March 8, 2010

Dedicated crew shows its heart on epic mission

By Bill Nemitz bnemitz@pressherald.com
Columnist

LES CAYES, Haiti — Just over six weeks ago, I found myself sipping my morning coffee and wondering aloud what in the world I might write about in my column for the next day.

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A Haitian boat leaves the Sea Hunter on Sunday with a 20-foot shipping container and heads for the dock in Les Cayes, Haiti. All 10 of the empty containers, which will be converted into buildings, made it safely ashore.

Bill Nemitz/Staff Columnist

click image to enlarge

Sea Hunter deckhand Alex Bezkorovainy removes a crane cable from a 20-foot container Sunday after it was successfully offloaded onto one of the Haitian boats, some of which weren’t much bigger than the containers.

Bill Nemitz/Staff Columnist

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"How about the treasure ship guy?" my wife, bless her, suggested.

To be honest, I balked at first.

I'd heard that Greg Brooks of Gorham, owner of Sub Sea Research, wanted to take his 220-foot underwater salvage ship Sea Hunter, fill it with donated relief supplies and sail for his beloved Haiti.

But would he really do it?

Should he really do it?

Could he really do it?

"What the heck," I finally thought. "I'll give the guy a call."

An hour later I sat in Brooks' living room, notebook in hand, listening while he laid out his anything-but-conventional humanitarian brainstorm.

An hour after that, I closed my notebook, shook Brooks' hand and asked if he had room for a curious journalist.

"We could do that," he replied, that now familiar twinkle in his eye. "Do you mind tight quarters?"

And so it began.

Much has been said and written about the Sea Hunter saga since the ship threw off its dock lines in Portland Harbor on Jan. 31 and embarked on a journey that sounded so simple -- only it wasn't.

First came the three storms that rocked and rolled the ship and its crew all the way down the East Coast. The first leg to Miami, where 10 containers full of additional supplies waited to be put aboard, was supposed to last four days. It took 11.

Next came Coast Guard Station Miami Beach and the "hold order" it placed on the Sea Hunter because of safety and licensing concerns.

The two-day layover became a 12-day nightmare. It ended only after Shipmaster Kevin Garthwaite of Wells came to the rescue with his 1,600-ton master's license, volunteering to shepherd the Sea Hunter all the way to Haiti and then back to New England.

Finally, there was the Haitian government -- a maze of inefficiency, miscommunication and what at times looked to these eyes like outright corruption.

Once again, what should have taken hours stretched into days -- 12 as of today, to be exact.

Yet against all these obstacles, the Sea Hunter today is in the final stages of offloading almost all of its cargo. Alas, the 37-foot mobile medical unit must return to Maine for want of a deep-water dock or barge to take it ashore.

Even the 10 shipping containers, now empty, made it to the dock in Les Cayes over the weekend.

Credit for that goes to the expert operation of the Sea Hunter's crane by Chief Engineer Brian Ryder and the fearlessness of the Haitian workers, who took the 20-foot containers onto their not-much-longer wooden boats and made it ashore through 25-knot winds and whitecap-filled seas.

The coveted containers will be converted into buildings at Hope Village, the orphanage and community assistance program founded by the Rev. Marc Boisvert, who grew up in Lewiston.

(A bit of housekeeping: In Sunday's story on "Father Marc," I misidentified the nonprofit organization in the United States that oversees Hope Village.

It's called Free the Kids and, for those who have written asking how to donate, its Web site is www.freethekids.org.)

So now, as the last of the food, clothing, medical supplies and other donated goods finally come up from the Sea Hunter's cargo holds, what should we make of this stranger-than-fiction epic?

For starters, it was by no means perfect.

Brooks thought his ship, documented as a recreational vessel rather than a commercial one, was sailing within the law. Now the whole world knows it wasn't.

(Continued on page 2)

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