March 3, 2010

As cynics feast, hopeful crew won't give up the ship

By Bill Nemitz bnemitz@pressherald.com
Columnist

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Sea Hunter deckhand Alex Bezkorovainy throws a life ring to volunteer Rick Woodbury of Scarborough during a safety drill on Saturday off Miami.

Bill Nemitz/Staff Columnist

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ABOARD THE SEA HUNTER – Early Friday morning, as the crew of the Maine ship Sea Hunter settled in for breakfast around the galley's long dining table, chief engineer Brian Ryder slipped a disc into the DVD player.

''Have you guys seen this?'' Ryder asked, hitting the play button.

The 52-inch flat-screen television flashed on – and within seconds, the normally raucous galley fell pin-drop quiet.

Two recently recorded Haitian relief songs – Shakira's ''I'll Stand By You'' and the Simon Colwell-produced ''Everybody Hurts'' – played over the stereo speakers. And with them on the screen came and went more than 100 images from the earthquake-ravaged nation 700 miles to the south:

A young boy staring upward, his lacerated face and head wound encrusted with dirt; eight babies crowded into a crib beneath a blue tarp; twisted shopping carts bearing topsy-turvy witness to what was once a food market; an older woman looking skyward, drowning in her grief.

The haunting nine-minute presentation began and ended with a map showing the epicenter of the Jan. 12 earthquake and the simple title, ''M/V Sea Hunter – Haiti Mission.''

''I thought it would help remind us why we're doing all of this,'' said ship owner Greg Brooks of Gorham, who melded the sound and images late one night last week in his cramped stateroom. ''It's easy to forget what this is all about.''

Indeed.

Too many times to count last week, Brooks' and his dedicated crew's mission of mercy to Haiti appeared on the brink of collapse.

Stalled by a Coast Guard ''hold order'' placed on the ship due to its lack of a properly licensed crew and a variety of safety concerns, the quest that began with the best of intentions back on Jan. 31 morphed day by agonizing day into a regulatory and public relations nightmare.

A volunteer shipmaster, Richard Devins of Orlando, Fla., came aboard, took a brief look around the Sea Hunter and beat a hasty retreat.

Three of the ship's 10 crew members, citing personal commitments back in Maine, packed their gear and headed for home.

Some critics assailed Brooks for not knowing his ship was in violation of maritime laws.

Others called for Brooks to abandon his pipe dream and turn his estimated 200 tons of cargo over to a more qualified vessel – a solution far easier proposed than accomplished.

And then there was the physician friend of Brooks who heard about Brooks' lung infection and off-the-charts stress level.

''You need to leave the ship,'' the doctor told him. ''And you need to do it now.''

Brooks, his condition improved, is still here. And the mission, possibly as soon as Monday, will go on.

A new shipmaster from Maine, who asked that his identity be withheld until he comes aboard, was scheduled to arrive this afternoon.

After he familiarizes himself with the Sea Hunter, he and Brooks will meet with the Coast Guard on Monday morning. If all goes as expected, the hold order will be lifted and the Sea Hunter will be free to sail.

Aboard the 220-foot treasure-salvage ship – now home to Brooks, his seven-person crew, two volunteers and one journalist – last week's frustrations have given way to a dogged consensus that this trip was meant to be.

Dan Kidd, 61, of Limington put his small toolmaking business on hold and volunteered to come along shortly before the Sea Hunter, laden with some 80 tons of donations from all over Maine, left Portland Harbor three weeks ago today.

(Continued on page 2)

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