Water Under the Bridge

For more than two decades, Jim Wellington has marked the ebb and flow of the Miami River with a Zen master's eye

"Everything's interesting on the river," he says.
And his commitment to the Miami River has grown as the years have passed. "I saw the oil spills and pollution, what was happening to the river, and it bothered me," he notes. His concerns turned to activism on several fronts, with Wellington balancing interests in promoting both the environment and commerce. He sits on the boards of Friends of the Everglades and of the Marine Council, a Chamber of Commerce-type group for the local maritime industry; and until recently he was a member of the City of Miami's Waterfront Advisory Board, which makes recommendations to the city on the use of city-owned riverfront property. "He's like an urban guerrilla," theorizes Nancy Brown, president of Friends of the Everglades, "keeping people educated on our urban problems. He's our river man." Wellington even founded his own one-man resource group, the Miami River Information Service ("Miami River hotline" is the salutation he uses when he answers the phone at home).

In this last role, he tries to reach as wide an audience as possible, and to date he's given about 175 lectures onboard the Island Queen, a private tourist boat based at Bayside, to mostly inner-city kids as part of a program arranged by the Maritime and Science Technology Academy magnet school on Virginia Key. (MAST'S principal, Linda Eads, notes that Wellington talks to the children about the historic value of the river, as well as about marine-related career opportunities in science and the environment. "He makes it come alive," she says. "He's brilliant.") Wellington regularly attends Metro-Dade Commission meetings and City of Miami Commission meetings to air his views on environmental issues, particularly large waste-disposal projects that threaten marine ecology. "The job has become a tool for me," he says. "It gives me a platform for giving a qualified opinion."

Jim Wellington is not reluctant to share his views -- along with a stream of jokes and sayings -- with anyone he encounters. Nor is he shy about putting his beliefs into practice. On a recent Wednesday morning, after getting off work, he is still full of energy as he heads toward the monthly breakfast meeting of the Miami River Marine Group, a quasi-trade association that includes cargo carriers, marine patrol officers, and citizens seeking to promote a healthy, thriving river. Wellington is striding down the hallway of the First Union Financial Center to the elevator that will take him up to the Miami City Club on the 55th floor when he spots two security guards in uniform. He walks up to them and asks, "Do you know what happened when Tonya Harding and Lorena Bobbitt formed a security firm?" They look at him quizzically, smiling uneasily. "They called it Wackencut!" he quips, laughing as he walks away.

Upstairs, in a room filled mostly with men dressed in suits or law-enforcement uniforms, Wellington stands out in his casual navy blue guayabera shirt and polyester pants, complemented by his orange, yellow, and brown African-style loafers; still, he seems on comfortable terms with them all. He drifts around the room schmoozing like a pro, spreading tidbits of river news as he mingles. When he spots Sgt. Art Serig, a City of Miami marine patrol officer, he asks him, "Hey, did Sallye Jude contact you? She got ripped off again at the Miami River Inn. [Jude is the owner.] She found some of the stuff across the way with one of the Haitians [cargo shippers]." (Wellington already has mentioned that he plans to visit some Haitian boaters himself after the meeting, accompanied by a Haitian woman, Nadine Patrice, who heads a group dedicated to reforestation in Haiti.)

Serig notes that he hasn't heard from Jude yet, but he knows that when he needs it, Wellington's assistance will be useful. "He's been a great help to me," Serig points out, particularly on the occasions when he's tapped into Wellington's knowledge of river traffic. (Indeed, law-enforcement agencies, including the FBI, have used log notations by Wellington and other bridgetenders to aid in criminal investigations.)

This morning's talk by Capt. David Miller, the new commanding officer of the Coast Guard's Marine Safety Office, presents another opportunity for Wellington to speak up. During the middle of Miller's dry presentation of new Coast Guard enforcement initiatives to regulate pollution and substandard ships, Wellington needles in a booming voice, "Tell your admiral that the river is like a hospital gown -- covered in front, wide open in back!" Miller smiles at the interruption and presses on.

After the meeting -- he's still going after being up all night -- Wellington now wants to see what he can do to prevent further thefts. He and Patrice visit Jude at her inn, and she shows them where junkies have broken into a shed and stolen chairs. With the seemingly naive goal of convincing Haitian boaters not to accept stolen property, Wellington and Patrice head over to a dock next to the river.

A Haitian ship is docked there, but the captain isn't around, so they enter a nearby trailer to talk to the owners of a shipping company on the dock (who wish to remain anonymous). Patrice asks one of the co-owners, an amiable Haitian, if the captains know the materials they get are stolen. "They know it's stolen," he allows. "But they can make too much money at it."

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