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“But with the tugs, our main job is moving barges in the harbor. We’re not going to be able to assist a big ship. We’re not doing that business. But on a big ship, if we do happen to be involved, what you’ll see is two Foss tugs or maybe two Foss tugs and a Crowley tug, whatever, and they’ll want to go into a shipyard like Westcoast Marine or Continental, and they’ve got a 600-foot-long Navy ship, which they’ve got to back into the slip but which is too wide to have one of their big tugs alongside at a 90-degree angle, so they’ll use one of ours because it’s shorter. Ours is about 40 feet long; theirs is 80 or 100 feet long. So they use us because of our dimensions. They’ll stick us in little holes where we can maneuver in positions nobody else can get. Our equipment is only good for certain jobs, but there’re a lot of them. Then there’s the case where maybe two of our tugs can take the place of a bigger tug. But really, the bread and butter is the fact we have a better rate than they do and can move a lot of big equipment around more efficiently. So they go after the big, sexy tugboat moves, and we’re just out there like little bees, you know, buzzing around the bay. And if you’re out on the water and look around on most days, you’ll see these little gray boats with white stripes everywhere you look.”

Steve Frailey is originally from Michigan but grew up in Orange County. After high school, he enlisted in the Navy, came to San Diego to the Navy Dive School, then was stationed as a Navy diver in Italy. It was in the Navy that he learned to operate boats. After the Navy, he settled in San Diego, married his high school sweetheart, and worked for 15 years as a shipmaster for Campbell Shipyard, running all their dry docks. Campbell, among other things, made tuna boats, and at one point there were 250 tuna boats homeported in San Diego. Afterward, Frailey operated tugs in Florida for a year, but then came back to work for Westcoast.

The deckhand that morning was Benny Rodriguez, who has worked for Westcoast for a year and has lived in San Diego for four years. Originally from Saint Louis, he came here because his wife is from Tijuana and wanted to return. Now he can’t imagine living anywhere else. He is about 40, thin with brown hair, a mustache, goatee, constant sunglasses, and a thick Southern accent. He has 12 years of experience working on riverboats on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.

“I’ve done this a long time,” Benny told me. “I started in 1980. I’ve done a lot of different jobs — riverboat jobs, I’ve worked offshore on tugs, I worked on a supertanker a year, I know a lot of the shore aspects of it in refineries, I worked on the Houston docks for four years, so I’m a pretty safe worker. I’ve really never been hurt out here. As for the bigger companies like Foss, they have their pluses and minuses. Here you know all your bosses, they know your name, they help you out, you’re not just paid to be a deckhand, it’s, you know, Hey, can Benny do this, can Benny do that? The smaller companies will work a lot more with you in situations where if you’ve got something that your family needs done, you don’t gotta worry about losing your job. So it’s basically a fun job if you don’t mind coming in real early in the morning, you know, it’s more like being with your friends instead of coming in to have somebody on top of you all day, whipping you, you know? At times it can be dangerous, but with a good wheelman and good deckhand who don’t put themselves into a bad situation, you can avoid the danger, but it can be dangerous for people who aren’t knowledgeable.”

Apart from his pleasure in the work itself, Benny’s sense of the job is mostly aesthetic. He spoke of the beauty of the Mississippi River, adding, “Most of the locks have deer and geese hanging out around them.” He searched for the words to try to describe what made his present job important to him, why he couldn’t imagine ever working on land again, but the words wouldn’t come to him and he quit trying. “Well, I like being out on the water, mainly — all the good scenery, nice sunsets, sunrises.”

What’s now left of Campbell Shipyard is an open dock area, about 100 pilings, and an old watchman whom Frailey knew during his years as a shipmaster. Beyond it is the southern end of the mammoth convention center. Frailey explained that the work has been delayed while a number of environmental issues have been sorted out. For instance, what might happen when a piling is pulled out of the mud? Possibly toxic chemicals would be released. Now, however, tests had shown that it was safe to pull. Further environmental restrictions, however, require that the pilings and old docks be removed within a month. Because of the nesting of the least terns, an endangered species, there is a noise restriction in the bay after April 1, which means, among other things, that no pilings can be driven or removed.

I asked Frailey if other environmental restrictions affected their work, and he spoke of the rules protecting the eelgrass that had been planted around the western end of the Coronado bridge, in South Bay, in sections around Shelter Island and Harbor Island, and other places to reduce levels of carbon dioxide in the water. In these areas it is illegal to disturb the bottom in any way, such as with an anchor or prop wash.

“Actually, it’s a very minor nuisance,” said Frailey. “I first came here in ’81, and I’ve seen a lot of the bottom of the bay, originally as a diver. What they’ve done has worked. It’s a lot cleaner now and there’s a lot more fish.”

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