Monday, April 21, 2014
MIRAGOANE, Haiti – Saturday, like so many before it, was not a good day for Greg Brooks.
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
The owner of the Maine relief ship Sea Hunter had hoped to obtain government permission to offload a dozen large items at the deep-water dock here before sailing on to the port of Les Cayes on Haiti's southern coast.
Instead, Brooks and his crew spent yet another day at anchor, waiting for a call that never came.
''I'm not waiting anymore. We've been waiting long enough,'' said an angry Brooks. ''Monday is the last day I'm giving them.''
If clearance from Haiti's customs agency is not received by then, Brooks said, he will give up on his attempt to offload 10 20-foot containers filled with relief supplies, as well as a large medical mobile unit and a solar-powered water desalinator.
Instead, Brooks said, he will sail on to Les Cayes, which lacks dockage with water deep enough for the Sea Hunter, and invite Haitians in small vessels to offload as much of the ship's cargo as they can.
''And then if we have to, we'll take the medical unit and the water maker back to Maine,'' Brooks said.
Asked what he'll do with the large metal containers, assuming they're emptied item-by-item in Les Cayes, Brooks shrugged and flashed a weary smile.
''Build an artificial reef somewhere,'' he said. ''Something environmentally friendly.''
The Sea Hunter arrived here late Thursday after sailing for two and a half days from Miami.
The original plan was to spend Friday offloading the 10 containers, which would then be trucked just 57 miles to Hope Village, an orphanage and community assistance program in Les Cayes.
The Sea Hunter would then sail one more day to Les Cayes, where some 80 tons of smaller items filling part of its deck and two cargo holds would be transferred to smaller vessels for transport ashore.
But on Friday afternoon, Hope Village founder and operator the Rev. Marc Boisvert said in an e-mail to the Sea Hunter that his assistant had to go to Port-au-Prince and receive approval from Haiti's general director of customs before the offloading could begin.
Boisvert, a Lewiston native who spent several days last week trying to secure customs clearance in anticipation of the Sea Hunter's arrival, could not be reached Saturday for further explanation on what went wrong.
Also scheduled to be taken off the ship were the medical mobile unit, donated to the Portland organization Konbit Sante by the Maine Migrant Health Program, and the water desalinator, donated to a church-orphanage near Port-au-Prince by New Jersey-based WorldWater & Solar Technologies.
''Pastor Bob'' Lefranc of the Light and Peace Mission in the village of Bon-Repos came aboard the Sea Hunter on Friday to lay claim to the water desalinator.
Pastor Bob promised at the time to obtain customs clearance for the Sea Hunter by Saturday or today ''at the latest.'' The Sea Hunter, however, hasn't heard from him since.
As for the medical mobile unit, bound for a hospital and health program in Cap Haitien on Haiti's north coast, Brooks received an e-mail early Saturday evening from Marianne Ringel, program specialist for Konbit Sante.
''I understand you are now (finally!) en route to Haiti -- do you know where and when you are going to put into port?'' wrote Ringel. ''We need to figure out what to do with the mobile medical unit.''
Brooks said he had hoped to hear earlier from officials at Konbit Sante, with whom he's had no contact since the Sea Hunter left Portland Harbor a month ago today.
With no one currently in Miragoane to claim the 37-foot Kodiak vehicle, Brooks said, he'll probably ask Pastor Bob to take it to Bon-Repos -- assuming the mobile medical unit gets off the ship.
''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: firstname.lastname@example.org