Updated at 12:15 p.m.
ABOARD THE SEA HUNTER — The Maine relief ship Sea Hunter arrived this morning off the Haitian port of Les Cayes, its primary destination on a humanitarian mission that began 30 days ago in Portland Harbor.
“I’m still apprehensive,” said ship owner Greg Brooks as the Sea Hunter approached the city’s harbor. “Until everything happens, I’m going to be skeptical about all of this.”
Ship Captain Gary Esper said the Sea Hunter will anchor for now off the island of Ile a Vache before plotting a course through underwater reefs into the harbor at Les Cayes.
If all goes as planned, the Sea Hunter will spend the next few days offloading almost 200 tons of food, clothing, medicine and other relief supplies onto small vessels here.
Because Les Cayes’ only dock has been blocked for years by several sunken ships, the Sea Hunter is unable to transfer its cargo directly onshore.
The Sea Hunter sailed through the night to Les Cayes from the port of Miragoane, where repeated attempts to offload 12 large pieces of cargo onto a deep-water dock proved fruitless.
The large cargo included 10 20-foot containers, filled with relief supplies by the Florida-based charity Cross International.
The containers and their contents are earmarked for Hope Village, an orphanage and community assistance program in Les Cayes.
Also still aboard the ship are a 37-foot mobile medical unit and a solar-powered water desalinator, intended respectively for a hospital in northern Haiti and a church-orphanage near Port au Prince.
As the Sea Hunter sat at anchor for four days in Miragoane, Haitian customs officials insisted that a formal cargo manifest, listing all of the donated items aboard, be hand-delivered to the central customs bureau in Port au Prince before any offloading could occur.
Some 35 pages of packing lists and other documentation, provided to the Sea Hunter by various organizations that placed donated materials aboard the ship, were deemed insufficient by Haitian officials because they were not consolidated into a single manifest.
That position changed suddenly – and belatedly – this morning.
Fr. Marc Boisvert, a Lewiston native who founded and operates Hope Village, notified Brooks by telephone that Haitian President Rene Preval had personally intervened in the matter.
Preval ordered that the Sea Hunter be allowed to dock and offload its large cargo in Miragaone without further delay, Boisvert told Brooks.
But with the ship approaching Les Cayes at that point, Boisvert and Brooks agreed to stick with their latest plan and offload the containers item-by-item here.
Given the apparent softening of the Haitian government’s demands, Brooks said the Sea Hunter might make one last attempt to offload the medical unit, the water desalinator and the 10 by-then-empty containers at the deep-water port of Jacmel.
Jacmel, located on Haiti’s southeast coast, would be a seven-hour voyage east from Les Cayes.
“It’s a long way,” said Brooks. “But we’re considering it as a possibility.”
Unable to dock Haiti relief ship sails on
MIRAGOANE, Haiti – The Maine relief ship Sea Hunter, unable to get government clearance to offload 12 pieces of heavy cargo at the deep-water port here, abandoned the effort late Monday and sailed for the southern coastal port of Les Cayes.
“We’ve done everything possible to get these things ashore,” the ship’s owner, Greg Brooks of Gorham, told his crew and volunteers after two trips ashore.
Both times he aimed to secure permission to offload 10 20-foot containers, a mobile medical unit and a solar-powered water desalinator. And in the end, both efforts proved futile.
“We can’t just sit here and sit here and sit here,” Brooks said on the ship’s fourth day in the harbor. “It’s come to the point where everybody’s hiding from us.”
Upon arriving in Les Cayes early this afternoon, Brooks said, he will start offloading as much of the Sea Hunter’s estimated 200 tons of cargo as possible onto smaller vessels.
The smaller boats will then ferry the clothing, food, medical supplies and other goods for survivors of Haiti’s earthquake to the shore in Les Cayes, which lacks dock space with deep enough water for the 220-foot Sea Hunter.
Monday’s last-ditch effort to offload the large items began when Brooks ordered the Sea Hunter’s tender, the Mini Me, hoisted into the water to take Brooks and a small delegation about a mile from the ship to the dock.
There, the group met Berthany Piard, an assistant to the Rev. Marc Boisvert at Hope Village in Les Cayes.
The orphanage, founded and operated by the Lewiston-born Boisvert, is the intended beneficiary of all of the Sea Hunter’s cargo except the medical mobile unit and the water desalinator.
Piard, speaking in Creole through Felix Vital, Brooks’ interpreter, said he had been told earlier in the morning that the offloading was being held up by the Haitian customs bureau. Customs officials would allow it only after a formal “manifest” showing what was on board the Sea Hunter was hand-delivered to Port-au-Prince, Piard said.
Brooks and the others explained to Piard that officials who boarded the Sea Hunter last week were provided with a small stack of documents listing everything on board the ship.
“But they say it is not a manifest,” replied Piard. “So they’re having their secretary type it into a manifest and then it will be sent to Port-au-Prince.”
“Which could take weeks,” muttered Brooks.
“Or longer,” agreed translator Vital, speaking for himself this time.
The Sea Hunter group then asked Piard to drive them to downtown Miragoane for a face-to-face meeting with Port Captain Odrick Therazin.
