by Hans | August 10th, 2010
My friend Buckley McAllister has spent his life around tugboats in New York Harbor, and he belongs to one of the historic families that still rule his industry—the Crowleys, the Morans, the Fourniers, the Bouchards, the Wittes, the Watermans, and the Danns, among others. Towing ships is a dynastic business, hard to establish and harder still to give up. It’s built on deep allegiances and cutthroat margins, and its inner workings, especially in Buck’s stories about his own McAllister clan, are full of intrigue and successionary drama: fistfights, lawsuits, power struggles, and disinheritances; raging, intemperate fathers and sullen, rebellious sons.
Everyone loves a tugboat, it seems, but no one more than tugboat owners, and that love can twist a business in ways that are hard to foresee. New York was once the tugboat capital of the world, with more than eight hundred boats crisscrossing its harbor in the nineteen-thirties. The McAllisters were part of the so-called Irish Navy, with its patchy fleets of steamboats, diesel tugs, coal barges, and smaller fry, schooling on what was once known as the porgy grounds, around the Whitehall Ferry Terminal. The boats were manned by brothers, uncles, cousins, and more distant kin, their blood ties a bond against the petty thieves and extortionists of the waterfront. Tugboats were the great go-betweens of the shipping industry, connecting ocean to port and port to river. They docked ships, towed barges, salvaged freighters, and generally went where other vessels couldn’t go. About eight hundred million tons of cargo are still moved by tugboats in the United States every year, but in recent decades the traffic has gradually shifted south in search of cheaper anchorage and offshore oil work. Philadelphia, Baltimore, Norfolk, and Jacksonville now each handle tens of millions of tons every year, and Houston takes in more cargo than New York and New Jersey combined. But one of the true towing capitals of the world, Buck says, is southern Louisiana. Morgan City sits on the shores of the Atchafalaya River, an hour and a half west of New Orleans, sheltered from hurricanes by forty miles of marsh and cypress swamp. Its skyline is a skeletal framework of oil derricks and cranes, and its waters seem to breed tugboats like eels on the Sargasso Sea.
The tugs tow the derricks, loaded on barges, out to the Gulf of Mexico, then bring them back again after twenty or thirty years’ service, to join the mountains of rusted scrap along the river. The first offshore well was dug by Kerr-McGee, in 1947, but the boom didn’t begin in earnest until the late nineteen-seventies, after the Arab oil embargo. “This place was no different than the Wild West or a gold strike in the Yukon,” one tugboat captain told me. “It was a boomtown without any morals. You’d get friendly with someone in a bar and wake up the next morning on a boat heading into the Gulf. Shanghaiing was a reliable trade.” Things have calmed down since then, but only intermittently, and the Cajuns still try to keep their business in the family. One local phone book lists numbers by nickname as well as by given name—Jimmy (White Bean) Sonier, Michael (Possum) St. Tierre— as if it were still a sleepy fishing community and not a global hub. “We invented this stuff here,” another tug captain told me. “I can go into any airport in the world and meet a coonass coming or going on oil business.” About five miles east of Morgan City, below a set of locks that connect the lower Atchafalaya to the inland waterway along the coast, there is a small bridge and a floating casino called the Amelia Belle. In their shadow, two tugboats can sometimes be seen docked on opposite shores.
One belongs to Latham Smith, the owner and operator of Smith Maritime; the other belongs to his daughter Rachel and his son Dominique. Both sides of the family specialize in salvage and ocean towing, among the most dangerous and unpredictable lines of tugboat work, and they sometimes bid for the same jobs. But whereas Latham is wealthy, with a fleet of tugs, barges, and a giant derrick crane named for his second wife, Dixie, his children have only the one boat, bought with the help of their mother, Elsbeth. The two sides haven’t spoken to each other in five years. The Smiths are from Florida originally, of Irish and British extraction, but the Cajuns have accepted them as their own. Latham is something of a legend in the towing world. When he and Elsbeth first took to the sea, in the late sixties, they seemed like characters from a picture book: the little tugboat family, island-hopping across the Caribbean, homeschooling five children as they went. Together and separately, Latham and his children have weathered cyclones on the Atlantic, towed barges up the Amazon, and circumnavigated the globe, even as the industry around them has grown ever more regulated and safety-conscious. “They’re like the mad scientists of tugboating,” Buck told me. “They take on projects that most others are afraid to do.” Latham turned seventy in January, but still oversees every detail of his operation. Short and wiry, with a scraggly white beard and bright, deep-set eyes, he exudes a furtive, almost feral intensity. He has a thinning pate, a bony nose, and craggy features that tend to waver between a frown and a leer. When at work, he never seems to stop moving, as if driven by some spring-powered mechanism, endlessly self-winding. “If he ever retires, I’ll have to take speed to keep up with him,” Dixie, who is fifty-six, told me one afternoon. We were watching Latham pace across a barge docked along the inland waterway. He was barking into a cell phone while his hair and beard whipped about like waterspouts in the wind. When I asked how much longer he’d be at it, Dixie levelled her eyes at mine. “Until he drops dead,” she said. “There is no succession plan.”
