freighter. Moments later the ship is safely berthed, tied off by dockworkers, the tug's tow lines back onboard. "Going up and down this river six, seven times a day, things just don't change that much. But it'll wipe you out," says Barnes.

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