Mainer delivers Haitian relief supplies
January's devastating earthquake in Haiti may have occurred over 1700 miles from New England, but local Maine residents have been resolute in their desire to help the victims of the disaster. Greg Brooks, founder of Sub Sea Research LLC, an underwater exploration and treasure hunting business in Portland, Maine, has been one of the leaders in the grassroot efforts. At the end of last month, he announced that his 220-foot vessel the Sea Hunter would be traveling to an orphanage in southern Haiti, loaded to the brim with relief supplies. The trip has faced many challenges due to dangerous weather conditions and to Coast Guard restrictions.
"I've never done anything like this before," Brooks said in a press release. "But hey, you do what you have to do."
While some Mainers were skeptical of the trip's spontaneity, they did not hold back on their donations. By the time the Sea Hunter departed on Jan. 31 from Portland, the ship was loaded with over 150 tons of food, medicine, clothing and other miscellaneous supplies. Eighty thousand bottles of water from Poland Spring and Hannaford Supermarkets, 33 hospital beds from the Haven Health Care Center in Cape Elizabeth and a 25-foot medical truck from the Maine Migrant Health Program in Augusta were just some of the items onboard.
"People drove down from Northern Maine to bring supplies," Stephanie Ferrante, one of the volunteers on the trip, said in a press release. "People have huge hearts. It's an amazing thing to watch how giving people can be."
In fact, the Sea Hunter's 12-person crew was presented with quite the challenge as its members made room for over 250 pallets loaded with donated supplies. Although many of the donors had already given money to larger humanitarian organizations, they felt that their contributions of food and clothing made more of a tangible difference.
When Rick Woodbury of Scarborough heard of Brooks' plan, he packed a car full of his family's used clothing. "The kids down there are going to be able to put these sneakers right on their feet," he said in a Morning Sentinel interview. "This is great that [Brooks] is doing this. It's fantastic."
Social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, has helped spread the word about the Sea Hunter's journey. Susan Cole of Gray, Maine heard about Brooks' efforts on the evening news. She played her part by buying blankets and flashlights at the local Marden's Surplus and Salvage, which gave her a significant discount when it learned the reason behind her large purchase.
"I know there are people in [the United States] who need help also, but these are children we're talking about down there," Cole said in another Morning Sentinel interview. "Any child needs to be warm and fed."
After the Sea Hunter left Portland, the crew planned to make a brief stop in Boston to pick up donated generators before continuing south to Haiti. Instead, they arrived at the dock near Logan Airport to find an additional 125 pallets loaded with food, medicine and clothing, waiting for them.
Jackie Heimes, an administrator at the Boston Harbor Shipyard and Marina, reported that hundreds of people had come to the marina with donations. "It was unlike anything I've ever seen before," she said. "The response was just overwhelming." The Sea Hunter had to stay at the marina for an additional two days in order to load the new supplies.
"It is truly unbelievable the amount of supplies that are being donated," Brooks wrote on his company's website. "On our way to Boston, we heard that there were 20 or so pallets waiting on the dock for us. [Then], it was 80 pallets of aid supplies. [Later], a local group of Haitians stopped by the ship with 20 barrels stuffed with food, clothes, water and everything in between. The phone is ringing constantly; people want to help. Our crew has been working around the clock stuffing the aid wherever possible."
With a boat packed close to maximum capacity, the crew continued to Miami, where they needed to clear U.S. Customs. Throughout their weeklong voyage, they encountered violent storms in the Atlantic. "The Sea Hunter had a terrible trip to Miami," Brooks wrote. "Waves crashed over the pilot house...the crew spent many hours on deck trying to secure the boxes of donations, risking injury or worse to save the precious cargo we were carrying." Last Thursday the ship arrived in Florida with all of its members safely onboard.
However, the crew still faces many previously unanticipated challenges before they can finish their trip to Haiti. Florida Coast Guard officials have prohibited the Sea Hunter from exiting the United States because no one on its crew is licensed to operate a commercial vessel weighing over 200 tons. The Sea Hunter is only 50 tons over the weight restriction. U.S. Customs and Border Protection as well as the Haitian government have also required that Sub Sea Research LLC pay a duty based on the amount of cargo, which Brooks says he may not be able to afford. In addition, the entire crew faces arrest if they remain at the Miami dock without proper documentation.
"They put us in a quandary where we don't know which way to turn, and it's over a technicality...so it's kind of a mess," Brooks said in a press release. One option is to find a new licensed captain, but according to Brooks, "The problem you have there is if you do that you have to hire someone you don't know. Are they drunks? Are they drug addicts?...Are you going to hire them to operate the ship when you don't know who they are?"
Maine representatives in Washington have begun to put pressure on the Coast Guard. "We've been talking to the Coast Guard asking them to allow them to keep moving and take their cargo down there," Maine Congresswoman Chellie Pingree said in a press release. "It does seem to us that in a time of humanitarian need we shouldn't be worrying about every little rule and regulation, some of which have never been applied before, so I'm a little shocked that we even have to go through all this." Maine Senators Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins have also been in contact with the Coast Guard.
In the meantime, Pingree, Snowe and Collins have been helping Brooks find a new captain. During the search, they spoke to administrators at the Maine Maritime Academy. They were given the name of Richard Devins, an academy graduate living in Daytona Beach with over 25 years of experience as a captain. Brooks, who had been hesitant about hiring someone out of the blue, was pleased with the potential candidate. "He seems like an extremely nice guy, so I would be open for him to come aboard and be captain of the vessel on this journey.... The Coast Guard has to be able to accept it [Devins as new temporary captain] and not throw any more roadblocks in front of us."
Father Marc Boisvert, a native of Lewiston and director of Hope Village, the orphanage where the donations will be delivered, anxiously waits for the Sea Hunter's arrival. "Right now we have 700 resident children and about 150 families in the local area that we provide food for," he said in a press release. "We don't have the resources...We're all looking forward to this shipload of cargo because there's a lot of food on that thing."
If the Coast Guard approves the Sea Hunter's new changes, the ship should be set to sail to its final destination sometime this week.