March 3, 2010

New shipmaster steps in for Sea Hunter

By Bill Nemitz bnemitz@pressherald.com
Columnist

MIAMI — Even as one licensed shipmaster declined to accompany the Maine relief ship Sea Hunter to Haiti, another stepped forward today and tentatively agreed to make the 700-mile voyage.

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Sea Hunter owner Greg Brooks of Gorham confers by telephone with the Coast Guard this morning.

Photo by Bill Nemitz/Staff Writer

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Volunteers, from left, Dan Kidd of Limington and Rick Woodbury of Scarborough and deckhand Shawn Jordan of Portland, secure loose items on the main deck of the Sea Hunter this morning.

Photo by Bill Nemitz/Staff Writer

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“I’m excited as hell that we’ve got somebody,” said Greg Brooks of Gorham, owner of the Sea Hunter, after speaking to the new shipmaster by telephone.

Brooks said the latest volunteer, who holds a Coast Guard license for vessels up to 1,600 tons, asked that his name be withheld for now while he takes care of personal business in Maine and prepares to fly to Miami on Sunday.

But the commitment appears to be firm, Brooks said.

The Maine shipmaster made his decision after Brooks e-mailed him photos of the ship and its cargo.

“He asked all the right questions,” Brooks said. “I feel really good about him.”

Moments after Brooks spoke with the new master, Richard Devins of Orlando declined to make the trip.

Devins boarded the ship and delivered a list of eight conditions – all of which he said “would cost a fortune” – that would have to be met before he’d consider sailing with the Sea Hunter.

They focused on securing various components of the cargo, including 10 20-foot containers and a large medical mobile unit, and other safety issues.

The report by Devins, a retired oil-tanker captain who holds an unlimited ship master’s license, was effectively viewed by both Devins and Brooks as the end of Devins’ involvement in the venture.

“I did it with a lot of regret,” Devins said. “But I’d be more regretful if somebody got hurt.”

Coast Guard officials could not be reached immediately to comment on the latest developments.

But in an interview earlier today, Lt. Cmdr. Michael Lingaitis said the Coast Guard would entertain a second ship master’s assessment of the Sea Hunter’s seaworthiness if one were to come forward.

“If (Brooks) can get another master or somebody else to say, ‘Hey, that’s one master’s opinion. I’m another professional master and I think it’s good and it’s safe,’ we’re going to evaluate that professional master’s opinion,” Lingaitis said.

Preparations are under way to move the Sea Hunter this evening from its berth in the Port of Miami to an anchorage to await the arrival of the new master.
At the same time, Brooks said, three non-essential members of the crew have decided to leave the ship and return to Maine.

The departures stem from crew members’ personal commitments and the need to open up more space aboard the vessel, Brooks said.

 

11:47 a.m.

MIAMI — A licensed shipmaster, after touring the Maine relief ship Sea Hunter, expressed deep reservations Tuesday about the vessel’s readiness to complete its humanitarian mission to Haiti.

“I’m not here to burst bubbles,” said Richard Devins of Orlando, Fla., who came aboard Sea Hunter at 2:30 p.m. “But I know what I have to do.”

Devins spent about an hour examining the vessel and its cargo before speaking at length in Sea Hunter’s galley with ship owner Greg Brooks of Gorham and chief engineer Brian Ryder of West Bath.

“There’s nothing here that’s not solvable,” Devins said. “It’s just how much money do you want to put into it?”

Specifically, Devins said, the 10 20-foot containers on the ship’s main deck, all loaded with relief supplies, would have to be welded with metal plates to one another and to the ship’s deck to ensure they remain stable in heavy seas.

“If one (container) gets loose, they all get loose,” Devins said, adding that his years at sea have trained him always to prepare for the worst. “It’s always the 'but what if?’”

Devins, a retired oil-tanker captain with long-standing ties to Maine Maritime Academy, also expressed concern about his own liability if something were to go wrong on the 700-mile voyage to Haiti.

“I’ve got a lot to think about,” he told Brooks.

The shipmaster’s evolving to-do list also included various “housekeeping issues” aboard Sea Hunter, particularly unsecured items both on the deck and inside the ship’s living quarters.

Devins said he planned to stay with friends in Miami on Tuesday evening and would return to Sea Hunter this morning with a formal list of conditions that need to be met before he’d agree to move aboard and oversee the ship’s voyage.

“But I am going to ask that the welding be done,” Devins warned.

Normally, the large, metal containers are secured to one another and to a ship’s deck by heavy steel locking devices, Devins said.

Since Sea Hunter lacks both the devices and the means to secure them, he explained, welding is the only viable alternative.

