March 3, 2010

Stymied ship unsnarls sticky knot in red tape

By Bill Nemitz bnemitz@pressherald.com
Columnist

— MIAMI — The Maine-based relief ship Sea Hunter took two steps forward and one step back Friday in its owner's quest to deliver supplies to an orphanage in Haiti.

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Photo by Bill Nemitz/Staff Writer: Sea Hunter owner Greg Brooks, right, confers with Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Michael Lingaitis, left, and inspector Paul Bates aboard the Sea Hunter Friday morning. Looking on is Chief Engineer Brian Ryder of West Bath.

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By late afternoon, the ship's owner, Greg Brooks of Gorham, confirmed that a licensed shipmaster from Orlando, with ties to Maine Maritime Academy, had volunteered to come aboard early next week and ride Sea Hunter to Haiti and then back to its winter berth in Boston.

The decision by Richard Devins, who holds an ''unlimited master'' license, could satisfy the Coast Guard's demand that Sea Hunter no longer sail without licensed personnel aboard.

''It's amazing that this man donated his license and his time to come down and help us,'' said Brooks. ''All he asked was that when we get back to Boston, we buy him a plane ticket home.''

Taking another step toward their goal, the crew and local dockworkers finished clearing the ship's cluttered main deck and taking aboard 10 containers of relief supplies donated by a Florida-based charity shortly after 4:30 p.m.

That beat the dock owner's deadline for loading the containers. Under a more flexible deadline, the move to another berth nearby finally got under way at 9 p.m.

''Everybody pulled together, that's for sure,'' said Rick Woodbury, 49, of Scarborough, a friend of Brooks who volunteered for the mission. ''It was a good day, no doubt about it.''

Enthusiasm about the forward progress was tempered, however, by news that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection office in Miami had ordered Brooks to provide, by this afternoon, a complete inventory of all goods taken aboard in Portland and Boston.

In addition, customs officials told Brooks he must pay a duty based on the total value of the tons of clothing, food and equipment brought to the ship in late January by people and businesses all over Maine.

Among the Maine donations is a large medical mobile unit donated by the Maine Migrant Health Program in Augusta to the Portland-based nonprofit organization Konbit Sante, which operates out of Cap Haitien, Haiti.

Cross International, a charity based in Pompano Beach, Fla., that supports the orphanage in Les Cayes, already paid duty on the containerized cargo.

Asked if he knows how much the remaining duty will cost, Brooks replied, ''I have no idea. And I don't have any more money to pay for it.''

Sitting nearby, crew member Alex Bezkorovainy, 41, of Framingham, Mass., asked rhetorically, ''What's a Haitian life worth?''

On balance, though, Brooks and his crew emerged from a grueling day hopeful that their journey, which began on Jan. 31 when the Sea Hunter sailed out of Portland Harbor, will continue.

Devins, the shipmaster, was found after Maine Congresswoman Chellie Pingree's office contacted Capt. Laurence Wade, skipper of the Maine Maritime Academy's training vessel State of Maine.

Pingree spokesman Willy Ritch said Wade was unable to make the trip, but suggested that Pingree call Devins, a 1973 graduate of Maine Maritime.

In an interview from his home, Devins said he retired several years ago after piloting oil tankers for Arco.

To keep his master's license active, Devins said, he spends 60 days each summer assisting on the State of Maine's annual training cruise.

Asked why he decided to make a trip that could keep him away from home for several weeks, Devins replied, ''Obviously, there are people in great need down there.''

Devins said he discussed the Sea Hunter's dilemma with Coast Guard Capt. Cyndi Stowe, deputy commander of Coast Guard Sector Miami.

(Stowe informed Brooks on Thursday that his lack of a licensed crew -- he mistakenly believed that none was necessary because his ship is classified as a recreational vessel -- required that the Coast Guard place a hold on the Sea Hunter's humanitarian voyage.)

(Continued on page 2)

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