Merchant mariners find ways to bring desperately needed aid to Haiti

The hospital ship USNS Comfort, navigated by a civilian crew, took up station off Port-au-Prince. The vessel was one of 13 ships crewed by 572 mariners mobilized by the U.S. Military Sealift Command as part of the Haitian earthquake response. (Courtesy U.S. Navy/Kristopher Wilson)

American merchant mariners played a critical role in the response to one of the worst-ever disasters in the Western Hemisphere.

Following the January earthquake in Haiti, thousand of tons of emergency supplies were transported by hundreds of U.S. professional mariners, including Capt. Clare Nelson, master of the tugboat Justine Foss.

Justine Foss and its tow — the roll-on, roll-off deck barge American Trader — were among the first vessels permitted to dock at the heavily damaged Port-au-Prince piers. Foss Maritime Co. and American Cargo Transport Corp. vessels carried 3,000 tons of vegetable oil and 3,150 tons of a corn-soy food blend, providing an early arrival of nourishment for the Haitian people.

A truck hauls a container of food from American Trader, a roll-on, roll-off barge belonging to American Cargo Transport Corp. The barge was towed to Haiti by the Foss Maritime tug Justine Foss. The vessels were among the first to dock at Port-au-Prince following the quake. Courtesy American Cargo Transport Corp,

The 4,000-hp Justine Foss arrived at Port-au-Prince Feb. 1 after departing Houston with the United Nations World Food Program load Jan. 23, 11 days after the earthquake.

Nelson, 57, of Pasco, Wash., had sailed to Haiti three times before with loads of food aid. None of those voyages could compare to the urgency of this one, however. Upon entering the harbor, his crew was shocked at the sight of the broken quays and the wrecked city. The transit to the berth wasn’t easy either, because piers and cranes had crumbled into the water and navigation aids hadn’t been reinstalled.

“The dock is just gone, and you don’t know where the channel is. You know there’s a chunk of concrete there somewhere, but you don’t know where,” Nelson said by telephone from the deck of Justine Foss. “I used my waypoints from the last time I was here, from my old notes.”

The harbor was full of anchored aid ships, and relief officials were struggling to unload cargo while the quays were mostly inaccessible. Justine Foss shortened up the tow, picked up the harbor pilot, completed a three-line makeup and had just enough space to slip the 400-by-100-foot barge alongside the south causeway.

“Coming into the dock, just the amount of military here — you look around and you can’t believe it when you see it,” Nelson said. “Just walking around in the yard today, you see just how bottled up everything is.”

Several U.S. maritime organizations played a direct role in solving those clogs and delivering humanitarian aid to the suffering Haitians:

• The civilian-crewed U.S. Military Sealift Command mobilized at least 13 ships, including the hospital ship USNS Comfort. The Baltimore-based Comfort’s sick bays admitted 504 patients in its first eight days off Haiti. More than 260 medical procedures were performed on the 1,000-bed ship.

A truck hauls a container of food from American Trader, a roll-on, roll-off barge belonging to American Cargo Transport Corp. The barge was towed to Haiti by the Foss Maritime tug Justine Foss. The vessels were among the first to dock at Port-au-Prince following the quake. (Courtesy American Cargo Transport Corp)

• The Crowley Maritime Corp. ships Marcajama and Crowley Americas delivered 462 containers of relief supplies a few days after the quake. Jacksonville, Fla.-based Crowley chartered two roll-on, roll-off landing craft — Sea Express II and Cape Express — to lighter various supply ships. Crowley tugboats Sea Venture and Cavalier towed the flat deck barges 410 and Atka to Port-au-Prince to serve as temporary docks, with two 230-ton crawler cranes.

• Seacor Holdings, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., was hired to restore bulk fuel deliveries to Port-au-Prince. Haiti’s WIN Group owns the Terminal Varreux, and the two companies collaborated on an emergency project to repair steel pipes that connect the marine docks and the storage area. The efforts allowed the facility to begin unloading tankers again so Haiti could receive gasoline, diesel fuel, fuel oil, propane and edible oils.

• Antillean Marine, based in Miami, loaded its landing craft MV Cristina Express with the equivalent of 90 truckloads of ready-to-eat meals. The vessel transported the World Food Program meals to Haiti.

• The U.S. Maritime Administration activated two vessels that formerly were part of the defunct Hawaii Superferry service. MV Alakai and MV Huakai were loaded with trucks, heavy equipment, Humvees, military personnel and other equipment destined for Haiti. Both fast ferries were placed under Military Sealift Command control.

In total, the Military Sealift Command’s 13 vessels were crewed by 304 civil-service mariners and 268 contract mariners in early February, said Sealift Command spokesman Frank Randall.

Nelson’s boat carried a crew of eight. American Cargo Transport crews were already regulars at Port-au-Prince, because the company had a contract to deliver routine U.S. food aid to Haiti.

When they heard there would be rush shipment from Houston, the crew began preparations the same way they always had. After they arrived, though, they knew they were facing a different Haiti. They saw broken buildings and rising smoke, and the city was no longer lit up at night.

“One of the predominant landmarks at Port-au-Prince is the white cathedral that most sailors see at the end of the harbor,” Robert Wagoner, American Cargo’s director of cargo operations, said from Justine Foss. “Most of that church is gone. The church is still standing, but the towers are gone.”

While watching the trucks and containers roll on and off American Trader, Nelson said his crew felt a great duty to keep the supplies moving for the suffering people. More than 100,000 Haitians may have been killed in the quake.

“This isn’t just another trip to Haiti where you do your thing and you unload and you get your empties and you leave,” Nelson said. “You can’t appreciate it until you’ve been down here and you see what these people are going through, and you see it’s more important than before, and it knocks your socks off, to be honest with you.”

Dom Yanchunas

By Professional Mariner Staff