(Late last week, Therazin promised Vital that the large items would be offloaded “one way or another” from the Sea Hunter on Monday.)
Along the two miles of heavily rutted dirt road, Piard placed several cell-phone calls to Therazin, who responded each time that he was “at the bank” and told Piard to call back later.
Finally, after the Sea Hunter group spent two hours sitting in 90-degree heat at a curb in the crowded downtown marketplace, Therazin stopped answering his phone.
“That’s it, let’s go back to the ship,” Brooks said. “This is getting us nowhere.”
Returning to the dock, the Sea Hunter group headed for the Mini Me. Moments before they cast off, however, Marlon Peter, chief mate aboard a ship at the dock, came after them.
“This is crazy. Stay here. I will make something happen,” Peter said before disappearing down the dock.
Brooks, unimpressed, ordered the Mini Me to return to the Sea Hunter. But soon after the group arrived back at the ship, Peter appeared at the Sea Hunter’s stern in an oar-driven water taxi and asked that Brooks and the others return to the dock.
“The number-two customs guy in Miragoane is waiting there,” Peter said. “He wants to speak to you.”
Back into the Mini Me went Brooks and his delegation. At the dock, they were led to a man in an open dress shirt, dark trousers and polished black shoes sitting beneath a shaded overhang in a plastic white lawn chair.
“Come, sit,” the man said with a smile.
Vital and the man then spoke in Creole for several minutes, after which the man addressed the rest of the group in broken English.
“I try to help you,” he said as dozens of curious dockworkers pressed ever closer to listen. “We will find a way to get your things to the dock.”
The man then spent several minutes on his cell phone. Upon hanging up, he announced that if Piard, representing Hope Village, returned to the dock with lists of what was in the containers, he would allow them to be offloaded at the dock.
Vital called Piard, who by then had returned to Miragoane to continue seeking some other path through the bureaucratic maze. “Come back out to the dock immediately,” Vital told Piard.
While the crowd awaited Piard’s return, a member of the Sea Hunter delegation asked the purported customs official for his business card, which he readily produced. But rather than identify him as a government representative, the card said he was Guerda Michael, CEO of Guerda Terminal Inc. The shipping company, according to the card, is based in Miami.
Before Michael could be questioned further on his identity and his role in the matter, a man identifying himself as Vincent Jamil, a government “delegate” from Miragoane, came onto the dock and spoke at length in Creole with Michael.
Finally, Piard arrived and the three continued talking. Jamil, the delegate, eventually said there was nothing he could do because the relief supplies were going to Les Cayes and were thus outside his jurisdiction.
Shaking hands all around, Jamil then departed.
Around the dock, meanwhile, the workers appeared to grow increasingly restive as word spread that the containers were bound for Les Cayes, not Miragoane.
“I don’t like the feel of this,” Brooks said quietly to his companions. “We need to get out of here.”
“Yes,” agreed Vital. “I think we should leave now.”
The Sea Hunter delegation hurried back to the Mini Me — as a few angry dockworkers began shouting behind them — quickly untied the dock lines and returned to the Sea Hunter.
Back aboard the ship, Brooks finally made contact via satellite phone with Boisvert at Hope Village.
It was the first time the two had actually spoken to each other.
Brooks explained that he had waited in Miragoane long enough and that the situation on the dock was too unstable to ensure the security of the cargo and the safety of the Sea Hunter’s crew.
Brooks said everything possible would be done to empty the containers in Les Cayes.
The mobile medical unit and the water desalinator, bound respectively for a hospital in Cap Haitien on Haiti’s north coast and a church-orphanage near Port-au-Prince, will be returned to Maine, Brooks said.
In an interview by satellite phone Monday evening, a spokeswoman for Konbit Sante, the Portland-based group that was to receive the mobile medical unit, said efforts to get the vehicle to Cap Haitien will continue.
“We’ll just have to figure out another way to bring it down,” said Marianne Ringel, a project specialist for the organization.
The fate of the water desalinator, donated by New Jersey-based WorldWater & Solar Technologies to the Light and Peace Mission in the village of Bon-Repos, is less clear.
On Friday, the mission’s director, “Pastor Bob” Lefranc, came aboard the Sea Hunter and promised to untangle the government red tape by Sunday “at the latest.” He hasn’t been heard from since.
Boisvert at Hope Village, after listening to Brooks recount the day’s events, reluctantly agreed and assured Brooks that he will greet the Sea Hunter when it arrives in Les Cayes today.
According to Brooks, the local government in Les Cayes is eager to assist the Sea Hunter in getting the relief supplies, 80 tons of which came from all over Maine, to refugees from the Jan. 12 earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince, 110 miles east of Les Cayes.
In a brief telephone interview, Boisvert said he was disappointed but not surprised by the news from Miragoane.
The Haitian government, he said, “keeps shooting themselves in the foot” even as the world tries to help the poverty-stricken nation.
“They wonder why international organizations and other governments don’t trust them?” Boisvert said.
“Well, they keep proving that they don’t have the welfare of their people at heart.”
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: [email protected]