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A trip to Belize launched Jani Wolters’s Caribbean destiny

By Hilary Reeves

Jani Wolters poses in front of Tropical shipping containers wearing a denim jacket and pink shirt.Jani Wolters graduated from high school in Pacific, Missouri, far away from any ocean.

“In Missouri, there are lots of lakes and streams to enjoy,” she said. “I started diving in the murky waters of the Lake of the Ozarks and loved it. I took it to the next level when I got my Professional Association of Diving Instructors certification when I was 19.”

After a 10-day trip to  the Great Blue Hole off Ambergris Caye, Belize with her diving club, Wolters was officially hooked on diving – and Belize.

“When it was time to leave, I kept telling myself that I had to find a way to come back,” she said. “And I did.”

A dentist joined Wolters’s club who was in the process of planning a trip that would offer free dental care to the people on Ambergris Caye. He heard of her plan to return to the island and offered Wolters a job assisting him for one month. In return, he offered free room and board. By the time the month was over and the dentist left, she had found a place to stay on: a 22-foot sailboat named Free Bird that was tied to a mooring offshore and outside of town. Wolters started her day by getting into a leaky four-foot “dinky” – “not a dinghy,” she laughed, “that would imply a bigger boat” – and bailing the water out before she could get in and paddle ashore. A local jeweler had taken Wolters under his wing and taught her how to make jewelry out of turtle shell.

“At the time, it was a very popular item sold to tourists,” she said. “Island life was cheap: $1 was worth $2 of the local currency.”

Immigration required Wolters to leave Belize every three months. She traveled extensively during her time away, to Honduras, Mexico, and to the Mayan ruins in Tikal, Guatemala.

“A few years later, I got a parrot and named her Tikal,” she said. “She went everywhere with me – she even had her own pet passport. Sadly, like the Mayans she was named after, she disappeared from our back porch a few years ago. She was 23 years old.”

Wolters stayed in Belize for a year until she ran out of money – “you can only sell so much jewelry,” she laughed.

She moved home to Missouri and began saving money toward her next adventure. It wasn’t long before an opportunity presented itself: Wolters signed on to work for a new cruise ship line starting up out of St. Louis. Clipper Cruise Line was a fleet of small luxury cruise ships sailing along the intercostal waterways of the Americas and the Caribbean.

“The summer months were spent on Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and Block Island,” she said. “The winter months were spent in the U.S. and British Virgin Islands. I loved it so much that I re-enlisted for a second year. My two-year contract ended while I was in the Virgin Islands. When I disembarked the ship, I jumped onboard a plane and backpacked through Venezuela for a month before returning to St. Thomas, where I put down some roots and stayed for the next 10 years.”

Once back in St. Thomas, Wolters worked with a ship chandler as an agent for cruise ships, private yachts, and cargo vessels calling on the St. Thomas port.

“I was the only girl working on the docks then,” she said. “ I coordinated the dock space, fuel and provisions, as well as arranging clearance for the vessel, its crew and passengers.

Once their provisions and other cargo arrived in St. Thomas, I cleared the containers through Customs and staged them on the dock to load the vessel.”

Wolters soon had her first experience with a forklift.

“My forklift driver didn’t show for work that day,” she said. “The clock was ticking, and I had to get the pallets out of the 20-foot container. I was frantic. There was an old West Indian gentleman that sat on the same bench in the same spot every day watching the daily activity on the dock. He saw I was intensely looking at the forklift. He motioned me over and said ‘Go on, you drive it,’ and so I did. I learned at that moment to trust myself, not to seek reassurance from others. I’m still thankful for his push that day.”

A ‘Tropical’ symphony

Jani stands on ladder steps, one hand holding a rail, and the other on her hip, behind her is a Tropical shipyard.Wolters said that in St. Thomas, the top cargo company at the time was Tropical Shipping.

“I was in and out of that office several time a week gathering paperwork to clear cargo through Customs,” she said. “I spent so much time at Tropical that eventually I was offered a job. I accepted the offer and took a position in the Marine Department. My responsibilities were to catch lines and secure the vessel to the dock any hour of the day or night. I would arrange for Customs, Immigration, and Agriculture to board the vessel and clear the crew and the cargo.”

She loved watching the vessel being discharged and loaded, describing it as a “symphony in motion.”

“I still hear Beethoven’s Fifth playing in my head every time I watch the stevedores work their magic.”

Though Wolters admitted she sometimes misses the symphony, she eventually felt it was time to move on and learn the other side of the transportation and logistics business. A Customer Service Representative position became available, and she moved from the yard into an office. After two years, she transferred to Tropical ’s headquarters in Florida, where she had to learn all the ports of call as well as she knew St. Thomas. In 1995, Hurricanes Luis and Marilyn devastated the Caribbean, bringing back memories of when Hurricane Hugo hit St. Thomas and she was left without power for 17 weeks.

“Tropical activated its first ever Hurricane Center operating from Riviera Beach,” she said. “I was chosen to head up ‘Hurricane Central.’ My job was to provide logistical support for the Tropical team, which had been dispatched in a private plane to put “boots on the ground” in the islands that were hit hardest.”

Wolters said Tropical team-members were armed with Satellite Navigation phones so customers could order much-needed groceries and building supplies from the States. At the end of each day the team would fly to the nearest island with power to eat, shower, sleep, and wake up to do it all over again.

