March 3, 2010

Owner of Sea Hunter at the end of his rope

By Bill Nemitz

(Continued from page 1)

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A fisherman from the Haitian port of Miragoane peddles his catch Saturday morning alongside the Sea Hunter. The ship’s owner has been trying since Thursday to unload his cargo.

Bill Nemitz/Staff Columnist

''Otherwise, if we just leave it at the dock, you know what will happen to it there,'' Brooks said.

Earlier on Saturday, Sea Hunter Capt. Gary Esper hired an oar-driven water taxi to ferry a small party about a mile from the Sea Hunter to the dock.

There the group found a commercial cargo ship from Panama at the only usable dock space offloading a variety of old trucks and cars, as well as dozens of used mattresses and other goods.

Two armed guards stood at the entrance to the dock while dozens of workers, assisted by two cranes, lifted the vehicles off the ship. Several of the dockworkers approached the Sea Hunter party, holding out their identification cards and begging for work.

''I have baby,'' said one in broken English. ''No money. No food. I work for you? I take you rope?''

Speaking through translator Felix Vital of Les Cayes, a former employee of Brooks' treasure-salvage firm Sub Sea Research, officials at the dock said Haiti's general director of customs is reportedly ill and may be in a Port-au-Prince hospital.

(The current general director's name could not be confirmed Saturday. An Internet search shows that as of last June, the position was held by Jean-Jacques Valentin.)

Asked if there might be a subordinate in Haiti's central customs office who could clear the way for the Sea Hunter to offload, Vital replied, ''I don't think so. This guy is the one who can decide about it.''

Back aboard the Sea Hunter, news of the customs director's reported illness only added to Brooks' frustration.

''There's one guy in charge? There's only one person who can give us permission in this whole country?'' Brooks said. ''That seems awful strange to me.''

Adding to Brooks' pique was the fact that the Panamanian ship, which arrived here within a few hours of the Sea Hunter, was already at the dock unloading.

''I'm watching them unload for-profit cargo ahead of us when there's hungry people -- and we have food,'' said Brooks. ''Nothing's changed in Haiti since -- ever.''

Late Saturday afternoon, however, the Sea Hunter's plight took two turns for the better.

Willie Ritch, communications director for Maine U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, e-mailed Brooks with contact information for two U.S. officials currently in Haiti -- one with the State Department and the other with the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID.

''They have been monitoring the situation from the minute they heard about it'' last week and stand ready to help once Haitian government offices reopen Monday, Ritch wrote.

Also, Vital made telephone contact with Odrick Therazin, captain of the port of Miragoane, who was not at the dock earlier in the day.

Speaking emotionally over his cell phone in his native Creole, Vital lobbied hard for Therazin to allow the Sea Hunter to complete its humanitarian mission -- with or without approval from Port-au-Prince.

Vital apparently struck a sympathetic chord.

''He said, 'I truly understand,''' Vital said after hanging up with Therazin. ''And he said one way or another, they will bring the ship to the dock on Monday morning, And we will unload.''

What did Vital tell him?

''I said that this is not a commercial boat -- all of its cargo is donated,'' Vital said. ''And I said there's no reason it has to be this complicated.''


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


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