A full load means the pilot must be on alert - an error made now will be paid for half a mile downstream. The river doesn't easily forgive mistakes. With all the flood control dams and navigation dams, they do an extremely good job of controlling the rivers. But when Mother Nature lets one go, you just gotta hold on. Somales tweaks the steering stick and swivels in his seat, glancing out at the vast expanse of barges beneath the pilothouse. Although he never stops scanning the river, the Mathies' captain looks just plain bored.
The towboat is on the Dilworth trade - shuttling barges back and forth between the Dilworth Mine and the Robena Preparation Plant, where the raw coal is purified before it heads to a power plant. Over and over, the Mathies pushes a full load down the same A round-trip takes about six hours, a single shift for the pilot and his crew of two deckhands. Somales, 37, who replaced Sandherr in the pilothouse at 6 p. After growing up just a stone's throw from the Mon, Somales began working as a deckhand at age 18, fresh out of high school.
The squat yellow-and-white vessel, built in , doesn't look big enough from the outside to board a crew of seven - four deckhands, a cook, a pilot and the captain. The diesels shake the boat, vibrating in the hot, earsplitting engine room where the deckhands hang their clothing to dry after each shift on the barges. The tremble can be felt even in the glassed-in pilothouse that sits atop the boat beneath a whirling radar arm. The captain's and pilot's quarters are roomier than the berths where the deckhands bunk, two to a cabin, on the main deck. Two crews alternate work weeks on the Mathies.
The furlough every other week is a bonus of towboat life, but crew members must work two six-hour shifts each day during the week to keep the boat running 24 hours a day. After getting off the afternoon shift at 6 p. He and veteran river cook Doris Stephens of McKeesport chatted about Sandherr's love life and gossiped about workers on other riverboats.
One aspect of river life hasn't changed since Stephens' grandparents worked together as a towboat pilot and cook 50 years ago: Of the more than 70 crewmembers on Consolidation's boats, all are men except for the 12 cooks - all women. When the Mon rises, the water doesn't spread out over its banks like the Mississippi. Instead, mountains on each side of the river restrict the water, creating a narrow, powerful corridor. Pilots call fast water a rise. Consolidation lost a dozen barges to floodwater this winter.
The Mathies passed one half-capsized barge over and over as it traveled back and forth on the Dilworth trade. A lost tow is a tremendous headache for a pilot - it means an inquiry by National Transportation Safety Board investigators and often thousands of dollars in lost cargo and repairs if the smashup tears a hole in the barge. But like any veteran pilot, Somales does remember a few close calls.
A few weeks earlier, he was riding downstream on a rise when he realized he was approaching the middle pillar of the Rankin Bridge too fast. It was too late to back up. The speed, combined with the weight of 10 full barges, had built an overwhelming momentum that would have pushed the entire load into the bridge, even with the engines in full reverse. He must gauge river current and tow weight, watch for possible obstructions and signal by CB to other towboats who may be approaching a bend from the other side. If the pilot loses the big picture, a mistake can be made long before he even recognizes the hazard.
But sometimes, despite all caution, a pilot finds himself heading into danger. Then he must throw himself into action, correcting the mistake by any means: Throwing one or both of the big diesels into reverse. Slamming the rudders, big as shed doors, left or right.
Praying the current isn't quite strong enough to grab the tow and pull it into a slide impossible to correct from the towboat's awkward position behind the barges. If none of the maneuvering works, there's a sick moment when a pilot realizes it's too late to correct the problem. The barges glide, ponderous and unstoppable, toward a bridge pier. Unlike a fighter pilot, whose crash comes too fast for fear, the riverboat captain gets a few moments to think about it. In the back pages of National Geographic , she had found an advertisement for the Calvert Homeschool Curriculum—a venerable system of textbooks, worksheets, and school supplies that American servicemen had long used.