Even among the local Cajuns—far from a buttoned-up crew—Smith is known for his flamboyance. I’ve seen him, at various times, in rainbow-colored socks, silver lizard-skin shoes, a brown fedora with an orange feather stuck in it (his “pimp hat,” one of his managers called it), and a white leather jacket stitched with playing cards. He has been known to go to tugboat conferences wearing an Afro wig and a soot suit, or high heels and a feather boa, and he boasts of being the only man he knows who has had strippers pay him at a club. “I think what you’ll find is that the essence of what I’m trying to do is to do things that are not boring,” he told me. “I have an extremely low threshold. I’m not an adrenaline addict, but I like to be near the edge. One of my hobbies in past years was tightrope walking.” Earlier that day, a call had come in from Latham’s operations director: the Navy had hired Smith Maritime to transport relief supplies to Haiti. It had been eight days since the country was struck by an earthquake, leaving more than two hundred thousand dead and Port-au-Prince in ruins. During the next few weeks, the American military would ship more than twenty million pounds of food and medical supplies to the island. For now, though, the airport was gridlocked—it was built for thirteen flights a day and was serving up to a hundred and fifty—its control tower cracked. At the port, the northern pier had been shaken to pieces, and its cranes had toppled into the bay. The southern pier was in slightly better shape, but its broken pilings still had to be repaired by Army divers. It was a situation tailor-made for the Smiths. Within days of the earthquake, Latham and his son sent separate e-mails to the Military Sealift Command, offering their services. Dominique declared himself “ready to help, self-sufficient,” with a “can-do attitude.” Latham was more emphatic. “We are not just a tug company,” he wrote. “We can go in and get back out in conditions that are horrific to other mariners.” Dominique’s offer was declined: his boat was half the size of Latham’s largest tug, the Elsbeth II, and he didn’t own a barge. Latham, having secured the contract, now had less than three days to ship out. He had to fuel and provision the tug, equip the barge with a forklift and a mobile crane that he did not yet own, and fly in a crew from other jobs in the Gulf and the Caribbean.
The barge would first go to Guantánamo Bay, where the Navy was to load it with pallets of relief supplies and send it on to Port-au-Prince. Guantánamo was a five-day trip from Morgan City. If the barge wasn’t there within eight days, the contract was void. When I first arrived that morning, Latham was sitting inside a weathered wooden hut next to the dock. He was on the phone with construction companies in Florida and North Carolina, dickering over prices for the crane and the forklift. When he hung up, he grimaced and scratched his beard. “I just spent six hundred thousand dollars,” he said. To get the machines to Morgan City in time, he’d have to have them inspected by a local captain and paid for by wire that day. Then he’d have to obtain special “superload” permits from six states to transport heavy equipment on the highways—usually a weeklong process. “I’m up to my eyeballs in it,” he said. Outside, a team of welders was scattered across the top of the barge—a steel expanse four stories high and nearly the size of a football field— sending up bright rooster tails of sparks. They had to attach a hundred and fifty steel D rings by the next morning, for use in strapping down cargo. Beside them, electricians were wiring up generators and tall banks of lights; deckhands were clearing out shipping containers for provisions; and shrinkwrapped bales of springwater were being swayed on board. “This is everyone doing everything at once,” Latham said. Dixie, who’d been a pharmacist before marrying Latham, five years earlier, was in charge of immunizations. “Typhus, cholera, malaria, dengue fever—there are opportunities to die of about twenty-five tropical diseases down there,” Latham said. Six sailors would be making the trip south, not including their boss, who planned to meet the boat in Haiti. Dixie had no intention of joining him. She had yet to get her sea legs, and, with her long white hair and mordant wit, had a hard time fitting in with the crew. “I was married to an Iranian for thirteen years, but this is by far the most foreign culture I’ve ever been exposed to,” she told me. “It’s like another planet peopled exclusively by smelly, hairy men.” While Dixie went off to a local clinic to schedule the immunizations, she left her toy poodle, Sophie, with Latham. He tugged her along behind him as he wandered around the dock, talking on the phone. (At one point, the dog got a paw stuck between the boards of a gangplank, and a sailor had to come and extract it.) “I’ve been on about three hundred of these operations, including that Haitian thing in ’94,” I heard him tell an Army bureaucrat who was on the line. “I was the first one in and the last one out. Everything was planned ahead of time and absolutely nothing went as planned. It just happened as it happened, and it was really better that way. Because, with all due respect to you guys in Washington, you don’t know what the fuck you’re doing in Haiti.” “That Haitian thing” was a reference to Operation Uphold Democracy, the U.S.-led effort to reinstall Haiti’s deposed President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in 1994. Latham’s tugs spent ten months shuttling between Haiti and Guantánamo that year, salvaging derelict vessels and supplying fuel to American troops.
He’d done similar work in the Gulf War, hauling a “boatload of bombs,” as he put it, to Gibraltar. As I watched him rally his troops on the dock that morning, he reminded me of Stonewall Jackson or some other Confederate general. He had the same grizzled authority, the same mixture of the courtly and the profane (his speech was larded with high-flown terms like “trepidatious”). Latham treated relief work as if he were going into battle, and battle as just another business opportunity. “I have no appreciation for war, although it is a traditional human endeavor,” he said. “And I’m good at it.” Tugboat captains have always had to make their own fortunes. They’re the symbionts of the shipping trade, in constant search of a host. When the first steam-driven tugs appeared, in the early eighteen-hundreds, they were an insult to the art of navigation. Sailors who’d spent their lives tacking up narrow inlets or into secluded bays saw hooking onto a tug as an admission of failure or frailty—like an old man taking the arm of a small boy. As late as 1835, the tugboat historian George Matteson writes, a little brig called the Galen spent two weeks fighting her way up the Mississippi, trying to get from the Gulf to New Orleans. A tug could have taken her there in not much more than a day. The early tugs were expensive to staff and almost comically difficult to steer. A twelve-hundred-horsepower boat might burn twenty tons of coal in a day and require ten men to shovel it. Every time the tug needed to reverse direction, the engine had to be stopped and re-started, by which point the boat might well have run aground. Wheelhouse and engine room were only tenuously connected. To change course or speed, the captain had to send his orders down to the engineer via a system of gongs and bells threaded through the boat, as if phoning a foreign country. The busiest tugs, Matteson writes, averaged more than five hundred bell commands in an eight-hour shift. On trickier maneuvers, the rate could rise to six per minute. Modern tugs are very different beasts. They can have ten thousand horsepower and carry a hundred thousand gallons of fuel. Their propulsion systems have evolved from coal to diesel, paddle wheel to propeller, single- screw to double-screw to fully revolving, azimuth-mounted drives that can spin a boat like a top. If tugs were once an insult to navigation, they now make other ships seem like “a box with a rule book,” as Latham puts it. Most cargo ships spend their time tracing latitudinal lines. They may go five thousand miles without changing course. Then, when things finally get interesting—when land heaves into view and headlands rise, when currents intersect and winds barrel down from surrounding slopes, when a narrow channel must be negotiated under bridges, between breakwaters, and into a crowded port—the tug captain takes over. Latham is true to the breed in some ways. He’s a cheap bastard and an exceptional seaman. He prides himself on his self-reliance and can do every job on a boat—from rigging towlines to welding steel.
