ABOARD THE SEA HUNTER – Early Friday morning, as the crew of the Maine ship Sea Hunter settled in for breakfast around the galley’s long dining table, chief engineer Brian Ryder slipped a disc into the DVD player.

”Have you guys seen this?” Ryder asked, hitting the play button.

The 52-inch flat-screen television flashed on – and within seconds, the normally raucous galley fell pin-drop quiet.

Two recently recorded Haitian relief songs – Shakira’s ”I’ll Stand By You” and the Simon Colwell-produced ”Everybody Hurts” – played over the stereo speakers. And with them on the screen came and went more than 100 images from the earthquake-ravaged nation 700 miles to the south:

A young boy staring upward, his lacerated face and head wound encrusted with dirt; eight babies crowded into a crib beneath a blue tarp; twisted shopping carts bearing topsy-turvy witness to what was once a food market; an older woman looking skyward, drowning in her grief.

The haunting nine-minute presentation began and ended with a map showing the epicenter of the Jan. 12 earthquake and the simple title, ”M/V Sea Hunter – Haiti Mission.”

”I thought it would help remind us why we’re doing all of this,” said ship owner Greg Brooks of Gorham, who melded the sound and images late one night last week in his cramped stateroom. ”It’s easy to forget what this is all about.”

Indeed.

Too many times to count last week, Brooks’ and his dedicated crew’s mission of mercy to Haiti appeared on the brink of collapse.

Stalled by a Coast Guard ”hold order” placed on the ship due to its lack of a properly licensed crew and a variety of safety concerns, the quest that began with the best of intentions back on Jan. 31 morphed day by agonizing day into a regulatory and public relations nightmare.

A volunteer shipmaster, Richard Devins of Orlando, Fla., came aboard, took a brief look around the Sea Hunter and beat a hasty retreat.

Three of the ship’s 10 crew members, citing personal commitments back in Maine, packed their gear and headed for home.

Some critics assailed Brooks for not knowing his ship was in violation of maritime laws.

Others called for Brooks to abandon his pipe dream and turn his estimated 200 tons of cargo over to a more qualified vessel – a solution far easier proposed than accomplished.

And then there was the physician friend of Brooks who heard about Brooks’ lung infection and off-the-charts stress level.

”You need to leave the ship,” the doctor told him. ”And you need to do it now.”

Brooks, his condition improved, is still here. And the mission, possibly as soon as Monday, will go on.

A new shipmaster from Maine, who asked that his identity be withheld until he comes aboard, was scheduled to arrive this afternoon.

After he familiarizes himself with the Sea Hunter, he and Brooks will meet with the Coast Guard on Monday morning. If all goes as expected, the hold order will be lifted and the Sea Hunter will be free to sail.

Aboard the 220-foot treasure-salvage ship – now home to Brooks, his seven-person crew, two volunteers and one journalist – last week’s frustrations have given way to a dogged consensus that this trip was meant to be.

Dan Kidd, 61, of Limington put his small toolmaking business on hold and volunteered to come along shortly before the Sea Hunter, laden with some 80 tons of donations from all over Maine, left Portland Harbor three weeks ago today.

A Massachusetts Institute of Technology-educated mechanical engineer with an optimistic streak as wide as the nearby Gulf Stream, Kidd found himself dismayed last week by the cynics who have feasted daily on the Sea Hunter’s travails.

Kidd went so far as to compose a written response to the skeptics – the harder he tried to read it aloud last week, the more his voice broke with emotion:

”I’m proud this boat’s from Maine,” Kidd read. ”These supplies and this plan of mercy have been hastily put together with the best of intentions and prayers from myself, my neighbors, my state, my country.

”I cried as I lay crutch after crutch, wheelchair and walker into the ship’s hold in the sub-zero weather, thinking about their destination. The ship’s not perfect, nor the crew, nor the plan. It’s but what I can best offer.”

Now at anchor just over a mile off Miami’s South Beach, the Sea Hunter looks better with each passing day.

Ten 20-foot containers, filled with relief supplies by Cross International, a Florida-based charity, are now securely chained to the ship’s main deck.