The girls would have class in the morning and do assignments after lunch. In those early, vagabonding years, Rachel would spend hours just staring at the sea and its quicksilver light. What it would be like if I fell in. She was born in Florida, in , and they were back on the boat five days later. Now and again, he dropped them off on desert islands with Elsbeth, to spend the day dashing through the surf or leaping off dunes—or, on one moonlit beach in French Guiana, to watch baby sea turtles shuck off their shells and scuttle to the water.
By the time the tug returned, the children would be burned to blistering. In addition to teaching and taking care of the children, she cooked, stood watch, managed the crew, and occasionally hauled the ropes. I did always long for more time ashore. In , when Elsbeth was seven months pregnant with Dominique, the family finally moved to the island of Dominica, which gave the baby its name.
Elsbeth would eventually settle there permanently, after her divorce. But less than three years later they were off again, this time to French Guiana.
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Their house stood on the banks of the Maroni River, in a coastal village on the border of Suriname. She washed their clothes in rainwater and often worked by the light of a lantern, because the house had no electricity. At dusk, the air would fill with the howl and chatter of monkeys, gathered in the surrounding trees. To Latham, the situation was less enchanting. He was never violent, he says, but his wife and children remember things differently.
Once in Dominica, Rachel told me, she threw herself between her parents to protect her mother, only to be knocked to the ground herself, and the troubles continued in Guiana. When she was fourteen, Rachel asked to be sent to boarding school, just to get away from her father. In , they moved back to Florida, where Elsbeth had her fifth and final child, Hannah, and Latham turned his efforts to building a larger, more comfortable boat.
The Elsbeth II, completed in , was his crowning achievement. Three times the size of his first tug and six times as powerful, it had three propellers and two wheelhouses—one perched thirty feet above the other, on an elevator shaft cut from an old dredge pipe. The galley was hung with abstract paintings and folk carvings from South America; the quarters were generously scaled, even for adults. On the first tug, one berth was nicknamed the Coffin. Dominique was a teen-ager by then, and already obsessed with the sea. The first real test of his skill came a year after the tug was completed.
It was early December, when the trade winds blow strong and steady, and Latham anticipated an easy tow—the rig even had a crew of more than a dozen Mexican painters on board to refurbish it as they went. A tugboat is a hard thing to sink. Break the towline, though, and the equation changes.
The runaway barge must now be reattached, in high waves that threaten to heave it into the tug like a thousand-ton battering ram.
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And so, on the night of the storm, when the engineer of record finally staggered to his berth and locked the door, Dominique took his place. From engine room to wheelhouse and back, he took orders, shouted reports, switched generators, changed fuel filters, and checked oil, water, and temperature levels.
One of the painters, hunkered in the galley with the other seasick passengers, watched him hurtle past for what seemed like the hundredth time and dubbed him Brother Kilowatt. The name stuck.
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The gale blew itself out the next day. When the barge was finally reattached and towed to Grand Cayman, the insurers declared the rig a total loss. The new tug gave play to adventures impossible in a smaller boat. It had enough power to tow an aircraft carrier and enough fuel to reach Africa without a refill. They took it to Tristan de Cunha, the most remote inhabited island in the world, and past Krakatoa. When a ship full of kiwis went adrift in the Bermuda Triangle, they towed it to Belgium before the fruit went bad.
Their circumnavigation of the globe in —from Brownsville, Texas, to Brazil, around the Cape of Good Hope to Singapore, then to British Columbia, and through the Panama Canal to Mobile, Alabama—was a triumph of tramping, perhaps unequalled by any American tug in half a century. In pictures from the expedition, Latham stands astride the open hatch: Ahab posing with his catch. Like Dominique, Rachel continued to work for her father after leaving home—albeit at a safe remove, she says. But even as Latham was becoming a legend in the towing world, she and Dominique told me, his behavior took a darker turn at home: he was a compulsive philanderer, and still given to flights of rage and even abuse.
Latham would rather not talk about those years.
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When the Smiths finally divorced, in , they divided up their land and their two houses in Palatka, Florida. Elsbeth received a cash settlement; Latham got the tugboat business. He had been planning to pass it on to his children eventually, he told me, but changed his mind. In an industry ruled by family-owned businesses, inheritance struggles are inevitable.
