LES CAYES, Haiti – Not once in the four weeks and five days since he left Portland Harbor had Dave St. Cyr, a deckhand aboard the Maine relief ship Sea Hunter, uttered such an exclamation.
“What chaos!” said St. Cyr, 54, of Portland as he came to the ship’s bridge for a breather late Friday afternoon. “It’s unbelievable down there!”
And long overdue.
Sea Hunter’s mission of mercy to earthquake-ravaged Haiti, delayed by raging winter storms and enough red tape to stop the 220-foot treasure-hunting ship dead in the water for days on end, is at last coming to an end.
Just after noon Friday, a Haitian customs official gave the long-awaited permission to begin offloading Sea Hunter’s estimated 200 tons of relief supplies.
Minutes later, the water around the ship exploded into a scrum of landing vessels and a cacophony of bullhorns, security sirens and, above all, shouting Haitian workers.
“This is it,” said Sea Hunter’s owner, Greg Brooks. “This is what we started out in Portland for. And it’s finally come to fruition today.
“I’m tired,” said Brooks, who spent the day with a white hardhat on his head and a radio in his hand. “But I’m real happy. Even after all the aggravation, it still feels worthwhile.”
By the time offloading had ended for the day, just before 5 p.m., the small navy of Haitians in sturdy, 40-foot wooden boats had emptied 3½ of the 10 20-foot containers on Sea Hunter’s main deck.
They quickly ferried the food, clothing, medical supplies and other aid a half-mile to shore.
There, dockworkers in bright orange vests loaded the goods onto trucks for the 20-minute drive to Hope Village, an orphanage and community assistance program operated by the Rev. Marc Boisvert, a Lewiston native.
Chief engineer Brian Ryder of West Bath estimated, based on Friday’s offload rate, that it will take another 21 hours to empty Sea Hunter of its remaining cargo.
“If the Haitians show up at 6 a.m. like they said they would, Saturday will at least be a 10-hour day,” Ryder said. “Then I’m guessing we could be done by Sunday.”
Sea Hunter’s climactic day began with the arrival just after 8 a.m. of two United Nations Police patrol boats from their station at nearby Port Salut.
Manned by 12 Uruguayan navy sailors and Gary Nelson, a retired police officer from Wisconsin who now is a UNPOL officer, the vessels remained near the ship throughout the day to keep unauthorized boats away from the offloading operation.
At the same time, U.N. soldiers from Uruguay and Senegal secured the ramshackle dock in Les Cayes, where the water is too shallow – and blocked by underwater obstacles – for Sea Hunter.
Nelson said a smaller shipment of relief supplies that came into port last month without proper security touched off mass looting by crowds at the dock and by swimmers who boarded the landing vessels and pulled supplies into the water.
“We just don’t want anyone to get hurt,” Nelson said. “And we don’t need a riot.”
Shortly before 10 a.m., Sea Hunter Capt. Gary Esper and Felix Vital, the ship’s interpreter, took the tender, Mini Me, ashore and returned with more than a dozen government officials and Haitian media representatives.
Led by Joseph Yves Aubourg, the regional delegate to Haiti’s national government, the group filed past the containers and into the ship’s galley.
Aubourg, seated at the head of the dining table, then took a television reporter’s microphone in his hand and began speaking, at length in Creole, directly into the camera.
The show, it quickly became clear, was on.
While the TV camera continued to roll, Haitian immigration officials dutifully examined the Americans’ passports and counted (and recounted) the names on Sea Hunter’s crew list.
Aubourg, still clutching the microphone, then interviewed Vital and a few of the other officials before once again addressing the camera.
Finally, the entourage headed outside, where Aubourg narrated a video tour of Sea Hunter and had Vital interview Brooks.
“I love the Haitian people,” Brooks said while Aubourg nodded approvingly at Vital’s translation. “And after the earthquake, I just felt that I had to do something.”
Meanwhile, customs agent Gary Clerveau did a cursory inspection of the cargo – including a peek inside one container – and said the offloading could commence immediately.
“No problem,” Clerveau said, speaking through Vital. “You can offload now.”
Clerveau had told Vital on Thursday that the operation could not begin until he had a formal ship manifest. But on Friday, all Clerveau appeared to have in hand were Sea Hunter’s original packing lists.