Dozens of cardboard boxes and bulging plastic trash bags, many still soaked from the three ocean storms that battered the Sea Hunter on its 11-day trip down the East Coast, no longer litter the deck.

Instead, they’ve been corralled inside a makeshift container built from wooden pallets, covered with tarps and secured with heavy chains.

Atop the metal containers, deckhand Alex Bezkorovainy, 41, of Framingham, Mass., has made it his daily mission to unpack bag after bag, carton after carton of wet clothes, spread them out for the sun to dry, and repack them.

Often working well into the night, Bezkorovainy said he keeps the monotony at bay by thinking about all the people who scoured their closets, basements and attics to create this mountain of jeans, blouses, shoes and other clothing.

”A lot of people, even little kids, got all their stuff together and put in the time and sweat and cared enough to bring it down and entrust it to us,” Bezkorovainy said. ”When they did that, it became our responsibility.”

Inside the Sea Hunter’s living quarters, the mayhem left by the roller-coaster ride from New England is but a memory. Loose items have been re-stowed, floors vacuumed, surfaces cleaned and windows polished.

Saturday morning, Gary Esper, the ship’s captain, summoned everyone aboard to the main deck for a safety briefing.

For almost an hour, the crew reviewed written procedures for extinguishing a fire, rescuing a man overboard, treating a medical emergency and abandoning ship.

”This blue line right here,” Esper said, putting his toe on a metal support running the width of the deck, ”anyone beyond this (while the ship is under way) has a life vest and a radio.”

Later in the day, the ship’s main alarm sounded twice as the crew conducted abandon-ship and man-overboard drills.

For the latter, volunteer Rick Woodbury of Scarborough happily jumped into the 70-degree water and caught the tethered life ring from deckhand Bezkorovainy.

”It went perfectly,” a soaked Woodbury said, safely back aboard. ”The water was beautiful.”

The safety procedures, which the crew has drilled many times before, will be high on Coast Guard inspectors’ checklist when they come aboard the ship Monday.

So will the stability of the cargo.

During his last visit to the Sea Hunter on Wednesday, Coast Guard inspector Paul Bates said he accepts that conditions aboard the ship are ”kind of unorthodox” compared to a commercial cargo carrier.

Hence, Bates said, he’ll place function above form when he returns for his final walk-through Monday.

”It’s sort of like when you put a mattress on top of your car,” Bates said. ”You put a few straps down and say, ‘Yeah, it’s all right.’ And then you put a few more on just to make sure. It doesn’t hurt to overdo things.”

Assuming the Coast Guard bids the ship farewell (or good riddance) Monday, the Sea Hunter will arrive off the coast of Haiti late Wednesday or early Thursday.

The current plan is to stop first in the Port of Miragoane, where a deep-water dock will enable the crew to offload the 10 containers, a large medical mobile van and a solar-powered water desalination unit bound for an orphanage near Port-au-Prince.

From Miragoane, the Sea Hunter then will sail for another day to the city of Les Cayes on Haiti’s south coast.

There, the remainder of the relief supplies will be offloaded onto smaller vessels and transported by truck to Hope Village.

The orphanage, public school and community assistance program was founded eight years ago and is still operated by the Rev. Marc Boisvert, a Roman Catholic priest who grew up in Lewiston.

In an e-mail Saturday afternoon from Les Cayes, Boisvert said three trips to Port-au-Prince by his staff have cleared the way for the Sea Hunter’s arrival in Miragoane.

Local police have agreed (”at a price”) to provide security for the offloading, Boisvert reported, and flatbed trucks are on standby to ferry the containers (at a total cost of $10,000) over the 60 miles of roads to Les Cayes.

At the same time, modifications to buildings at Hope Village are under way to provide storage space for the tons of incoming supplies.

”I’m being bombarded by organizations that need baby formula, diapers, drugs, mattresses, clothing and FOOD as the word has gotten out,” Boisvert wrote.

Back on the Sea Hunter, all eyes have turned to the long-range National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecast for the Caribbean region, especially the often treacherous windward passage between Haiti and Cuba.

”If we leave Monday, it will be 2 to 3 (foot seas) the whole ride down,” Brooks said. ”Which will be fantastic.”

 

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@pressherald.com