Completing that task would require that a marine chemist come aboard and certify the ship as safe for the welding operation, Devins said.

Also, he noted, the dock owner’s permission would need to be secured – no easy feat because “they don’t want to see anything blow up.”

More likely, Devins speculated, Sea Hunter would have to go to a shipyard and hire a certified marine welder. The remedial work could easily run into the tens of thousands of dollars, he said.

Devins, wearing a shirt emblazoned with the insignia of the State of Maine, Maine Maritime Academy’s training vessel, then shook hands with Brooks and, with a sympathetic smile, departed.

With that, a somber crew of 10, along with two volunteers, gathered on the bridge to reassess a mission that has faced a seemingly endless series of obstacles since it began last month in Portland.

A defiant Brooks refused to declare the mission over.

“We have such a support base that somebody, somewhere is going to make it happen for us. I still believe that,” Brooks said. “Today it didn’t happen. Tomorrow it’s going to happen. I have to look at it that way.”

Sea Hunter remained under a “hold order” issued late last week by Coast Guard Station Miami Beach.

The order stemmed from concerns about the ship’s lack of a licensed crew and the safety of the vessel’s estimated 200 tons of cargo – including some 80 tons of relief supplies donated by individuals, organizations and businesses all over Maine.

Devins’ less-than-optimistic assessment came only hours after Brooks obtained clearance from the local U.S. Customs and Border Protection office to continue on to Haiti.

After first being told by customs officials Tuesday morning that he couldn’t sail, Brooks said, they went to another office “to make a phone call.”

Thirty minutes later, he said, the officials returned, collected a $39 fee and told him he was free to resume his voyage.

Upon returning to the then-jubilant ship, Brooks announced that he had decided to remain aboard despite a doctor’s order on Monday that he go ashore due to an apparent lung infection and high stress levels.

“I’m feeling better today than yesterday,” said Brooks, unaware of what lay ahead. “There seems to be less stress.”

Also Tuesday morning, Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Michael Lingaitis said the lifting of the hold order depended entirely on Devins. If the shipmaster expressed satisfaction with Sea Hunter’s seaworthiness, the ship could depart at once.

“That’s all we’re waiting for,” Lingaitis said.

He could not be reached for comment Tuesday evening.

In preparation for the trip to Haiti, Sea Hunter’s crew had spent the past two days securing the containers and other large equipment to the main deck with heavy chains.

The containers are filled mostly with supplies donated by Cross International. The Florida-based charity supports Hope Village, an orphanage and community assistance program in the Haitian coastal city of Les Cayes.

Hope Village, Sea Hunter’s planned destination, was founded and is operated by the Rev. Marc Boisvert, a Roman Catholic priest who grew up in Lewiston.

In an e-mail from Les Cayes on Tuesday evening, Boisvert said he, like Brooks, refused to give up hope.

“I am disappointed but will wait for the final decision in the morning,” Boisvert wrote. “This whole story has been very dramatic so far and it ain’t over.”

He added, “One can’t work in Haiti for very long without patience, humor and realistic expectations. I am fortunate to have two of those in my quiver. I did not anticipate the hurdles over at your end. I really thought that the major ones would be here.”

Asked what he will do if Sea Hunter is ultimately unable to go to Haiti, Brooks said he will look for another vessel to take its cargo.

In addition to food, clothing, water, medical supplies and other palletized items, the ship’s cargo includes a large mobile medical unit donated to the Portland-based organization Konbit Sante by the Maine Migrant Health Program.

Also aboard is a solar-powered water desalinator, donated to another orphanage near Port-au-Prince by New Jersey-based WorldWater & Solar Technologies.

Reactions aboard Sea Hunter to the latest setback ranged from frustration and anger to determination that, one way or another, the supplies will get through.

“I’m almost speechless,” said Dan Kidd, a mechanical engineer from Limington who left behind his small business, Yankee Engineering, to volunteer on Sea Hunter’s mission.

“The people (in Haiti) need our help. We have the help and the means and the desire to get it there,” Kidd said. “What is (the Coast Guard) protecting us from?”

“I was looking forward to it,” said deckhand Dave St. Cyr of Portland. “I don’t know what else to say. But there’s always hope.”

Allan “Mac” McIntire of South Portland, Sea Hunter’s security officer, said he still feels a deep obligation to the many Mainers who came to the dock in Portland almost a month ago laden with donations for earthquake-ravaged Haiti.

“It doesn’t matter who brings it,” McIntire said. “It just needs to go.”

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at bnemitz@pressherald.com

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Additional Photos

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Sea Hunter owner Greg Brooks briefs his crew after a successful trip to the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol office Tuesday morning.

Photo by Bill Nemitz/Staff Writer

  


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