March 6, 2010

Sea Hunter's supplies reach the hands of Haitian people

By Bill Nemitz

LES CAYES, Haiti – Not once in the four weeks and five days since he left Portland Harbor had Dave St. Cyr, a deckhand aboard the Maine relief ship Sea Hunter, uttered such an exclamation.

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Haitian workers at the dock in Les Cayes transfer relief supplies Friday from Sea Hunter onto a truck for transport to Hope Village, an orphanage and community assistance program operated by the Rev. Marc Boisvert, a native of Lewiston.

Bill Nemitz/Staff Columnist

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A United Nations Police patrol boat arrives at Sea Hunter’s anchorage Friday morning to provide security during the offloading operations off the coast of Les Cayes, Haiti.

Bill Nemitz/Staff Columnist

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"What chaos!" said St. Cyr, 54, of Portland as he came to the ship's bridge for a breather late Friday afternoon. "It's unbelievable down there!"

And long overdue.

Sea Hunter's mission of mercy to earthquake-ravaged Haiti, delayed by raging winter storms and enough red tape to stop the 220-foot treasure-hunting ship dead in the water for days on end, is at last coming to an end.

Just after noon Friday, a Haitian customs official gave the long-awaited permission to begin offloading Sea Hunter's estimated 200 tons of relief supplies.

Minutes later, the water around the ship exploded into a scrum of landing vessels and a cacophony of bullhorns, security sirens and, above all, shouting Haitian workers.

"This is it," said Sea Hunter's owner, Greg Brooks. "This is what we started out in Portland for. And it's finally come to fruition today.

"I'm tired," said Brooks, who spent the day with a white hardhat on his head and a radio in his hand. "But I'm real happy. Even after all the aggravation, it still feels worthwhile."

By the time offloading had ended for the day, just before 5 p.m., the small navy of Haitians in sturdy, 40-foot wooden boats had emptied 3½ of the 10 20-foot containers on Sea Hunter's main deck.

They quickly ferried the food, clothing, medical supplies and other aid a half-mile to shore.

There, dockworkers in bright orange vests loaded the goods onto trucks for the 20-minute drive to Hope Village, an orphanage and community assistance program operated by the Rev. Marc Boisvert, a Lewiston native.

Chief engineer Brian Ryder of West Bath estimated, based on Friday's offload rate, that it will take another 21 hours to empty Sea Hunter of its remaining cargo.

"If the Haitians show up at 6 a.m. like they said they would, Saturday will at least be a 10-hour day," Ryder said. "Then I'm guessing we could be done by Sunday."

Sea Hunter's climactic day began with the arrival just after 8 a.m. of two United Nations Police patrol boats from their station at nearby Port Salut.

Manned by 12 Uruguayan navy sailors and Gary Nelson, a retired police officer from Wisconsin who now is a UNPOL officer, the vessels remained near the ship throughout the day to keep unauthorized boats away from the offloading operation.

At the same time, U.N. soldiers from Uruguay and Senegal secured the ramshackle dock in Les Cayes, where the water is too shallow – and blocked by underwater obstacles – for Sea Hunter.

Nelson said a smaller shipment of relief supplies that came into port last month without proper security touched off mass looting by crowds at the dock and by swimmers who boarded the landing vessels and pulled supplies into the water.

"We just don't want anyone to get hurt," Nelson said. "And we don't need a riot."

Shortly before 10 a.m., Sea Hunter Capt. Gary Esper and Felix Vital, the ship's interpreter, took the tender, Mini Me, ashore and returned with more than a dozen government officials and Haitian media representatives.

Led by Joseph Yves Aubourg, the regional delegate to Haiti's national government, the group filed past the containers and into the ship's galley.

Aubourg, seated at the head of the dining table, then took a television reporter's microphone in his hand and began speaking, at length in Creole, directly into the camera.

The show, it quickly became clear, was on.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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A small fleet of Haitian boats, monitored by two United Nations patrol boats, makes it way alongside Sea Hunter as offloading operations get under way Friday. “This is what we started out in Portland for,” said Sea Hunter’s owner, Greg Brooks.

Bill Nemitz/Staff Columnist


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