“Word traveled fast that Tropical arrived before emergency help made it to some of the islands,” she continued. “Hurricane Central quickly became a way for families living stateside to get messages to the folks on island. This was long before cell phones, e-mails, and Twitter. When the Tropical team checked in, I would give them a list of names and the company the person in
question worked for. On the next run around the island, they would drop the message off or relay a response for me to return to the caller. We were praised by many people and companies for being first on the scene to help.”

Wolters soon accepted a job in Global Sales. She coordinated the export of cargo from the Far East, Europe, and Central and South America into the Tropical Shipping hub for ultimate delivery into the Caribbean. After she was hired at Seven Seas Insurance Company, she earned her 6/20 license from the State of Florida as an All Lines Adjuster, allowing her to settle claims for customers after they experienced a loss or damage to their shipments.

“Although I didn’t have a background in insurance, I was inquisitive and had a thorough understanding of the risks involved in handling and shipping cargo,” she said. “After 13 years with Seven Seas, I am now the Senior Claims Adjuster.”

Giving back at Seven Seas

Seven Seas provides cargo insurance coverage for a number of customers in both the ocean and inland transportation business. One of Wolters’s  areas of expertise is inland carrier claims.

“No claim is ever exactly the same; they are like snowflakes,” she said. “I investigate the loss and research the commodity involved. In this job you’re a detective, trying to piece the puzzle together to determine the events that transpired as to when the cargo went missing, or where the damaged occurred.”

Wolters said she learned a lot about temperature controlled product variance, as well as the gestation of insect larva on condemned food.

“I find myself regularly referring back to my days on the dock and in the yard, these early years of training and exposure has been a tremendous benefit in my current position,” she said. “For more than 25 years, I’ve lived and worked in an environment rich in cultural diversity. Each of the islands served by Tropical Shipping is a separate country, with individual dialects, cultures, regulations, etc. Learning about what other people encounter in their own environments has helped to fuel my desire to do more for others.”

Wolters is currently involved in the adjustment of General Average claims from a fire that occurred onboard a vessel in 2012.Jani leans back on a spiral staircase handrail looking up at the camera, behind her is a glittering ocean.

“The vessel departed South America and was in transit to Dominican Republic,” she explained. “A fire broke out in the engine room, leaving the vessel stranded off the coast of Brazil. Tug boats were hired to tow the vessel to the Dominican Republic, adding 20 additional days to the transit time. The vessel owner had no choice but to declare ‘General Average.’”

General Average Adjusters are hired by vessel owners to sort through all expenses incurred to save the vessel. It can take years to calculate the contribution all parties involved must pay. The basic premise behind a “General Average” is to ensure that all parties to a voyage share equally in the loss.

When she’s not working on the General Average, Wolters serves as part of the Riviera Beach Maritime Academy partnership committee, headed by Tropical Shipping.

Riviera Beach Maritime Academy provides students with a hands-on education that supports career exploration within the maritime industry. Wolters is part of a committee with other representatives from Tropical Shipping who have developed a community partnership with this school to support their efforts. Riviera Beach Maritime Academy has received donations of used computers, used life rafts, and other supplies from Tropical.

“Tropical implemented an internship program designed to educate high school seniors on the shipping industry,” she said. “I am so very grateful for the support given by Saltchuk, which allows us to support the maritime industry in our local community.”

Most recently, she attended a Press Conference with Cancer Survivor Andrea Torrente, artist Thomas McDonald, Susan G. Komen, and students from Riviera Beach Maritime Academy to launch an artificial reef, “Andrea’s Reef.” The artist designed the sculpture of a mermaid that beholds the face of “Andrea,” a breast cancer survivor.

Students from the school engineered and built the six-piece sculpture, weighing in at 60,000 pounds and measuring 20 feet x 15 feet. It was deployed one mile north of the Lake Worth (Palm Beach) Inlet in 75 feet of water off the shores of Ocean Reef Park on Singer Island.

Wolters is also excited about the prospect of working with other Saltchuk companies, as Seven Seas will be underwriting cargo for Aloha Air, Northern Air Cargo and Young Brothers. Seven Seas will celebrate its 50th anniversary in March. It began insuring ocean shipments into the Bahamas in 1967 and now insures cargo worldwide.

A lifetime of adventure

Jani at a wedding reception holds her partner Jim's hands who stands behind her.Wolters met her husband Jim while she was still living on St. Thomas. The pair will celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary next month. Her eldest son, Jace, finished his freshman year of college at Palm Beach State. Her younger son, Jax, is a high school senior at Riviera Beach Maritime Academy. The family has a camping trailer on Lake Kerr inside the Ocala National Forest in Salt Springs, Florida.

“When someone asks me how I am doing, I always answer, ‘peachy!’ You just can’t say the word without putting a smile on your face. Try it!”

Indeed, Wolters’s family and friends bear witness to her “infectious” laugh.Jace, left, and Jax, right smile for the camera, Jax's arm rests over Jace's shoulder.

“I just think of myself as ‘bubbly,’” she said. “Like my preferred Sunday brunch refresher: a Hibiscus – champagne with just a splash of cranberry. The perfect color of blush.”

Wolters concluded that she’s indebted to her parents for allowing her adventurous free spirit to reign supreme.

“They never tried to squash it,” she said. “My mom had many sleepless nights wondering what I was up to overseas. Now it’s my turn: my sons are on their first-ever adventure together. They flew off to Elbow Cay, Abaco, Bahamas, for 10 days of boating and spearfishing.”

And one last fun fact: everyone in Wolters’s family has a “J” name.

“My husband, Jim, me, Jani, and my two sons, Jace and Jax, Jetty the dog, and our cats Jinx, Juno, and Journey…maybe that’s why our parrot Tikal left,” she laughed.