And so the offload began – with a surprise.
The Rev. Robinson Lefranc, known as “Pastor Bob,” came aboard the ship to claim a 6,200-pound solar-powered water desalinator that was donated by a New Jersey company to his Light and Peace Mission, near Port-au-Prince.
Pastor Bob, who was last seen eight days earlier during a failed attempt to offload the desalinator in the port of Miragoane, said he’d hired a boat to take the machine ashore in Les Cayes and an excavator to load it onto a truck.
With all eyes on Sea Hunter’s 40-ton crane, chief engineer Ryder deftly lifted the cube-shaped device and gently lowered it into the middle of the beamy wooden boat.
“It is God’s blessing,” said a smiling Pastor Bob. “Last night we had many, many people praying for this.”
They might want to keep praying: On the shore, the excavator lifted the desalinator by four guide hooks on the top of the device, rather than the lifting hooks on the bottom. When it was last seen, the desalinator was sitting cockeyed on the back of a large truck, its solar panels askew and snagged on the truck’s wooden-slat sides.
With the desalinator gone, a fleet of 10 landing boats hired by Hope Village quickly surrounded Sea Hunter, ringed by smaller dugouts and sailboats that occasionally were shooed away by the U.N. security vessels’ sirens.
For the next four hours, cardboard boxes, wooden cartons and various other parcels went hand-to-hand from the containers into the boats – the constant din of the workers punctuated by the occasional command over one of several bullhorns.
Controversy arose late in the afternoon, when several Sea Hunter crew members noticed Clerveau, the customs agent, putting some items in his briefcase and setting others aside in a small, separate pile.
Rick Woodbury, a Sea Hunter volunteer from Scarborough, said one of the boxes was marked “cameras” while others contained food and toiletries.
“Whenever I saw him shuffling something off to one side, I grabbed it when his guys weren’t looking and put it into one of the boats,” Woodbury said. “That’s how I got my satisfaction.”
Dan Kidd, a volunteer from Limington, opted for a more direct approach.
“You’re stealing from the Haitian people!” Kidd, apparently forgetting that he was holding an open knife in his hand, bellowed at Clerveau. “You should be ashamed of yourself!”
Later, after the situation had been defused by several Haitian intermediaries, Clerveau said through a somewhat reluctant interpreter (Vital was not available) that he was only doing his job.
Asked directly if he was stealing supplies for his personal use, Clerveau replied, “No. I am not.”
Clerveau, before quickly leaving Sea Hunter for the day, explained that he was simply examining what was coming off the ship and determining its proper destination.
All of the supplies that were removed from the containers, donated by the Florida-based charity Cross International, are earmarked for Hope Village.
Items still to be offloaded from the ship’s two large cargo holds, including 80 tons of donations from people and businesses all over Maine, will be distributed among earthquake refugees in Les Cayes as well as people still living in and around the disaster zone in Port-au-Prince.
A smaller cache of supplies will be taken to the island of Ile a Vache, about seven miles off Les Cayes.
The fate of the 10 empty containers remains unclear.
Nathalie Amyotte, a Canadian who works as resource manager for Hope Village, said during a visit to Sea Hunter that the containers might be lashed across two of the 40-foot landing boats and carefully floated to the dock.
“We really need those containers,” Amyotte said before going ashore to discuss the plan with engineers. “We want to turn them into buildings.”
The other large item aboard Sea Hunter, a mobile medical unit, appears destined to return to Maine for lack of a place to offload it without prolonging Sea Hunter’s voyage.
The medical unit was donated by the Maine Migrant Health Program to Konbit Sante, a Portland-based organization that supports a regional health program in northern Haiti.
Last week, after efforts to unload the vehicle in Miragoane succumbed to bureaucratic delay, a Konbit Sante spokeswoman said other means would be found to bring it back to Haiti.
Despite all their setbacks, including three ocean storms, a 12-day “hold order” by the Coast Guard in Miami and repeated foot-dragging by Haitian government officials, Sea Hunter’s crew members were universally jubilant that their persistence had finally paid off.
“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 now feel worth it.
“We said we were going to do it,” she said with a wide smile. “And we’re finally getting it done.”
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: