Urban Shipwreck

Local, state, and federal authorities have been trying for years to dislodge the Rex Bear from the Miami River, but it simply won't budge

Some people on the Miami River call the Rex Bear the voodoo ship. A 40-year-old steel-hull freighter, it glided up from Cap-Haitien, Haiti, in 1990 and never left. Over the past seven years, it has become a wandering ghost haunting the river, unable to find refuge.

Just recently, on the inauspicious thirteenth day of February, two U.S. Coast Guard cutters were taking a group of Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce members on a tour of the river. As the boats motored west under the Miami Avenue drawbridge, they came upon the 213-foot-long Rex Bear, which, for the past year and a half, has been moored illegally along a vacant, overgrown stretch of waterfront on the north bank that long ago was a dock for banana boats.

As it happened, another freighter was passing by at the same moment, and the surge from its wake caused the Rex Bear to lightly sway and pull away from the seawall.

Coast Guard Capt. D.F. Miller, who in his approximately 21 months as commanding officer of the Coast Guard's Marine Safety Office in Miami has been praised for taking strong measures to improve the river's safety and environmental quality, was recounting to the dozen dignitaries on his boat "some of the problems we were having with the Rex Bear -- that it really isn't supposed to be there. As they can see, it's not in the best of shape." Just then the movement of the ship caused one of its four rotted mooring lines to tear apart, and a second to rip loose from the deck, taking with it a five-foot chunk of the steel gunwale, which arced into the air and splashed down in front of the stunned but unharmed tour group. "We all kind of dropped our jaws," Miller recalls. "They accused me of having planned it like that. We didn't see anybody aboard, so I called my folks to come over and see about getting the lines replaced."

After the touring boats passed, it didn't take long for Coast Guard enforcement officers to pay a visit to the Rex Bear and order its owners to attach new lines or face fines of $10,000 per day.

The two busted mooring lines were replaced the next day. But in the scheme of things, the threat of a $10,000 fine would hardly have caused a stir. The Rex Bear and its operators, after all, were old hands at dealing with such threats.

A few months ago the Coast Guard imposed a $25,000 penalty for failure to comply with an order to move the ship to an approved dock. When the Rex Bear didn't budge and the penalty went unpaid, the Coast Guard got serious and slapped on another $250,000. Efforts by other regulatory agencies and river business operators to move the Rex Bear have been equally unsuccessful. A pending civil lawsuit seeks to have it towed from the private property where it's docked, and the Coast Guard fines are still outstanding. Meanwhile the Rex Bear remains immovable, prompting more and more people on the river to wonder just what kind of spell has immobilized a phalanx of government agents for a year and a half. "Where do you start?" asks an annoyed Coast Guard Cmdr. William Uberti, one of the officials most involved in the matter. "It's so screwed up. We have a folder that's about three inches thick, and I don't know when it's going to end."

"Sometimes I could cry over what's happened to this ship," laments Robert Madsen, a diminutive, red-faced man of 81 who speaks English and Spanish with a husky Danish accent. He has driven up to the side of the ship, as he does nearly every day, steering his ten-year-old Chevy through clumps of garbage and the tangled knots of grass that serve as nests for homeless men in the vacant lot fronting the water. "I could have had it ready to go two and a half years ago," he asserts. "I can see now the ship will never sail under its own power."

Since leaving his native Copenhagen in the Forties, Madsen has labored as a marine engineer on freighters out of ports all over Europe, South America, and North America. At various times over the past fifteen years he has worked on ships for Michael Zapetis, the businessman who hired Madsen in 1992 to get the Rex Bear running. The vessel had sat idle for more than a year, but Madsen was eventually able to make some repairs to the engine and to paint the deck and hull. Snapshots from that time suggest the Rex Bear was looking pretty spiffy, at least superficially. Today, however, there's little evidence of the improvements Madsen and a few workers had accomplished.

The ship's central loading crane is one of the few things of value remaining onboard. There's also a beautiful and useless brass-trimmed mahogany wheel in the pilot house, along with old radar and navigation instruments labeled in German (the ship was built in West Germany in 1956). Firefighting equipment is corroded or broken, the cargo hold is flooded because the disintegrating hatch covers let in rainwater. Metal railings have been consumed by rust. Decks and floors are decayed and peeling. The once-lustrous mahogany paneling, cabinetry, and furniture inside are dull and damaged. Navigation books dating from decades ago are coated with greasy dust and chewed up by time and mildew. Mosquitoes swarm around padlocked closet doors, and filthy squares of foam rubber and bedding are shoved into corners of crew cabins. In the mess hall, three partially used jars of instant coffee sit on a cabinet next to a book of plays by Sophocles (translated into Spanish) and a paperback romance novel (in English). There's no way to boil water for coffee or to use the moldy shower stall in the bathroom, as the ship has no electricity or running water. An incongruous white portable toilet on the aft deck has never been used, according to Madsen.

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