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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
“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.
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.”
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