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

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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.

What's more, logistics that appeared to be worked out far in advance turned out to be a mirage.

In retrospect, it's hard to imagine how anyone could have headed off the senseless obstacles thrown up by Haiti's local and national bureaucrats.

That said, when people ask me to sum up the Sea Hunter's saga, I will refer them to Chris Bales of Buxton.

Like countless other Mainers, Bales headed down to the dock in Portland back in late January and donated a large, heavy greenhouse tarp to the cause.

Mr. Bales, I'm happy to report that Saturday afternoon, Sea Hunter volunteer Dan Kidd of Limington led me over to a pile on the dock in Les Cayes and pointed.

"See that?" said Dan, 61. "That's my friend Chris Bales' tarp! I can't wait to tell him it made it!"

In the months and years ahead, I'll also tell people that only two words can encapsulate what this dogged group of 11 people somehow managed to accomplish.

One is "dedication."

The other is "persistence."

I will long remember deckhand Alex Bezkorovainy, 41, of Framingham, Mass., spending hour after backbreaking hour sun-drying clothes that got soaked in the storms.

Bezkorovainy said he did it because "a lot of people, even little kids, got all their stuff together and put in the time and sweat and cared enough to bring it down and entrust it to us. When they did that, it became our responsibility."

I'll remember Kidd, the 61-year-old inventor and budding small-business owner who helped load the ship in Portland and never left.

I've lost count of how many times Kidd defused a difficult moment with his off-the-wall humor and his never-say-die optimism.

"To be honest," he told me during a quiet moment, "I was a little worried at first about how I might fit in around here."

He needn't have worried. The trip wouldn't have been the same without him.

Rick "Woody" Woodbury, 49, of Scarborough, another volunteer who took a six-week (and counting) leave of absence from his job with the Portland Water District, ran himself ragged day in and day out.

One of Woodbury's biggest concerns was security -- he spent countless hours on the ship's stern guarding against Haitians in small boats who might otherwise break into the containers and loot them.

But the scene I'll never forget was that of a little Haitian boy left aboard the ship one day by his father, who was providing water-taxi service for the Sea Hunter to and from the port of Miragoane.

After an often-exasperating day kept keeping an eye on "Junior," Woody leaned down, shook the boy's tiny hand, patted him farewell on the head and handed him a few treats from the galley.

"I'm going to miss the little guy," he said. "You can't change all of it down here, but maybe you can maybe make a difference with just one."

Deckhand Dave St. Cyr, 54, of Portland proved himself an expert welder back in Miami as he fabricated and installed deck braces for the containers.

But who knew that he's an equally accomplished photographer who could capture a Haitian sunset like nobody else aboard?

Deckhand Nick Snyer, 23, of Hopkinton, Mass., managed to smile even when all around him seemed ready to kill someone.

The youngest person aboard the Sea Hunter, Snyer also managed to call his worried parents regularly on the ship's satellite phone and promise them he'd come home in one piece.

Deckhand Julia Cote, 25, of South Portland lightened many a dark moment by breaking out her secret stash of Starburst candies and Hershey's Kisses and bestowing one with a bright smile on each person aboard.

Cindy Hart, 54, of Portland, the ship's cook and Brooks' younger sister, ran a tight galley -- before you loaded up on lasagna seconds at dinner, you'd best make sure you're not cutting into tomorrow's lunch.

But whenever I think of Hart, I'll recall the day she returned from her first shopping trip to Les Cayes with tears in her eyes.

"Those poor kids on the street," she said. "I just wanted to scoop them all up and take them home with me."

Captain Gary Esper, 44, of Hopkinton, Mass., took his lumps on this trip because he lacked a captain's license. (He just aced the first test in an online course to get one.)

But I'll say this about Captain Esper: One day in Miami, when it appeared the mission might be over, I took a long walk on South Beach while he and Brooks met yet again with Coast Guard officials.

I returned to the Sea Hunter ready to book my plane ticket home. But then I spoke with Esper.

"I think it's going to happen," he assured me. "I really do."

And so, having already sized him up as a man of his word, I stayed.

Ryder, of West Bath, the 47-year-old chief engineer, was the first to go public in defense of the Sea Hunter's mission.

"We are all family," Ryder wrote in an open letter to his fellow Mainers. "Dysfunctional at times, but still a family. We hope we can keep going and we thank the people of the great state of Maine for all of your support."

Weeks later, people all over Maine are thanking him back.

Then there's Shipmaster Garthwaite, 57, who easily could have sat at home in Wells and watched the Sea Hunter's quest go under. But he didn't.

Unlike another shipmaster who came aboard before him, took a look around and left, Garthwaite could not have been a better fit.

To watch him on the bridge Friday in his vintage Hawaiian shirt, calmly communicating with United Nations security boats there to safeguard the offload, was to know that a true professional had graced the Sea Hunter with his quiet competence.

Then there's Greg Brooks.

At times, many aboard the Sea Hunter seriously worried that Brooks, who celebrated his 59th birthday on this voyage, might have a coronary.

But when it truly counted, his was the voice that kept the crew members and their mission moving ever forward.

"It took all of us to do it," Brooks said Sunday as the last of the 10 containers miraculously left his ship. "But it's done."

Throughout their trip, those aboard the Sea Hunter occasionally have been dismayed, in some cases even wounded, by the bloggers back home who delighted in comparing the Sea Hunter to "Gilligan's Island" (how original) and a "ship of fools" (how inaccurate).

"Why would they say those things about us?" they asked me more than once as they scrolled through the comments on the bridge's 52-inch flat-screen monitor. "Who are these people?"

I told them I've come to learn there are two kinds of people in this world -- those with the courage and compassion to go out and truly make a difference, and those who lift a finger only to take cheap potshots from the comfort of their keyboards.

Truth be told, I've heard from a few online snipers myself this past month.

Many have told me I was crazy to come aboard the Sea Hunter. Others have advised me to abandon ship immediately.

They couldn't have been more wrong.

Today, I will in fact depart the Sea Hunter and begin the long trip to Port-au-Prince, then to Miami and, at long last, back to Maine.

But as I wish fair winds and following seas to this extraordinary group of people, I'll harbor no regrets for asking Greg Brooks all those weeks ago to take me along for the ride.

To sail with the Sea Hunter and tell its story was, in the end, much more than just a journalistic adventure.

It was an honor.

 

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@pressherald.com

 

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