“My father is a MacGyver,” Dominique told me. His competition is nearly as fierce. The shipping industry has gone on a construction spree lately, building behemoths more than a thousand feet long with as much cargo space as eleven thousand trucks. “They have double the capacity of ships that were trading on the same lanes just ten years ago,” Buck McAllister told me. The larger ships mean that fewer but more powerful tugs are required to tow the same amount of cargo, and shipping schedules have accelerated dramatically. Break-bulk cargo, laboriously sorted onshore, has long since given way to uniform steel containers, transferred to truck or train by crane or conveyor belt. Tugs that could once afford to lie at port for a week or two now have turnarounds of less than twenty-four hours. Latham’s frenetic pace, in other words, is business as usual. At one point, in the middle of a phone call, he unzipped his fly and relieved himself over the side of the barge as he talked. “He does that all over the world,” one of his crew members told me. The Haiti job had arrived at a good time. Up and down the inland waterway, hundreds of tugs were sitting in their berths, waiting for the oil business to pick up. “The workload is probably thirty per cent slower than usual,” Latham said. “And this is the time of year when it’s already thirty or forty per cent down.” To pull in the slack, Smith Maritime had been taking jobs wherever they could be found: hauling refinery modules to Port Arthur, sinking a decommissioned warship for an artificial reef off Key West. But the diciest and most lucrative work was in West Africa.
The region’s offshore oil industry was rapidly expanding, often with used equipment from the Gulf. “In Nigeria, everything is negotiated,” Latham said. “After you sign a contract, they think it’s just the beginning. You want to bloat the price, skim the top, insure the vessel, and make sure you’re making money before you even deliver. Because if you don’t think there are going to be problems you’re a damn fool and a jackass.” In the summer of 2008, the Elsbeth II towed two barges to Africa, one of them with a liftboat perched on top. A liftboat is a vessel used to service offshore oil rigs. It has a large open deck, one or more cranes, and three enormous hydraulic legs. The legs can be dropped to the ocean floor, turning the ship into a stable platform, or jacked up above the boat, so that they sway more than sixty feet in the air. It’s an extremely awkward thing to ferry across the Atlantic, and too heavy to pick up and set onto a barge. To load it, Latham first had to flood his barge with water until it floated just below the surface—a procedure precariously close to sinking it. Then he positioned the liftboat over it and pumped the water back out. Tug and barges went on to cross the ocean to Nigeria without mishap. “People had done that before, but they usually lost legs on the trip over,” John Patton, the captain for the first segment of that trip and for the forthcoming trip to Haiti, told me. “We didn’t.” The Nigerian coast is among the most dangerous in the world. In a period of ten days last April, bands of AK-47-wielding pirates attacked three ships and took eleven men hostage. In August, Patton took another barge to West Africa, this one meant for transporting oil. Rather than risk attack, he pulled up off the Nigerian coast and informed the buyers that he’d arrived. “They were trying to entice us to come in,” he says. “That’s what they do. Then they hold you hostage for the same amount that they paid to get you there.” Patton, who is sixty-three, has been a tug captain for nearly forty years. A lean, wolfish ex-marine with a laconic voice and a droopy mustache, he was wounded three times in Vietnam—“I cleaned floors and shot people,” he told me—and isn’t easily rattled by crises at sea. On the trip in question, he didn’t bother negotiating. He just called in the barge’s coördinates, dropped its anchor, and sped away in the tug. “We turned off our electronics so they couldn’t track us till we got a hundred miles’ head start,” he says.
“Our next stop, twenty-eight days later, was Dominica.” Carrying firearms for self-defense is discouraged or forbidden on most commercial vessels, but the rise of Somali and Nigerian piracy has led some companies to rethink their policies. “We may have been able to cook up a couple of surprises for them,” Patton told me. The following night, I was sitting in the galley of the derrick barge, when Latham plopped into the chair beside me, visibly exhausted. “I need a new body,” he said. He was having trouble getting transport permits for the forklift coming from North Carolina—it was wider and heavier than expected, and some states wouldn’t allow it on the highway at night. But what worried him most was the barge’s safety once it arrived in Haiti. A lightly manned vessel, piled high with food, is an irresistible target for looters, and the fine for stowaways can be twenty thousand dollars and plane fare home—both payable by the tugboat company. “They’re out there sleeping in dugout canoes,” Latham said. “They’re desperate, they’re starving. Nothing against them as human beings, but, if you let one on, after an hour there’ll be three hundred, and an hour later you’ll be a stripped carcass.” He turned and snapped at one of his crew: “There are some twelve-gauge shotguns on that boat, but there’s no ammo. What the fuck good is a shotgun without ammo?” “I think John took off the shotguns.” “Then we’ve fucking got to get some new ones. We need ammo and we need slingshots. You have to defend yourself or die. That’s the rules. There is a guy who has to get something in his belly or he’ll kill you. And I ain’t going to be et.”
