March 3, 2010

Maine shipmaster says aye to Sea Hunter mission

By Bill Nemitz

ABOARD THE SEA HUNTER – A volunteer shipmaster, after inspecting conditions aboard the Sea Hunter, agreed Sunday to complete the Maine relief ship's humanitarian mission to Haiti.

click image to enlarge

Ship’s cook Cindy Hart welcomes shipmaster Kevin Garthwaite of Wells aboard the Sea Hunter off Miami’s South Beach on Sunday afternoon.

Photo by Bill Nemitz

click image to enlarge

Shipmaster Kevin Garthwaite of Wells speaks with crew members Sunday aboard the Sea Hunter. A final Coast Guard safety inspection is expected this morning.

Photo by Bill Nemitz

'Mannapacks' to feed hungry

Among the foodstuffs aboard the Sea Hunter are 16 pallets of ''mannapacks'' sent by the Minneapolis-based organization Feed My Starving Children.

The 14-ounce plastic packets contain a mix of rice, soy protein, dehydrated vegetables, minerals and vitamins. Mixed with water and cooked for 20 minutes, one packet can feed a family of six.

''It's a fabulous product because you can use it institutionally or to feed a family. It's very versatile for us,'' said Russ Griggs, director of gifts-in-kind and shipping for Florida-based Cross International, which accepted the mannapacks.


Just enough room for Mini Me

While at anchorage, the Sea Hunter's crew relies on an 18-foot tender, powered by a 200- horsepower Yamaha outboard, to get to the mainland and back.

Thursday morning, crane operator Nick Snyer gingerly plucked the tender from the crowded deck while other crew members steadied it with lines.

With its propeller just inches from a medical mobile unit, donated by the Maine Migrant Health Program to the Portland-based organization Konbit Sante, it was no easy feat.

But the operation went off without a hitch and, after a tense 15 minutes, the tender was bobbing in the waves along the Sea Hunter's starboard side.

Its name: the Mini Me.

– Bill Nemitz

''If you'll have me, I'd be proud to join you,'' Kevin Garthwaite, 57, of Wells told an elated crew.

A 1976 graduate of the Maine Maritime Academy, Garthwaite holds a master's license for 1,600-ton ships -- enough to satisfy Coast Guard demands that the Sea Hunter not continue its voyage without a licensed master aboard.

Garthwaite flew Sunday morning from Maine to Miami, where he was greeted by Sea Hunter owner Greg Brooks and Capt. Gary Esper.

They immediately boarded the Sea Hunter's tender, the Mini Me, and rode through rough seas to the ship's anchorage just over a mile off Miami's South Beach.

As the Sea Hunter's crew and volunteers waited anxiously on the main deck, Garthwaite met privately with Brooks and Esper and toured the entire ship with chief engineer Brian Ryder.

Satisfied with what he heard and saw, Garthwaite called together Brooks, his seven-member crew and two volunteers and said he will recommend to the Coast Guard this morning that the Sea Hunter be allowed to sail.

In an interview later, Garthwaite said he's a member of the International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots.

For the past 20 years, he said, he's served primarily as a second mate aboard 860-foot and larger cargo vessels traversing the Pacific Ocean from the West Coast to Hawaii and the Far East.

Garthwaite said he harbors no doubt that the 220-foot Sea Hunter, normally used for treasure-salvage operations, is a well-run ship.

''They may run it differently than what I'm used to because we tend to be more formal,'' Garthwaite said. ''But I didn't have a lot of concerns about the quality of the personnel. I know they're professional.''

Before leaving for Florida, Garthwaite said, he had numerous telephone conversations with Brooks, Coast Guard officials and Richard Devins, a shipmaster from Orlando who last week declined to make the Haiti trip after visiting the Sea Hunter.

Garthwaite said he was satisfied that safety concerns raised by Devins, another MMA graduate, have been addressed sufficiently in recent days by the ship's crew.

They include stabilizing 10 20-foot containers aboard the Sea Hunter with chains and support brackets welded to the deck.

Also, bags and cartons of clothing, cases of bottled water and other loose items have been secured with heavy chains behind barriers constructed out of wooden pallets.

Well aware that the Sea Hunter's mission has become ''something of a political hot potato'' since officials at Coast Guard Station Miami Beach placed a ''hold order'' on the vessel 10 days ago, Garthwaite said he had ''a little anxiety'' before boarding a plane for Florida.

''On the other hand, (Brooks) has been running his salvage operation for quite a few years. And he's successful,'' Garthwaite said. ''So I was confident that these guys know how to run the ship.''

Describing himself as ''married with two golden retrievers,'' Garthwaite said he was ''intrigued to get involved in a different operation where it's more than just hauling cargo from Point A to Point B.''

Brooks and his crew are ''completely different than I am in that I'm pretty much a seaman. These guys are seamen plus they're divers, they're technicians -- they have other skills which I find very interesting,'' he said.

Garthwaite, who has lived in Wells since he was 11, said he decided to help after reading in the newspaper that the mission, bound in red tape, was on the verge of collapse.

While he's never sailed on a humanitarian mission, he said, ''I've worked with several fellows over the years who have worked on missionary ships and I always thought it sounded pretty cool.''

Reaction to Garthwaite's decision was predictably joyous among the crew members and volunteers as they entered the fourth week of their quest to bring food, clothing, medicine and other relief supplies to an orphanage and community assistance program in the Haitian coastal city of Les Cayes.

Esper, who moved out of his private berth to make room for the new arrival, said Garthwaite's offer to come aboard was much appreciated by all.

''He's a smart guy and I'm expecting to learn a lot from him,'' said Esper, who already has enrolled in an online course to obtain his master's license. ''I think it's going to be fantastic.''

Brooks was equally impressed.

''It took another Mainer to do this,'' Brooks said. ''We've brought it this far and now (Garthwaite) can help us take it to the final destination.''

Coast Guard officials are expected to meet this morning with Garthwaite and board the Sea Hunter for a final safety inspection.

Last week, Lt. Cmdr. Michael Lingaitis said, ''If they're ready for sea and they've got a licensed crew on board, they're going to be able to sail.''

Assuming that happens, Garthwaite said, he should be viewed as the newcomer with a much-needed ''piece of paper'' -- not the hero who saved the Sea Hunter's mission.

''I view these guys as the heroes,'' he said. ''They're the ones who have been putting in 16-hour days, working their tails off three weeks into this voyage not knowing what was going to happen. I think they're the ones who really deserve the applause.''


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