March 3, 2010

Haiti or bust, Sea Hunter's crew keeps eyes on goal

By Bill Nemitz

— MIAMI — It's one of those images that stick with you forever.

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Photo by Bill Nemitz/Staff Writer: Greg Brooks, left, owner of the Sea Hunter, talks with Captain Gary Esper of Hopkinton, Mass., about the rough ride from Maine to Miami shortly after the vessel's arrival Thursday.

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Ten years ago, on the first of his many seagoing voyages to Haiti, Brian Ryder looked out at the approaching port city of Les Cayes.

Off in the distance at the end of a rickety dock stood a small boy, maybe 4 years old, staring intently back at Ryder.

''He was all stove up -- had bloody knees and legs and he was sparsely clothed,'' recalled Ryder, a 48-year-old father of five from West Bath.

Asking around, Ryder later learned that the Haitian boy had no mother, no father, no family at all. Like a stray animal, he relied on the people who worked around the dock for his meager survival.

''It was a life-changing experience,'' recalled Ryder, who now serves as chief engineer aboard the treasure-salvage ship Sea Hunter.

Late Friday night, as Ryder lay in his bunk aboard Sea Hunter wondering if the ship will ever complete its on-again, off-again relief mission to Haiti, the little boy once again forced his way through the thicket of Ryder's worries.

''How would my kids feel if their whole family was gone and they're in this strange place with nobody really to hold them and say, 'Hey, it's going to be OK. Don't cry. Don't be scared'?'' Ryder said. ''Man, I'm tearing up right now just thinking about it.''

It's easy, in the storm of controversy now swirling around the Sea Hunter and its owner, Greg Brooks, to lose sight of what this anything-but-conventional vessel and its crew are ultimately trying to accomplish.

Two weeks ago today, the ship left Portland Harbor loaded with donated food, medicine clothing and countless other supplies bound for earthquake-ravaged Haiti.

Their seemingly straightforward plan: Head first to Boston to pick up more donations in Boston. Then sail for four days to Miami to take on 10 containers filled with even more aid.

And finally, make the two-day passage to Les Cayes and, in particular, an orphanage stretched beyond its capacity by the aftermath of the earthquake that ravaged southern Haiti just over a month ago.

Things haven't quite worked out that way.

Three coastal storms battered the 220-foot treasure-hunting ship on its way down the East Coast, delaying its arrival in Miami by more than a week.

Then a different type of storm hit -- this one wrapped in red tape.

The local Coast Guard station notified Brooks that his ship was operating in violation of federal law because it lacked a licensed crew.

It was a rude awakening for Brooks, who mistakenly thought he didn't need the licenses because the Sea Hunter is documented as a recreational vessel rather than as a commercial carrier. The ship's size, however, puts it beyond that exemption.

In addition to the licensing deficiencies, the Coast Guard raised concerns about the safety of the Sea Hunter once it took on its additional cargo.

Then late last week, the local Customs and Border Protection office got into the act.

The Sea Hunter, the agency said, must pay duty on all the cargo it carried from New England -- including a used medical mobile unit valued at $28,000.

(Cross International, a worldwide charity that collected those supplies, already has paid the duty on the Florida-based cargo.)

Doggedly -- and, at times, loudly -- Brooks has labored to overcome the regulatory hurdles.

Richard Devins, a licensed shipmaster from Orlando with ties to the Maine Maritime Academy, has volunteered to join the Sea Hunter for the remainder of its round trip. He's expected on board by Tuesday.

The Sea Hunter's 10-person crew and two volunteers, all but three of whom live in Maine, have pushed, pulled, lifted and stuffed pallet after pallet of cargo to make room for the 10 20-foot containers. That job was completed late Friday.

(Continued on page 2)

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