Latham’s survival instinct has no clear genetic root, nor does his equal and opposite tendency to throw himself into harm’s way. His father was a small-town lawyer in landlocked central Florida, his mother a music teacher. His older brother and a younger sister were lawyers, his youngest sister had a Ph.D. in psychology, and Latham’s failure to follow suit was a deep disappointment to his father. As a boy at St. Andrew’s preparatory school in Sewanee, Tennessee, he excelled in mathematics and track, but mostly dreamed of the sea. Before getting shipped off to St. Andrew’s, at the age of eleven, he’d made a kayak out of wood and canvas. He dubbed it the U.S.S. Idiot, in honor of his friends’ opinion of him when he began the project, but it worked just fine. Six years later, he was halfway done building a catamaran when Yale offered him a scholarship. “That ruined all my plans,” he says. “It was like coitus interruptus.” New Haven, as Latham recalls, was “a cold, wet place, with people telling me what to do.” He arrived in the fall of 1957, at the height of the Eisenhower years, when wearing anything but Brooks Brothers or J. Press could get you labelled a beatnik, he says. “They had, to put it politely, the establishment mind-set, which does not allow for certain adventures of the mind and the body.” Latham was a “fidgety” youth, by his own account, prone to spending hours in the library studying anything but the assignment at hand. By the end of his freshman year, he claims, he had the lowest grade-point average at Yale. “It takes more effort to do that than to be nonchalant.” He took a leave of absence and lived with friends at Harvard, where he rode a Harley and did odd jobs for the mathematician Claude Shannon, the father of information theory. Then he returned to Florida, met a girl—she was playing the organ in a chapel one evening, and he followed the sound till he found her—got married, and went back to New Haven for one last, failed year at Yale, before heading south again.
Florida, in the early sixties, was still mostly undeveloped, its swampy backwaters a haven for rednecks and hippie dropouts. Latham became a little of both. He began by driving a bulldozer for his father-in-law near Daytona Beach, clearing land for I-95, tomato farms, and watermelon patches. Then he moved to the Everglades, on the Gulf Coast, where his wife, Elsbeth, took a job as a fire spotter in a lookout tower and Latham worked as a stonecrab fisherman. They had two girls in four years—Rachel in 1961, and Rhea in 1965—and always seemed to be short of money. Yet, in the flickering frames of their home movies from that period, their lives seem suffused with joy. Elsbeth has hip-length red hair and a pale, freckled face lit with a determined innocence. Latham is lithe and deeply tanned, with shaggy hair and a satyr’s crooked grin. His brother, Spencer, was a civil-rights lawyer in Miami who’d done work for Allen Ginsberg and Martin Luther King, Jr., among others, and he gradually drew Latham’s family into his circle. Elsbeth attended the March on Washington in 1963, and when King came to Florida the following year she and Latham joined him for the protests in St. Augustine. “He was very much anti-establishment,” John Patton, who first met Latham in the late sixties, remembers. “I had just come back from Vietnam—I’ve got a coffee cup that says, ‘The only Woodstock I knew in ’69 was an M-14.’ So I didn’t have much use for longhaired leaping gnomes.” Yet Latham had more grit than it seemed.
In 1968, the family moved to Miami and he began to do repair work on tugs and other boats. (He had taught himself welding by then, as well as metal fabrication.) The tugs struck him as by far the more interesting vessels. “With a ship, you have to go the straights and narrows. Tugs can go up the nooks and crannies,” he says. “With tugs, you can change your mind and do what you want to.” He took careful note of what needed repair—where water collected and timbers rotted, engines failed and hulls were unstable—and what didn’t. “I stole every good idea of every boat I ever saw,” he told me. Then he set about building a tug of his own. There was, to be a sure, a question of financing. “I was considered to be totally insane,” Latham says. “And insane people don’t borrow money easily.” A tugboat isn’t cheap to build. Latham’s had to be as powerful as a freighter and as maneuverable as a Zodiac. It needed cables, winches, and a fully equipped galley, a high wheelhouse for peering down at barges and a heavy keel for staying upright in storms. A good boat could cost half a million dollars in those days—a tenth of what it would now—yet Latham had little savings. Worse, he had no blueprints, no templates, no tug-building experience aside from his repair work. Although he scoured local bookstores and libraries for plans, he found them of only moderate use. “Damn few naval architects live out of sight of land for a year,” he says. “They just interact with college types and read formulas.” Instead, he followed his own instincts and observations. “I guess I would compare it to how a bird knows how to build a nest,” he says. “You fly around and get twigs, and it just stays up.” Every line of a tug’s design entails a compromise of some sort: the larger the propellers, the deeper the draft; the stronger the engine, the greater the fuel consumption. “For everything you want, you have to give something up,” Latham says. Harbor tugs that spend their time docking ships and shuffling barges can sit low in the water. But to navigate Lake Okeechobee or the inland waterways of the Florida Keys, or to snake his way to any of a thousand cheap inland anchorages worldwide, Latham needed a boat with a flat bottom that drew less than seven feet of water. “It’s a huge part of profitability, the shallow draft,” he says. “And it’s more fun.” He needed twin propellers to negotiate the twisting inlets along the way, and a high bow to breast Atlantic swells. He needed berths for two or more crewmen as well as his family, and at least a few of the comforts of home. When the boat was done, Latham intended to live on it. “Frankly, I was skeptical,” Elsbeth, who is sixty-nine, told me recently. “Anyone would have some doubts about putting their family on an untested boat.”
