Wednesday, December 11, 2013
By Bill Nemitz firstname.lastname@example.org
— 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.
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
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.
But if there's one place that keeps beckoning, it's Haiti -- and not just for the myriad of shipwrecks that dot its many offshore reefs.
''It's the kids,'' said Brooks. ''They'll melt your heart.''
Initially, Brooks' primary goal was to sail to an orphanage he's visited numerous times just outside Port-au-Prince, where an estimated 200 children are now stranded with less than a week's supply of food and water. Only three children died in the earthquake -- the rest were still outdoors when it struck -- but Brooks has received reports that the facility is badly damaged and no longer habitable.
Because the roads in and out were impassable, Brooks planned to load the children aboard the Sea Hunter and take them down the coast to Les Cayes, where a larger orphanage had agreed to take them.
But Thursday morning, word came that there was an overland route after all and it appeared the ship rescue wouldn't be necessary.
No matter. Brooks is full steam ahead anyway.
His most immediate need, he said, is to get his hands on about 30,000 gallons of fuel to get to Haiti and back, and to come up with about $10,000 to pay his crew.
''I can't use my investors' money to do this, so we have to raise the money and/or fuel,'' Brooks said. ''I wouldn't get paid, but the crew would because they work pretty much paycheck to paycheck.''
(Donations can be made online at www.subsearesearch.com -- follow the ''latest news'' link -- or by mail to the Haitian Relief Fund at Ocean Communities Credit Union, 17 Westbrook Common, Westbrook, ME 04092.)
If all goes well, Brooks said, he could cast off as soon as Monday and be in Haiti within a week. He figures the sooner the better -- the Sea Hunter's 12-foot draft, raised propeller and heavy-lifting equipment make it much more versatile than many of the larger vessels heading for the disaster zone.
''I know there are much bigger ships going down, but they have no docks left down there so they have to helicopter everything to shore,'' he said. ''I'm pretty sure that in certain places we can put the stern right up there, lift the containers and put them right on shore.''
But first he's got to get there. And soon.
''I'm just a guy who does whatever it takes,'' Brooks said. ''I always have been.''
And never has his cargo been more valuable.
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: