MIRAGOANE, Haiti — Just when the Maine relief ship Sea Hunter’s mission appeared stalled again, along came Pastor Bob.

“It’s a blessing,” Pastor Robinson “Bob” Lefranc said late Friday afternoon as he laid eyes for the first time on his new solar-powered water desalinator.

“We have 12,000 people camping around our church – and we need water,” he explained. “This is a huge, big blessing.”

For those aboard Sea Hunter, so was Pastor Bob.

Here’s why:

After a 2-day sail from Miami, Sea Hunter arrived in Miragoane Harbor late Thursday evening and dropped anchor within sight of its first Haitian destination – a deep-water dock in this small port 60 miles west of Port-au-Prince.

The plan was simple: clear local customs and immigration in the morning, drop off 10 20-foot containers, a medical mobile unit and the water desalinator, then sail by nightfall for the coastal city of Les Cayes.

There, Sea Hunter will offload 80 tons of palletized food, clothing, medicine and other supplies – all donated by Mainers and bound for Hope Village, an orphanage and community assistance program just outside Les Cayes.

But if those aboard Sea Hunter have learned one thing since the ship left Portland on Jan. 31, it’s that things never go according to plan.

Early Friday morning, a three-man party from the port of Miragoane rowed out to Sea Hunter in a small wooden boat, presumably to guide the ship through a narrow channel to the dock.

Instead, they directed captain Gary Esper and volunteer shipmaster Kevin Garthwaite to an anchorage closer to shore to wait for final customs clearance before proceeding to the pier.

And before departing, they charged Sea Hunter’s owner, Greg Brooks, $100 for their anchorage-to-anchorage services.

“This is how it starts,” muttered Brooks, who has made many trips to Haiti as the owner of Sub Sea Research, a treasure salvage firm.

“And believe me,” he added, peeling off a $100 bill from his wallet, “this is only the beginning.”

A short time later, an e-mail arrived from the Rev. Marc Boisvert, the Lewiston native who founded and operates Hope Village.

Boisvert reported that his assistant had planned to meet Sea Hunter at the dock and oversee the offloading of the metal containers, all bound for Hope Village.

Instead, Boisvert said, the assistant was ordered to drive two hours to Port-au-Prince to get final approval for the offloading from Haiti’s director of customs.

“Maybe word will get back around 1 p.m.,” Boisvert wrote. “I’m being optimistic. Welcome to my world.”

One o’clock came – and went. At 2:30 p.m., Boisvert wrote back with bad news.

“There’s no way to get the authorization for Miragoane until next week,” he wrote, without elaborating on the reason for the delay. “Is there any way you can come to the port in Les Cayes first?”

There wasn’t. Brooks and Esper agreed that it would take too much time and fuel to reverse Sea Hunter’s itinerary.

In other words, Sea Hunter once again appeared stuck. Memories of Miami, where the ship spent 12 days under a Coast Guard “hold order” because of safety and licensing concerns, loomed in everyone’s mind.

“I can’t believe this,” said a frustrated Brooks, staring out from the bridge at the nearby dock.

Brooks fired off an e-mail to a United Nations official in New York City who days ago told Brooks to contact him if he needed help.

Another SOS went out to the office of U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, whose staff contacted the State Department in a last-ditch attempt to break the deadlock before government offices here and in the United States closed for the weekend.

But by late in the day, no word had come back. And it appeared that, as has happened so many times since Sea Hunter left Portland Harbor, a one-day delay was about to become three days, or four – or more.

Enter Pastor Bob.

He arrived in Miragoane late Friday afternoon from the Light and Peace Mission in Bon Repos, a community just outside Port-au-Prince.

His goal: to claim the water desalinator donated to his church and orphanage by New Jersey-based WorldWater & Solar Technologies.

The 6,000-pound device came to Sea Hunter via Cross International, a Florida-based charity that also filled the 20 containers with supplies for Hope Village.

“I come to you!” Pastor Bob boomed over the radio after confirming from the nearby dock that the desalinator was aboard.

The rowboat returned. Aboard this time was a local customs official, two immigration officers (who also had come and gone earlier in the day) and, smiling and waving from the tiny vessel’s stern, Pastor Bob.

Upon hearing that Sea Hunter – and, in particular, his solar-powered water desalinator – were stuck in bureaucratic limbo, Pastor Bob turned and spoke in Creole with the customs officer.

The customs officer nodded, punched a number into his cell phone and retreated to a quiet spot for several minutes.

Meanwhile, back on Sea Hunter’s stern, more commotion:

Felix Vital, an employee and close friend of Brooks and the ship’s crew from past visits to Haiti, arrived via bus and sailboat from Les

Cayes with his girlfriend, Milouse Pieerre.

It was more than just a joyful reunion. Vital, fluent in both Creole and English, will provide much-needed translation services for the rest of Sea Hunter’s mission.

“It’s a great thing (Brooks and his crew) are doing,” said Vital, who has visited Maine and last saw his friends three years ago. “I did not believe it when I heard they were coming, but I know Greg has Haiti in his heart.”

Back to Pastor Bob.

After the customs officer finished his cell phone call, he huddled again with the pastor.

Pastor Bob then explained that they had the national customs director’s cell phone number but, alas, were unable to reach him to get immediate clearance.

“But it’s OK – I go back to Port-au-Prince,” Pastor Bob said. “You will be at the dock by tomorrow, Sunday latest.”

By Friday evening, the mood aboard Sea Hunter had brightened noticeably.

Pastor Bob, after all, wants his desalinator.

And hope, even in Haiti, springs eternal.

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

[email protected]

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