For the next two years, Latham did his repair work by day and most of his tug work at night. “I built it when most people sleep,” he says. He began with three thousand dollars and “a big pile of dirty steel,” scavenged from sites around Miami. The three-quarter-inch plate for the hull came from some discarded oil tanks on Biscayne Boulevard. The framing was from a demolished warehouse by the interstate. An old telephone truck, fitted with a boom, served as a crane, and an empty lot along the Miami River as a shipyard. Latham did much of the work with Hans Peter Newe, a German sailor who’d come from Mexico on a sailing ship and decided to stick around. Newe was a gifted woodworker and shipwright. He spoke seven languages, read Shakespeare in Spanish, and had been a stunt double for Marlon Brando in “Mutiny on the Bounty,” Elsbeth says. “They had a symbiotic experience, building that boat,” she told me. “Peter had the carpentry, Latham had the ability to scrounge the money and bend the steel.” Theirs was a strange, hybrid beast of a boat. It had a curved, pointed bow like a Viking ship’s and a slab-sided wheelhouse of marine-varnished wood. It had a hobbit-hole bedroom for the girls, tucked behind the galley, and a piano bolted to the floor in the captain’s quarters, for Elsbeth to play. (Later, a stuffed moose head hung above the bed, slowly losing its hair to the tropical humidity.) The railings were of exotic purpleheart, the panelling of angelique, the floorboards of American pine, laid on wide-set joists to give them more spring and make them easy on the feet. The propellers were oversized and driven by two five-hundredhorsepower Caterpillar engines—both still running, forty years later—and the hull drew less than six feet of water. “You take that design to a shipyard and ask them to build a tug and they’ll laugh you out of the door,” John Patton told me. But Latham went on to build three more like it, each substantially larger and more versatile. When I asked Patton why more builders didn’t copy Latham’s design, he laughed. “A lot of people don’t think they’re as functional as they really are. Besides, it’s his signature, and nobody wants to copy Latham Smith’s signature. It’s like Elvis Presley wearing his collar up.”
They finished the tug in the spring of 1969, heaving it onto a pair of steel skids and down into the green Miami. In a Super 8 film of the sea trial, Allen Ginsberg is along for the ride, the wind tossing his already tousled hair. He and his partner, Peter Orlovsky, had become fascinated by the tug—Orlovsky had even written a poem about it—and Latham, for all his suspicions of Eastern intellectuals, had taken to Ginsberg as well. “What I was doing was strange to the maritime community,” he told me. “But Allen had worked in the Brooklyn shipyard, and he would come and ask me questions in a very thoughtful and gentle way, to get me to verbalize what was maybe visual but not verbal. To me, it was like I’d had a vision, and Allen wanted to penetrate that veil.” In the film, they stand side by side in the wheelhouse, both wearing thick black glasses—an homage of sorts, in Latham’s case, since he was rarely seen in them again—grinning into the sun like two small boys on a Ferris wheel. Rachel was in third grade when her parents pulled her out of Catholic school and moved the family onto the tug. “I wasn’t too happy about it,” she told me. “No. Hell no. I had my little routines, and there was no TV.” Shy and bespectacled, with her mother’s freckles and carroty hair, she was a bookworm, with little interest in the sea. On the day of the launch, she was deep into a biography of Thomas Edison, and she later reorganized the ship’s library according to the Dewey decimal system. (Latham, for his part, favored medical and engineering texts. “It’s simple logistics,” he told me. “If you take novels on board, you need a cubic yard. If you take technical manuals, you need cubic feet.”) It was only later, Rachel says, that she realized that she had begun a great adventure. Building the tug had put the family seventy-five thousand dollars in debt, despite all Latham’s economies and a loan from his mother. Given that they’d never made more than a few thousand a year, this was a fortune—the payments on the engines alone came to fifteen hundred a month.
To stay afloat, the tug had to keep moving, stringing jobs together from one port to the next, in what was known as tramping. Their first well-paying job took them from Miami to Walker’s Cay, in the Bahamas, towing a bargeload of red golf carts for Bebe Rebozo, the Florida banker and a close personal friend of Richard Nixon. Later, they hauled loads up and down the East Coast, to the Caribbean and South America. They took I-beams to Trinidad and nuclear-reactor vessels to Norfolk and New York. They carried bauxite-mining equipment into British Guiana and drill pipe up the Amazon, hanging kerosene lanterns to light their way. They salvaged a ship full of green bananas off Puerto Rico and towed blackstrap molasses to rum distilleries in Barbados, St. Thomas, St. Martin, and Puerto Rico. “When we started out, you could do anything,” Elsbeth says. “You could pick up your crew from the homeless section of the DuPont Plaza parking lot and take ’em out and sober ’em up.”
