March 5, 2010

Still stalled, relief ship's owner tries ultimatum

By Bill Nemitz bnemitz@pressherald.com
Columnist

LES CAYES, Haiti – The Maine ship Sea Hunter sailed to an anchorage just off this Haitian port Thursday, but plans to begin offloading its earthquake relief supplies remained stalled for yet another day.

A Haitian customs official was expected to come aboard and inspect the Sea Hunter's estimated 200 tons of food, clothing, medicine and other aid. But the inspection never happened.

For the second consecutive day, a delegation from the Sea Hunter went ashore to confer with government officials, who offered multiple explanations for the delay. One was that the ship was not close enough to the city's dock, which is inaccessible to the Sea Hunter because of its shallow water and several submerged shipwrecks.

Responding to that concern, Sea Hunter Capt. Gary Esper moved the ship about a quarter-mile closer to the port. He emphatically refused to go closer.

"This is as close as we go," Esper said. "I'm not going to jeopardize the ship."

Haitian officials also told Felix Vital, the Sea Hunter's interpreter, that President Rene Preval was visiting Les Cayes on Thursday. The presidential visit, they said, pulled away security details that would be needed to secure the dock when small vessels began ferrying the relief supplies ashore from the Sea Hunter.

Finally, officials told Vital that the customs inspection was being held up until a formal ship manifest was drawn up.

The manifest, prepared by a local shipping agent, was completed late in the day. But by then, Vital reported from shore, "the customs people had all gone home for the day."

Esper and ship owner Greg Brooks instructed Vital by radio to tell the various officials involved in the offloading that the Sea Hunter will head back to the United States at 4 p.m. today if the offloading has not begun by then.

But Brooks later conceded that the threat was more strategy than promise.

"It's a poker game – that's what it's basically come down to," he said. "They push a little, we push a little back."

 

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

bnemitz@pressherald.com

 

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