LES CAYES, Haiti — The Maine ship Sea Hunter has begun offloading its 200 tons of earthquake relief supplies onto a fleet of small vessels a half-mile off the port of Les Cayes.

“This is it. This is what we started out in Portland for. And it’s finally come to fruition today,” an elated Sea Hunter owner Greg Brooks told his crew and volunteers this morning shortly before the long-awaited operation got under way shortly after noon.

The Sea Hunter, which left Portland Harbor 33 days ago, cleared the last in a seemingly endless series of hurdles when a delegation of a dozen Haitian officials and media representatives, including a customs official, came aboard the ship just after 10 a.m.
After a brief inspection of the cargo, customs agent Gary Clerveau told Brooks that the offloading could begin.

“Yes, no problem,” Clerveau said. “You can offload now.”

Earlier in the morning, two United Nations Police (UNPOL) patrol boats arrived from their station at nearby Port Salut to provide security between the ship and the shore.

Gary Nelson, a retired Wisconsin police officer who now serves as a UNPOL officer, said he and the 12 Uruguayan Navy sailors aboard the two boats would ensure that only authorized landing vessels be allowed near the Sea Hunter.

Also, Nelson said, the security force would protect the smaller vessels from Haitians swimming out and trying to get at the supplies before they reach the dock.

At the same time, Nelson said, UN soldiers from Uruguay and Senegal will be on the dock in Les Cayes to prevent looting as the supplies are loaded into trucks.

Nelson said a ship that came much closer into Les Cayes two weeks ago with a smaller load of supplies had no such security in place.
Before long, he said, the landing boats were overwhelmed by Haitians who swam out and pulled much of the cargo into the water.

The sight of the two 27-foot Boston Whaler patrol boats, each with an automatic weapon mounted on the bow, should help prevent that from recurring, Nelson said.

“We just don’t want anyone to get hurt,” Nelson said. “And we don’t need a riot.”

The Sea Hunter’s 12 crew members and volunteers, after weeks of storms and bureaucratic delays both here and in the United States, were all smiles as they prepared to open 10 20-foot containers on the ship’s main deck.

“I’m really excited we’re finally getting this stuff to the people who need it,” said deckhand and crane operator Nick Snyer, 23,  of Hopkinton, Mass. “I was praying every night that this would happen.”

Deckhand Julia Cote, 25, of Portland, said the five weeks of near-constant frustration suddenly felt worth it.

“Awesome!” Cote said. “We said we were going to do it and we’re finally getting it done.”