They called them “tug trash” in those days—big, beer-swollen men who lurched from boat to boat for thirty or forty dollars a day and a square meal or two. “The other tugboats, they always went for the old alkies and the deadbeat people,” Elsbeth says. “We took a different approach.” For the first six months, Hans Peter Newe served as co-captain and crew, but the rumble and smoke of the engines eventually drove him off. (He later made two solo crossings of the Atlantic in a small boat, Latham says, then moved to Belize to build wooden ships.) To replace him, Latham took to hiring any sailor or surfer who wandered past, and whose conversation he could half abide. “It was the time of the flower children, the Beatles, and the long skirts,” Elsbeth says. “We found people everywhere, just everywhere—beautiful young people. These hippies would come down on a one-way ticket from Florida to Rincón, Puerto Rico, and they’d run out of money and get desperate. So we’d hire them just for the ride back to the States.” At one point, a young Harvard-trained physician named Andrew Weil tried to hitch a ride to South America, hoping to study hallucinogens and higher consciousness. (His research was later the basis for his best-seller “The Natural Mind.”) Latham declined to take him. “He had the most unnatural fucking mind that I’ve ever seen,” he says. “He would have been a very heavy burden to carry through the jungle.”
When regulations began to tighten, in the seventies, and a minimum of two licensed sailors were required on every tug, Latham and Elsbeth both put in for captain’s licenses. She got hers first. “He didn’t study for the test,” she says. “He thought he knew everything already.” Elsbeth took charge of the girls’ education as well. 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 the afternoons, they’d paint with watercolors, practice the piano, or sit around singing Joan Baez songs or the Irish rebel ballads that Elsbeth loved. In those early, vagabonding years, Rachel would spend hours just staring at the sea and its quicksilver light. “I was immersed in this fairy world,” she says, “imagining all the possible places or lives for myself, wondering how far the ocean went, or how it would be if I could walk on top of it, or run beside the boat. What it would be like if I fell in.” When they reached shore, on their molasses runs to Puerto Rico, she and Rhea would visit the wooden cargo ships that brought salt from Anguilla, and watch the sailors slap dominoes on the dock. Or they’d wander into Old San Juan, pushing their little sister Rebekah in a stroller across the cobblestones. (She was born in Florida, in 1970, and they were back on the boat five days later.) If they were lucky, their mother would take them to the fortress of El Morro for a history lesson, or to the Librería Escorial, to buy Magnum Easy Eye editions of Charles Dickens or Jack London. As for Latham, his opinion of formal schooling hadn’t improved much, Rachel says. “It was ‘Oh, they can’t teach you anything. You’ll learn more here in the real world.’ ” Still, if the mood seized him, he might take them on the deck to look through a sextant or trace constellations, or teach them to tie a Turk’s Head knot or a Monkey’s Fist. 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. “My father’s sense was that what doesn’t hurt them will just make them stronger,” Rachel says. At night, if their cabin was too stifling and hot from the engines throbbing next door, they’d drag their bedsheets outside and crawl into the Boston whaler on deck, to drift asleep beneath the spangled sky while Elsbeth played piano. “We just had this extraordinary sense of being wild and free,” Rachel says. If life on the tug seemed a romantic endeavor to Latham—“Are you kidding?” he told me. “We wanted to see the world!”—it was often a grind for Elsbeth.
In addition to teaching and taking care of the children, she cooked, stood watch, managed the crew, and occasionally hauled the ropes. “I worked tremendously hard,” she told me. “Physically hard. I did always long for more time ashore. But even when the tug was paid for Latham wouldn’t stop.” In 1974, 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. Their house stood on the banks of the Maroni River, in a coastal village on the border of Suriname. Built by convicts from a nearby penal colony made famous by the movie “Papillon,” it was surrounded by jungle, its ceilings traversed by tarantulas, the air so fecund that books turned green and fell to pieces in your hands. “I loved it,” Elsbeth says. 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 away for long stretches, dredging the river on a contract from the French government, and angrier and angrier at Elsbeth’s absence from the boat. 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. Outwardly, at least, the family’s circumstances slowly improved after that. In 1978, 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 1987, 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. Latham’s frugality was now veneered with luxury. 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 only thing I was good at was being on the water,” he told me. Unlike Rachel, he had never taken to his mother’s schooling, and spent more and more of his time in the engine room—first with his father, then with a team of Finnish engineers who periodically came to service the tug’s Wärtsilä engines. It wasn’t long before Dominique could pull the engines apart and put them back together on his own, replace the pistons or help balance the turbine blades like a Swiss watch. The first real test of his skill came a year after the tug was completed. Latham had taken a job towing a barge with an oil rig on it from Sabine Pass, Texas, to Lake Maracaibo, in Venezuela. 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. They had crossed the Gulf and the Yucatán Channel and were nearing the southern coast of Jamaica when the storm hit. “There were thirty-five-, forty-knot gales with seas to eighteen feet,” Dominique remembers. “We were drifting toward the Honduran coast, and we didn’t have very good radio communication.” On board the barge, a forklift broke free and smashed everything in its way, then a towline snapped and the oil rig began to come apart. “The welds are starting to crack and the painting crew can see these legs about to fall—I’m talking two hundred feet tall and forty feet wide. It’s a massive structure, and they’re starting to panic.” On the tug, a rope wrapped around one of the propellers, disabling it, and the engineer had a breakdown of his own. “He went into the fetal position in the hallway,” Elsbeth remembers. “The strain of the storm was just terrible.” A tugboat is a hard thing to sink. When attached to a barge, its total length and depth can be greater than a supertanker’s, and it’s much more stoutly constructed. “You just seal all your holes and you’re a bubble on the ocean,” Latham told me. 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. “The tug has huge propellers that act like parachutes when it stops, but the barge is very heavy and streamlined,” Latham said. “The tug will stop in three hundred feet, but the barge will maintain its speed for half a mile—it has a glide slope to destruction like a 747.” To keep a safe distance from the barge, a tug “cannot and must not lose power,” Latham says. 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. “I had no choice,” he says. “It was all hands on deck.” For the next three days, as the boat careered between walls of water and the crew struggled to reattach the towline, and as a Coast Guard helicopter shuttled the painters from the barge to the tug in high winds and Latham steered the ship, Dominique seemed to never stop running. 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. “I finally fell asleep in the engine room, lying on the steel plates,” Dominique says. “It was like ‘Das Boot.’ ” 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.
