March 3, 2010

This time Mainer's not hunting treasure, he's delivering it -- to Haiti

By Bill Nemitz

— Normally when treasure hunter Greg Brooks embarks on his 220-foot ship Sea Hunter, he's not 100 percent sure what he's going to find.

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Treasure hunter Greg Brooks of Gorham, owner of the 220-foot Sea Watcher, holds a Haitian child during one of Brooks' many trips to Haiti. Photo coourtesy Greg Brooks

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The 220-foot Sea Watcher, normally used to hunt for shipwreck treasures, could set sail as soon as Monday to aid the relief effort in Haiti. Photo courtesy Greg Brooks

Not so this time.

''I love the people of Haiti and I know that they're suffering,'' Brooks said Thursday. ''Because of this tragedy, everybody's willing to give to Haiti. I can transport the stuff they want to give.''

And then some.

Brooks, whose adventures have taken him to Haiti many times over the past decade or so, has been a man on a mission since the news broke last week that the already impoverished nation had been savaged by a 7.0-magnitude earthquake.

Brooks' do-it-yesterday goal: load up his ship, mobilize his 12-man crew (all but two of whom are from Maine) and cast off from a dock in Boston as soon as possible to bring help to where, now more than ever, it's so desperately needed.

Day after day, as word of his plan has spread, the telephone in his and his wife's home in Gorham has been ringing off the hook with offers of help, requests for help and everything in between.

Hannaford Supermarkets has 31,000 bottles of water ready for pickup.

Shawnee Peak in Bridgton will knock $5 off the price of a lift ticket this weekend for any skier who drops dry foods, baby supplies or medical supplies into its donation box earmarked for Brooks.

Wilson Moving Co. of Portland has pledged to transport all of the donated goods, at no charge, to the dock at the Boston Shipyard where the Sea Hunter now sits.

Haitian groups in Boston have called, eager to pack the vessel -- it can carry 1 million pounds of cargo on its 40-foot-wide deck -- full of relief supplies for their homeland.

And down in Baltimore, Catholic Relief Services hopes to work through the logistical thicket and fill the Sea Hunter's reserve tanks with 120,000 gallons of diesel fuel -- all but a small fraction of which would be off-loaded in Haiti to help the relief effort move forward.

Is it unusual, even now, for the international relief agency to receive an offer of a shallow-draft, 220-foot ship, complete with a 40-ton crane and an A-frame that extends 50 feet out from the stern, to get fuel and supplies from a staging area in Miami to the disaster zone 700 miles away?

''Yeah, for us it's unusual,'' replied Frank Orzechowski, a member of Catholic Relief Services' Haiti logistical team. ''The fuel capacity is significant -- and it's the fuel that's even more important than the cargo space.''

It's not the first time Brooks has put his marine equipment where his heart is.

When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005, he packed what equipment and supplies he could into a U-Haul truck and drove 26 hours from Maine to Florida, where the Diamond, his previous ship, was docked.

A few days and a widely publicized appeal later, he was fully loaded and bound for coastal Louisiana, where he and his crew were the first to assist stranded residents of Plaquemines and Jefferson parishes.

''Of course, the Coast Guard and the military were saying, 'You can't go up there. You can't go up there,''' Brooks recalled with a smile. ''And I said, 'OK.' And then I went anyway.''

Brooks, a native of Cherryfield who in an earlier career installed swimming pools throughout southern Maine, got into the shipwreck salvage business in 1984, after he and his wife found an artifact while on a diving expedition to Haiti.

Since then, he's zig-zagged all over the western Atlantic Ocean in search of lost treasures -- his latest target is the Port Nicholson, a British merchant ship that was sunk by a German U-boat off Cape Cod during World War II. Brooks believes it contains a secret cargo of diamonds and platinum worth $3 billion to $5 billion.

(Continued on page 2)

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