Other families have had similar issues. Nine years ago, in Portland, Maine, an old-time captain named Arthur Fournier sold a fleet of his tugs to the McAllisters. Nevertheless, last July, Arthur, now seventy-eight, launched a new company in the port. The McAllisters, for their part, sued Arthur for unfair competition and breach of contract. Neither Fournier, in any case, is ready to quit the tugboat business. Beginning with the Exxon Valdez oil spill, in , regulations have ratcheted up with each high-profile accident: in , when the tugboat Mauvilla, lost in fog, hit a bridge in Alabama, sending an Amtrak train plunging into the Whangaehu River; in , when a barge towed by the tug Scandia ran aground in Rhode Island, dumping nearly a million gallons of oil into Block Island Sound; in , when two asphalt barges towed by the Robert Y.
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The new severity has its good points, one McAllister captain admitted. What if someone overpowers a tug? Rachel is forty-eight now and has two grown daughters of her own. In , Rachel, Dominique, and Elsbeth pooled their savings, mortgaged two of their houses, sold a third, and bought a twenty-two-year-old tug. They docked it in Morgan City, where the oil business was still booming Latham arrived around the same time and set up shop across the river , and where Rachel could manage the business from her home office.
Dominique would fly in every month from his house in St. Augustine, Florida, to trade shifts with another captain. Earlier this year, I met Rachel and Dominique in Mexico, where their tugboat had been hired for a typically touchy enterprise. Their employer, a firm called Dragamex, wanted them to tow a pair of enormous dredging machines into an inlet near Manzanillo, on the Pacific Coast.
Dragamex had hoped to put off the operation for a week or two, but had reconsidered when the radar showed a storm front massing to the west.
The dredges had to be in place before it struck. As we pulled out of the harbor on my second morning, the wind was rising. It lofted flocks of frigate birds and pelicans high above the tug, then plunged them down again on scything wings. Dominique scanned the horizon, smudged gray by approaching rain. But he prided himself on the sobriety of his operation. His father was a master tugboater, he admitted, and had taught him most of what he knew. Dominique kept his crew on strict twenty-eight-day shifts, rather than on indefinite contracts, as Latham often did, and he had no patience for cowboys.
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Tugboat captains, like quarterbacks and fighter pilots, are born as much as made. When two vessels are tethered together, their movements become exponentially more complex. When his cousin A.
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Technology has taken some of the risk out of the business. Many new tugs can be steered by joystick—though most captains disdain it—and trainees often learn to operate them on land, in mock wheelhouses surrounded by virtual harbors. But a virtual storm is still no substitute for a howling gale, or the mad tilt and groaning steel of a ship on rough seas. By the time we arrived at the inlet, it was looking narrower and choppier than I remembered from the day before. The entrance had a long breakwater on either side, perpendicular to the coast, piled with limestone boulders and huge concrete castings.
The channel between them was about two hundred yards long and about seventy yards wide—three times the width of the barge. But the ocean current would be shoving us toward the rocks as we came in, and, if our timing was off, the crashing surf at the entrance could yank our towline in two.
He cranked in the line, to keep the barge on a tight leash, then climbed back to the flying bridge and gunned the engines. Glancing back every few seconds, he turned the tug into the mouth of the inlet, each hand on a lever, throttling the propellers forward and back, adjusting the rudder as he went.
The wind was blowing at thirty knots now, churning the waves into froth. As the barge swung around behind us, it burst through the surf and slowly drifted to the right at an angle. Jamison remembers his dad telling stories about many vessels; he remembers the A.
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Dad saw to that right before I graduated high school with a phone call to each towing company owner he knew, informing them that if they hired his son as a deckhand, he would never work for them again. After college, Jamison embarked on a successful year career as a pastor. Then he transitioned into a second career as a consultant for higher education.
The common thread was story-telling. I found myself doing exactly the same thing with faculty and staff who were trying to deal with the huge changes taking place in education because of technology, games and other things.