“Really, in all honesty, I grew up too young,” Dominique told me. “When you’re working hard at sea at fifteen, and you go drink a beer ashore in some foreign country, you see some seedy things. I was the crew’s little mascot.” By seventeen, Dominique had become his father’s chief engineer; at eighteen, he dropped out of high school; at twenty-one, he earned his captain’s license; at twenty-three, he commanded his first transatlantic voyage. 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. The Smiths took it to the mouth of the Congo, up the Orinoco and the Río de la Plata. 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 1991—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. A few years later, Latham and Dominique hauled a Second World War submarine from Istanbul to New Orleans and up the Mississippi River to Arkansas. 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. After graduating from Hampshire College, in 1985, she stayed in Northampton, Massachusetts, and eventually set up an office at home to manage her father’s fleet, booking contracts and coördinating trips. 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. “He had this belief that the laws of normal society didn’t apply to him, and by having this boat he had total control of his domain, of this floating world,” Rachel says. “He used to joke that ‘the only crime is getting caught.’ ” Latham would rather not talk about those years. “I’m thinking about having a future instead,” he told me in Morgan City. He blamed his family’s bitterness on his divorce and remarriage—“It certainly wasn’t anything that I wanted, or that I did”—and his refusal to retire early. Yet even Dixie acknowledged that the family’s dysfunction had deeper roots. “Have you read ‘Mosquito Coast’?” she asked me. “You know how it starts like an idyllic adventure, and you scratch the surface and everything is broken?” She paused. “They have their reasons.” When the Smiths finally divorced, in 2000, 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. “Hoping your kids do all right is a great instinct and I’m loaded with it,” he said. “But I’ve watched hereditary princes in industrial families, and they don’t seem to do well. I don’t think I should put my children through that.” If nothing else is conventional about the Smiths’ story, the last part is. In an industry ruled by family-owned businesses, inheritance struggles are inevitable.
The McAllisters, for instance, have had a succession of family skirmishes over the years, starting with Buck’s great-great-grandfather, whose second wife sued her stepson for ownership of the tugboats. Buck’s greatgrandfather went on to fire his son for converting a steam tug to diesel (a prescient move, as it turned out); his grandfather and great-uncle spent twenty years wrestling for company control; and his father nearly lost the tugs to a businessman brought in to save them. “The current era is one of uncharacteristic peace,” Buck says. 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. The two families were close: Arthur’s eldest living son, Brian, was named after Buck’s father, and the McAllisters kept him on as president of the operation in Portland. Nevertheless, last July, Arthur, now seventyeight, launched a new company in the port. He has since undercut his son’s prices, swiped one or more of his clients—depending on which family you ask—and sued Brian for defamation of character. 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. “What would you rather be?” one tug captain asked me. “If you had the opportunity to be a tugboat captain or a bank teller, what would you choose?” Yet the footloose spirit that once sent sailors to sea has been slowly starched out of the business—mostly with good reason.
Beginning with the Exxon Valdez oil spill, in 1989, regulations have ratcheted up with each high-profile accident: in 1993, when the tugboat Mauvilla, lost in fog, hit a bridge in Alabama, sending an Amtrak train plunging into the Whangaehu River; in 1996, 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 2002, when two asphalt barges towed by the Robert Y. Love struck a highway bridge in Oklahoma, dumping eight cars and three trucks into the Arkansas River. “Used to be you could get away with just about murder,” another tug captain told me. “We’ve entered a new age.” Most tug captain’s licenses now require at least three years’ training at sea, if not a four-year degree from a maritime academy. Background checks, safety inspections, and drug and alcohol tests are mandatory, as are certifications in radar, firefighting, first aid, and social responsibility. As a result, in the past decade oil spills have decreased by more than eighty per cent compared with the nineteen-nineties, and crew fatalities and injuries have been nearly cut in half. The new severity has its good points, one McAllister captain admitted. “I get into some pretty cool shit, running mock drills for catastrophic events. Who’s hiding a bomb on a pier? What if someone overpowers a tug?” Yet the tramping days of Latham’s youth, when a sailor could spend his shore leave exploring the markets of Bangkok, the bars of Panama City, are gone. Towing a thousand-foot container ship will always be an awe-inspiring experience—the ropes as thick as tree trunks and spools the size of houses, like children’s toys for giants, and everything dwarfed by the immensity of the sea. But, in the meagre hours between just-in-time contracts, today’s crews are mostly confined to their ships, at slips sealed off from land by high fences and razor wire. “People say, ‘Oh, you’ve travelled so much, you’ve been to so many beautiful places!’ ”Rachel told me. “And I think, Yeah, I’ve been to all the industrial backwaters of the world.”
