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.

While it is no Mississippi, Miami's little rio has a thousand of its own tales to tell. Inhabited since 1500 B.C., the Miami River's character seems always to have had a blue-collar tinge. Indians once paddled its length in canoes, traveling from the Everglades to trade at its mouth; as recently as 1972 they wrestled alligators for paying tourists just west of Sewell Park, off 17th Avenue, where an apartment complex now stands.

In the mid-1800s, mills such as the Ferguson's Florida Arrow Root coonti starch plant operated on the banks. At the turn of this century, tourists clambered aboard a paddle-wheel boat to see the river's rapids, long since filled and paved over, now the site of a parking lot west of 27th Avenue. The mere mention of the Miami River can evoke bygone days in the city's history, recalling the pioneering Brickells and Henry Flagler.

More recently, locals have come to think of the five miles of river stretching from the salinity dam near Miami International Airport to the mouth at Biscayne Bay as a virtual cesspool, a place for drug dealers and for cops who kill, dozens of tramp freighters stacked high with bicycles bound for Haiti. It has become a dumping ground for everything from bodies to Budweiser cans, bottles, rubble, seemingly endless piles of junk. And sewage.

City and county planners have drafted gentrified visions of the river's future, foreseeing parks, restaurants, and "riverwalks" along its banks. Condominium complexes and apartment buildings such as the Miami River Yacht Club near the 17th Avenue Bridge and lunch joints such as East Coast Fisheries, Joe's Seafood, and the Bijan's behind the James L. Knight Center are operating along the river. Historic renovations, including the restoration of Henry Flagler's riverside railroad terminal, now the Miami River Inn, have been undertaken, as has new construction, such as Florida Power & Light's ten-story Dade division headquarters just down river from the Flagler edifice.

Changes have also come to the river's shipping and towing industries. According to a 1990 survey by the Miami River Marine Group, a nonprofit corporation made up of various river businesses, the waterway's shipping industry now accounts for more than 8000 jobs, injecting $200 million annually into the local economy. Exports shipped from the river are valued at nearly two billion dollars, destined for Guatemala and Guyana, Trinidad and the Turks and Caicos, ports of call throughout the Caribbean and Latin America. Most of the booty - appliances and clothing, frozen hamburgers and orange juice, used mattresses and inner tubes, mops, brooms, and a litany of other household goods - is bound for countries that receive aid under the Caribbean Basin Initiative Program, a congressional plan to assist that region's economic development through duty-free imports.

Much of the Caribbean and Latin American commercial fleet makes use of the nonunion "Port of Miami River," a group of privately owned and operated commercial shipping companies located along the waterway, because costs are lower than in the union-run Port of Miami. On the river, dockworkers are not controlled by union management, locally notorious for jacking up prices, demanding kickbacks, and forcing shippers to direct their business to favored companies in exchange for so-called labor peace. At an average cost of $1500 per tow, the tug trade is thriving on the river.

"We're talking maybe 30, 40 ships we handle on a regular basis and any number of what we call transient ships, ones that just happen to come through," says Capt. Robert Barr, part owner and president of Florida Marine Towing Inc., the larger of the river's two towing firms. "Their schedules vary - once a week, twice a week, once every three weeks - but we're doing a pretty good business with it right now."

If anything, that business is expected to increase in coming years. City and county comprehensive plans call for protection of the river's commercial shipping areas from encroachment by "non water-dependent land uses" and encourage development of the Port of Miami River. The Coast Guard, too, is considering requiring some of the smaller freighters that now come in under their own power to begin using tug tows in order to better regulate river traffic. "Shipping is definitely a growing industry on the river, so you're probably going to see more tugs rather than fewer in the future," says Joyce Meyers, a City of Miami planner now drafting up a master plan for the waterway.

Six, seven, ten times every day, more than 150 times per month, working 48-hour shifts, Florida Marine's black-and-white, tire-lined tugs ply the river between the Port of Miami and the industrial docks just above the 27th Avenue bridge, towing freighters up and down or simply shifting them from place to place in the waterway. Florida Marine's sole competition, the smaller Hempstead Marine's green-and-white tugs, run about 50 tows per month. The firms' itineraries are laid out in advance by shipping agents, who arrange for tows and docks.

"Back in the old days," says Florida Marine's Ratican, "they didn't even have radios on these boats. Those guys would park it out at the port on a Sunday morning and just wait and hope a ship might come along that needed a tow. `There's one. Let's see if he needs a pull.' Even when things got more organized, we might just get a call at home, saying there was a tow coming in and get your ass over here."


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.

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.

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.

Wiped out or not, for most tug crew men, their boats and the river are their lives. Roy Tollette, 47-year-old captain of the Hercules, began working for ®MDNM¯Backus Towing when he was sixteen. Carlin Nunez, 33 years old and captain of the Anita Backus, is a native of Forked Island, Louisiana, who rode boats with his dad when he was seven. Alvin Cavalier, a 26-year-old deck hand on the Tiburon from Donaldsonville, Louisiana, worked on push boats plying the Mississippi after he graduated high school. He came to the Miami River in August 1989. "This is like what I grew up to do," he says. "It's family. It's my daddy's life, my daddy's brothers were on boats, my mother and grandmother were cooks on boats. It's a way of life for us."

"What other life is there?" asks Rex Barnes, the father of four daughters and a son. "It's really a state of mind more than anything else. We're on the water all the time. We can do our jobs at our own pace and not kill ourselves to get the job done right. As a truck driver I was always having to worry about getting there to unload and whatnot. This way we just drop it off and we're gone. Free. Then we sit and goof around for an hour or two and hit it again. For me it's not really a job yet. Right now it's just a lot of fun. And believe me, the first time I did this, it was scary as hell. I was running the Atlas, looking up at these big things, never thinking in my wildest dreams I'd be doing a boat like this. But it still ain't a job. The day it turns into one, I'll be gone.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >