March 3, 2010

Stymied ship unsnarls sticky knot in red tape

By Bill Nemitz

— 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.)

''(Stowe) told me where she was coming from, what she thought needs to be done, and I think I can fit the bill there without too much pain,'' Devins said. ''And it sounds like they've been going through a lot of pain down there'' in Haiti.

Friday's activities began with a meeting -- half strategy session, half pep talk -- between Brooks and his crew on the bridge of the Sea Hunter.

''This is going to be the day that decides what happens here,'' Brooks told the 10 crew members and two volunteers, all but three of whom are from Maine.

''We started this -- and we should finish it,'' Brooks said. ''We all know that this aid is going to save people's lives.''

Moments later, the crew fanned out among the dozens of pallets on the ship's main deck -- many of them still soaked from three major storms encountered by the Sea Hunter during its 11-day voyage down the East Coast.

Upon discovering that several of the dockside containers were not completely full, the crew opened deck space by transferring most of the pallets into the containers with the ship's 40-ton crane.

''It was back-breaking,'' said deckhand Shawn Jordan, 31, of South Portland. ''But it was worth it.''

By late afternoon, under growing pressure by dock owner Bernuth Marine Shipping Inc. to finish the loading operation, the crew stepped back as container after container was nestled into the ever-shrinking deck space.

''I was ecstatic when they all fit -- everybody was,'' said Stephanie Ferrante, 28, of Portland, who serves as marine archaeologist during the Sea Hunter's normal treasure-salvage operations.

While the crew labored, Chief Engineer Brian Ryder, 37, of West Bath and volunteer Dan Kidd, 61, a mechanical engineer from Limington, hunched over a laptop computer and a calculator. Their task: to perfect a loading plan to keep the ship stable with its now-estimated 200 tons of cargo.

Shortly after they finished, Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Michael Lingaitis and inspector Paul Bates came aboard.

They sat with Brooks for almost an hour in the galley, reviewing the Coast Guard's hold order and setting the various licensing and safety benchmarks to have it lifted.

''We're willing to work with you,'' Lingaitis told Brooks. ''Let's keep discussing this.''

Brooks later said that despite the regulatory setbacks, his hopes for reaching Haiti remain undimmed. ''I'm hoping there's a solution in sight,'' he said.

He's hardly alone.

Cynthia DeSoi of Greene is medical director of Hope Village, the orphanage in Les Cayes founded eight years ago and still run by the Rev. Marc Boisvert, a Roman Catholic priest who grew up in Lewiston.

In an e-mail Friday, DeSoi said she flew home to Maine on Thursday evening after spending the past two weeks at Hope Village.

The supplies aboard the Sea Hunter are needed now more than ever, DeSoi reported: The orphanage, home to 600-plus boys, just agreed to take in 100 more who have arrived since the earthquake Jan. 12 ravaged Port-au-Prince, 140 miles to the east.

''We were really counting on the supplies aboard that ship to provide for them,'' DeSoi wrote. ''There are so many hopes riding on that vessel.''


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


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