Rachel is forty-eight now and has two grown daughters of her own. Her red hair is cut short and hennaed, her bookworm’s glasses replaced by contacts, her broad Irish face lit by something of her mother’s incandescence, in their old movies. She lives alone in New Orleans, in a doubleshotgun Victorian near Frenchmen’s Street, its walls lined with shelves of English and French fiction, Buddhist philosophy, seafaring histories, and bric-a-brac from her travels. She doesn’t like to sugarcoat her history, she told me. “But I don’t know what I would trade off. You get the life you get, and I wouldn’t have wanted to give up on all these adventures. I can’t believe the shit that we lived.” In 2005, Rachel, Dominique, and Elsbeth pooled their savings, mortgaged two of their houses, sold a third, and bought a twenty-two-year-old tug. Designed for the Alaskan coast, the Miss Lis, named for Dominique’s wife, was a class smaller than the Elsbeth II but shared many of its virtues: sturdy build, shallow draft, storm-worthy behavior. 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. It was a risky move by anyone’s standard. The tug was a “fugitive asset,” in banker’s terms—a million-dollar boat that a single bad decision could scrap. And, like Latham forty years earlier, the Smiths planned to take it where other tugs couldn’t go.
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. “It’s rougher than I was hoping, for sure,” he said. Standing next to Rachel on the tug’s flying bridge, on the deck above the wheelhouse, he kept his face to the wind and his back ramrod straight, like a wooden figurehead. He had his father’s bantam frame and scruffy blond hair, his sparky temperament and salty yet formal speech. 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. “But I don’t miss the out-of-control part of it,” he said. 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. “His is a different type of sailor,” he said, “hard to keep in check.” 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. Steering them through tight turns and choppy seas while adjusting for currents and tides, anticipating drift, and operating independent propellers requires a degree of timing, coördination, and spatial reasoning rare in humans. Even if a sailor can do it, he may run up a quarter million dollars in damages before he’s trained. “That’s one slip of the wheel,” Buck told me. When his cousin A.J. graduated from maritime academy, he added, his grandfather half-jokingly tried to send him to their rivals, the Morans, for his first job. “When you’re done banging up their tugs,” he said, “you can come drive ours.”
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. (When I tried my hand at this recently, at the Maritime Simulation Institute, in Middletown, Rhode Island, I spent an hour doing doughnuts in Los Angeles Harbor; I couldn’t seem to stop ramming my bow into the container ship I was towing—and that was before the computer called in the heavy fog and twenty-foot seas.) 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. “Let’s wait fifteen minutes or half an hour and see if the waves go down,” a Dragamex spotter onshore suggested, over the radio. Dominique demurred. “The longer we wait, the larger the waves may become,” he said. “O.K., let’s do it.” Dominique climbed down to the stern station, behind the wheelhouse, and looked back over the tug’s massive towing winch. 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. A second, smaller tug, owned by Dragamex, had attached a towline to the barge’s stern, and, like circus trainers with an unruly elephant, the two boats leaned hard against their ropes, trying to bring the dumb beast in line. “Dominique, watch it!” Rachel shouted, her voice tight, then looked on helplessly as the barge headed toward the rocks. Tugboat accidents almost always unfold in slow motion. If a course isn’t corrected five or ten minutes ahead of time, it’s usually too late.
“I’ve gotten a call from a captain saying that he had a problem, and we had our lawyer on the road before the collision occurred,” Buck told me. Dominique had better instincts than most. At the age of thirty-five, he’d probably spent a hundred thousand hours at sea, yet most jobs still came down to a do-or-die moment like this. “The tugboat business is ninety per cent boredom and ten per cent terror,” he liked to say. Swinging the nose of the tug around, he pulled the towline nearly perpendicular to the barge’s bow. For a second, the barge seemed sure to hit the rocks anyway, but then, gradually, it turned aside, skimming past the breakwater and into the heart of the inlet, catching a final wave before drifting elegantly into place. Below us, in the bow of the tug, someone let out a whoop. When I looked down, I saw one of Dominique’s crew, a hulking, bearded twenty-threeyear- old named Lars-Erik William Edward Johanssen, a.k.a. the Swedish Meatball. He was grinning up at us, his red cheeks flecked with sea spray. “That was fucking bad-ass!” he shouted. “That was awesome. It was like surfing!” Rachel shook her head, her eyes still bright with tension. “I wasn’t thinking ‘awesome.’ I was thinking something else,” she said. “There, for a moment, I sort of saw our whole tugboat career pass before my eyes.” I thought of Latham, on the other side of Mexico and across the blue Gulf, and wondered what he would have thought of his son and daughter.
In a few weeks, the Elsbeth II would finally reach Haiti, after a short delay in Guantánamo Bay, only to sit idly at anchor for a month while Sealift Command sorted through its relief plans. A huge black pit bull named Maximus would be on board, acquired from one of Latham’s neighbors at the last minute, for added protection from looters. The dog would spend most of the voyage moping about the deck, nauseated by the waves, then gradually get his sea legs under him and patrol the barge with a heavy chain around his neck. “Black dogs are bad luck in Haiti,” John Patton told me recently. “Having one bark at you, as big as he was, with a big chain as a collar—it’s discouraging.” But there wasn’t much to steal. The port was so crowded with relief vessels and barges that the Elsbeth II was never given any food or medical supplies to transport, and was finally sent home in March. By April, the tug was off on its next adventure, hauling another liftboat to Nigeria. Towing is an unpredictable business, for all its new regulations and automated systems. It seems certain, though, that the Smiths will never work together again, and just as certain that they’ll always be on tugboats. “When I was trying to become captain of the Elsbeth II, Rachel and my dad and mom wouldn’t let me, because of the fear of failure,” Dominique told me. “They’d hire these yo-yos instead. Then, finally, my dad said, ‘Go ahead,’ and I did a tandem tow from Baltimore to Maracaibo. It just came natural. It came with great ease.” He laughed. “It’s one of those things you’re born with, I guess. When I proposed to my wife, I warned her, ‘You’re marrying a tugboater. That’s all I know how to do.’ ” .www.newyorker.com