LES CAYES, Haiti — The Maine ship Sea Hunter, assuming it passes a customs inspection early this morning, has been cleared to begin offloading its 200 tons of relief supplies for Haiti’s earthquake victims.

Government officials here gave the green light Wednesday after meeting for several hours with the Sea Hunter’s owner, Greg Brooks of Gorham, and the Rev. Marc Boisvert, a Lewiston native who operates Hope Village on the outskirts of Les Cayes.

“You’ve got it. No problem,” said Joseph Yves Aubourg, the regional delegate to Haiti’s national government, when asked through an interpreter if the Sea Hunter finally had official authorization to deliver its food, clothing, medical supplies and other donated items.

Aubourg said the offloading will begin once a customs inspector boards the ship this morning and verifies that its cargo is in fact humanitarian aid.

The long-awaited decision, like so much of the Sea Hunter’s progress since it left Portland Harbor on Jan. 31, did not come easily.

The day began shortly before 8 a.m., when Brooks, Sea Hunter Capt. Gary Esper and interpreter Felix Vital rode the ship’s tender, Mini Me, seven miles into Les Cayes from an anchorage near the island of Ile a Vache.

Waiting for them at the dock was Boisvert, whose orphanage and community assistance program will receive much of the aid that’s aboard the ship.

“I can tell you’re from Maine — it’s the accent,” Boisvert said as he met Brooks face-to-face for the first time.

Brooks, Boisvert and Esper then settled in the shade of a nearby cafe while Berthany Piard, Boisvert’s executive director at Hope Village, and Vital, who lives in Les Cayes, began contacting local officials to set up a meeting.

It took almost four hours.

“I’m glad I didn’t give the kids the day off at school,” mused Boisvert, referring to the public school operated by Hope Village.

Finally, shortly after noon, Vital called on his cell phone to report that Aubourg, the national delegate, had agreed to meet with Brooks and Boisvert.

Around the same time, Piard returned with Yve Francoise Mortimer, who works as both an administrator for the city of Les Cayes and a private shipping agent.

(According to Boisvert, Mortimer initially demanded that Piard pay him $1,000 to represent the Sea Hunter’s and Hope Village’s interests before local officials. When Piard balked, Boisvert said, Mortimer settled for $600.)

The group drove several blocks in two vehicles to a nondescript storefront in downtown Les Cayes. There, they were led up a stairway to Aubourg’s cramped, dimly lit office — made all the smaller by the eight empty chairs set up around Aubourg’s desk.

The 45-minute session did not start well.

“You should have sent a letter saying you were coming,” a stern-faced Aubourg, speaking in Creole through Vital, told the Sea Hunter delegation. “You can’t just come here without telling us first.”

As the scolding dragged on, a visibly irritated Brooks finally looked at Vital and threw up his hands. “Then tell him I’ll just take my ship and everything on it and go back to America,” Brooks said.

Enter Boisvert. Speaking fluent Creole in a conciliatory tone, the Roman Catholic priest told Aubourg that the items aboard the ship are all humanitarian donations (“C’est tout humanitaire!”) originally destined for Hope Village.

“We didn’t notify you because we didn’t want to bother you,” explained Boisvert.

“It is no bother,” replied Aubourg, his demeanor suddenly softening. “This is no trouble for us.”

And with that, the bargaining began. Within a few minutes, a deal was struck:

The contents of 10 20-foot containers aboard the Sea Hunter, all donated to Hope Village by the Florida-based charity Cross International, still will go to Boisvert’s operation. Since a magnitude-7.0 earthquake struck Haiti on Jan. 12, Hope Village’s orphanage has swelled from 600 to nearly 800 boys.

The rest of the aid aboard the Sea Hunter, including 80 tons of food, medicine, clothing, tents and other equipment donated by people from all over Maine, will go directly to earthquake refugees in Les Cayes and others who are still stuck in the disaster zone 110 miles to the east, in Port-au-Prince.

Les Cayes’ only usable dock is blocked by several sunken ships, so the Sea Hunter’s cargo will have to be placed parcel-by-parcel onto smaller vessels and ferried ashore.

(Left off the negotiating table were a 37-foot mobile medical unit earmarked for a regional health program in northern Haiti and a solar-powered water desalinator bound for a church-orphanage near Port-au-Prince. Plans for the two heavy items remained uncertain Wednesday. Efforts to unload them at a deep-water dock in the port of Miragoane failed earlier this week.)

Moments after reaching the cargo distribution agreement, Aubourg summoned Les Cayes Mayor Pierre Yvon Chery along with Jean Senozier Despreaux, a reporter for Television Nationale Haiti.

The delegate and mayor then spent several moments speaking in Creole to the local reporter.

Boisvert and Vital quietly explained that they were telling Despreaux to be at the dock the next morning, and how they wanted the story presented.

“They’re saying, ‘This is a story about how the government is working for the regular people,’” Vital said. “They want people to know that they are responsible for this happening.”

Boisvert, his deeply rooted skepticism toward Haitian government on full display, later put it another way.

“The agent will take credit for everything. The delegate will take credit for everything. The mayor will take credit for everything,” Boisvert said dryly. “Everyone will take credit for everything. It’s amazing!”

Finally, Aubourg announced that the ever-growing group next had to meet with a local customs agent back at the city’s dock.

Upon arriving at the customs office with a large crowd of curious Haitians in tow, the entourage was told that the agent (whose name was not immediately available) had gone to lunch.

He appeared almost an hour later, and another sit-down began — this one ending with the Haitian officials’ request that the Sea Hunter be brought into port immediately so it could be boarded and inspected.

Capt. Esper, nervous about the numerous coral reefs and shipwrecks dotting the city’s harbor, balked at the notion of rushing the vessel into Les Cayes as sunset approached.

“We’ll have to sound (the bottom) ourselves,” he said. “We can’t take the risk of losing the ship.”

With that, the parties agreed that the ship would drop anchor as close as possible to the dock in Les Cayes by 7 this morning.

Assuming the customs inspection goes smoothly, Aubourg said, the offloading onto smaller vessels then could begin immediately.

With that, Boisvert patted Brooks on the shoulder and headed for his nearby vehicle.

“I’m going home,” Boisvert said with a weary grin. “Too much excitement for one day.”

Back aboard the Sea Hunter on Wednesday evening, Brooks said he is optimistic that the Sea Hunter’s mission, at long last, is nearing its end.

“If we can get through the inspection in the morning, then we should be all right,” Brooks said. “I’m extremely hopeful.”

 

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

bnemitz@pressherald.com