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.

And the customs folks?

''They gave me a whole bunch of documents,'' Brooks said upon returning from a trip to the agency Saturday morning. ''I have to speak to somebody higher up -- and they're not in because it's Presidents Day weekend.''

All of which makes one wonder: Is this trip still worth the effort? And who are these people so convinced, even now, that it is?

Dan Kidd, 61, of Limington is a mechanical engineer and inventor who's sold 50,000 of his pocket-sized crimpers -- they're used on flexible plumbing tubing -- through Home Depot and Lowe's stores nationwide.

One minute last month, Kidd was on the phone with Brooks and his wife, Kathy, asking if they wanted to take a load of his tools to Haiti.

The next, he was driving all over southern Maine in a van picking up other people's donations.

''Gee, these people are actually going to do something,'' Kidd thought to himself. ''They're going to really make a difference, get through the bureaucracy and get down there fast.''

For three solid days, Kidd helped collect donations and load them aboard the Sea Hunter in Portland. It earned him an invitation to join the crew one evening at J's Oyster Bar on Portland's waterfront.

There, Brooks and his crew, impressed with Kidd's commitment, asked, ''Why don't you come with us?''

A wiry, bearded man with a quick laugh, Kidd said he'd have to think about it. But in reality, he knew what he had to do.

''I just couldn't have lived with myself if I'd said no,'' he said.

Even after repeated bouts of seasickness on the roller-coaster ride to Florida, followed by the long delay in the Port of Miami, Kidd said he has ''no regrets.''

If anything, he said, he's peeved at the whack-a-mole reception the Sea Hunter has received since it arrived on Thursday.

''Think about these people who are sitting down there dying and getting diseases and all that,'' Kidd said. ''We've got all of this stuff that can help them -- and it's sitting here at the dock. I don't know what to say. It just seems awful.''

He added, ''I feel bad about all these people who entrusted all of these donations to us, to get it down there. They believed in our cause, and now it's waylaid, sidetracked.''

Gary Esper, 44, of Hopkinton, Mass., has captained the Sea Hunter since Brooks brought it from Louisiana to Maine in January 2009.

Now Esper, a quiet but friendly man who said he's been on the water in one vessel or another all his life, finds himself under a very public microscope over his lack of official qualifications.

''I understand that the laws are in place for a reason -- and that's fine with me,'' Esper said, adding that he fully plans to obtain his shipmaster's license when he returns to the Sea Hunter's winter berth in Boston.

But that won't change the fact that, when it comes to getting from one port to the next, ''I can do anything with this ship,'' Esper said.

Still, has the sometimes harsh spotlight bothered him?

''We're going to help some people. When we see the smile on some Haitian children's faces, that's going to make it worthwhile right there,'' Esper replied. ''I could care less what people think about me right now.''

Dave St. Cyr of Portland used to drive a snowplow for the town of Falmouth before going to work for Brooks' Sub Sea Research Inc. just over a year ago.

Miami is the farthest south St. Cyr, 61, has ever traveled. He sees the trip to Haiti as ''the most humanitarian thing I've ever done.'' And yes, he still believes he's going to get there.

''I'm not one to have panic attacks -- until it's time to,'' St. Cyr said with a smile as he helped tidy up the main deck Saturday morning. ''I'm kind of a day-by-day, minute-by-minute guy.''

Julia Cote, 25, is also headed for Haiti for the first time.

A 2003 graduate of South Portland High School, she went to work for Sub Sea Research as an assistant and deckhand in 2008.

Brooks, who has done much of his salvage work in Haiti since he founded the company 18 years ago, all but predicted this trip when Cote signed on.

''He told me I was going to end up doing humanitarian work at some point -- and it most likely would have to do with Haiti,'' Cote said. ''Little did I know.''

Assuming the Sea Hunter makes it there, is she nervous about what she might confront?

''All I can think is that in some way, it's going to help shape the rest of my life,'' Cote said. ''And I'm only 25, so there's a lot of shaping to be done.''

That sense of anticipation, bolstered by the conviction that there's something good at the core of all the turmoil, could be heard from the Sea Hunter's bow to its stern this weekend.

So could singing.

Saturday, it turned, out, was Brooks' 59th birthday.

His sister, ship cook Cindy Hart of Portland, went out and bought a carrot cake.

And at the prescribed moment Saturday afternoon, the entire crew gathered on the bridge and sang ''Happy Birthday'' to their beleaguered boss.

Later, Brooks noted that the entire crew agreed to make this trip at reduced wages ''because of the situation.'' How long it will take, nobody knows.

''They all come together when it's needed,'' Brooks said. ''They might bitch and moan sometimes, but when it comes down to the wire, they all work together and make it happen. They've always done that. It's impressive.''


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


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