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The 'Breezy Sea' - How A Refitted Lobster Boat from New Brunswick is Changing Lives on a Small Island in Haiti

Haiti WISH Canada Breezy See
The 'Breezy Sea' is a critical lifeline between La Gonave and mainland Haiti

Most boaters dream of resurrecting an old vessel and returning it to its former glory.

Some do it for the love of boating, others for the satisfaction of turning something old into something new again. Some do it for reasons beyond boating -- the vessel is merely a catalyst for a greater cause. The old propeller turning once being a symbol of a larger mission.

Haiti WISH Canada is a non-profit organization that works to rebuild communities in Haiti by advancing projects surrounding access to water. That means everything from providing safe drinking water to communities within the small Caribbean country, but also using water, and access to it, as the focus for entrepreneurial endeavors designed to change lives.

Enter the Breezy Sea project -- an idea borne out of entrepreneurial spirit, a sense of community, and the desire to inspire the next generation of mariners.

As with all honourable projects, the team went in search of a community in need. They found one on the tiny island of La Gonave off Haiti's west coast -- an island so small it was never under the direct influence of French or Spanish colonizers and has often struggled to find balance because of its unique location. Given its unusual position off the coast of the capital Port-au-Prince, plus a series of gut-wrenching losses over the last three decades, the island has faced significant setbacks. But, never deterred, the small community is steadfast in its quest for self-reliance.

Those losses began in earnest on September 8th, 1997, when a ferry heading from La Gonave to the Haitian mainland sank with hundreds of passengers aboard. It is considered the worst disaster in Haitian maritime history. The loss of life, and the loss of the ferry, was a devastating blow to an already tight community reliant on access to the mainland.

Things looked up in 2005, despite an ongoing drought, when the mayor of Anse-à-Galets, the largest commune on the island, established The Water Platform -- a collection of charitable groups designed to help La Gonave develop reliable access to water. Groups included World Vision, Concern WorldWide, Haiti Outreach, and others. The Water Platform became a focal point where organizations could coordinate their efforts to help the people of La Gonave.

In 2010, catastrophe struck once again with the Haiti earthquake -- a magnitude 7.0 force that rocked the island and resulted in over 100,000 deaths across the country. The docks at La Gonave were badly damaged during the quake and its aftershocks, forcing the community to rely on airdrops for supplies, further isolating it from the mainland. Its dusty airstrip became the only point of contact for its entire population.

As La Gonave struggled to regain its footing, Haiti WISH stepped in, and the Breezy Sea project became the catalyst for a community effort to rebuild La Gonave and give its citizens the means, and the knowledge, to become self reliant.

Robin Churchill, the Canadian On-Site Director for Haiti WISH Canada, describes it as "a project borne out of a need to help coastal communities find sources of better water."

So what is the Breezy Sea?

The answer is best given by Dean Stephenson -- the champion of the Breezy Sea project -- in a story that dates back to 2009.

"The Breezy Sea is Cape Islander Lobster Fishing boat acquired from Preston and Peter Wilcox of Grand Manan Island in New Brunswick, Canada in 2009," says Stephenson.

"We bought the boat for $10,000 and Randy Chaison and myself went to Grand Manan to do some retrofit work. This involved removing lobster fishing equipment to start."

"In the spring, the boat was sailed from Grand Manan to Catons Island Camp near Browns Flat, New Brunswick where I work as the Director. I used the boat that summer to ferry campers back-and-forth to the island and familiarized myself with it operation."

"Then it was retrofitted for the Caribbean and sailed to La Gonave island in December 2009 by Bob Colpitts and Charles McNair, both from New Brunswick. It was an arduous five week journey of hardship and determination. The boat arrived about two weeks before the devastating earthquake of 2010 and provided much needed service to the hospital and the people of the village of Anse-au-Galet on La Gonave during that terrible time."

In a strange twist of fates, at the same time Colpitts and McNair were arriving at the Wesleyan wharf in Haiti aboard the Breezy Sea, Stephenson was just touching down by plane in Port-au-Prince.

Transporting much needed rescue supplies

"The next day, I loaded my team on the boat and sailed from the mainland to La Gonave," says Stephenson. "I spent the next several days teaching our WISH staff and Haitians alike how to run the boat and do the maintenance on it. Four days after our arrival, the earthquake struck and the Breezy Sea became a lifeline from the mainland to the Island. It hauled tons of food, medical supplies, relief, workers, and much more. I returned 21 days after the earthquake and operated the boat for a week and made several trips back-and-forth hauling supplies."

"Its been functioning as a transport for everything," says Churchill. "Since its arrival after the earthquake of 2010, it has hauled people, medical teams, fuel, building materials, vehicles, medical supplies, food, and more."

After the boat's use in the recovery efforts, it was formally transferred to the team at Haiti WISH. It is now a permanent part of their mission.

"The Breezy Sea has served a long useful life. It is presently being refurbished and refitted for a new role, along with continuing with some of its previous chores. The turmoil in the country has slowed the progress in refurbishing the boat but there has been progress," says Stephenson.

Currently, the Breezy Sea continues to transport critical supplies to the island while also providing a safe connection to the mainland. But she needs work. Not only does she need funding for regular maintenance, they're also hoping to add a desalination system that will allow them to create drinkable water on demand.

If the team can add a desalination unit, the vessel can also become an emergency response unit during times of crisis, which is a rightful concern as the island deals regularly with political and economic strife. It will also provide a reliable water source for isolated villages along the coast. The cost of the water system alone is about $13,000 CDN. The team is hoping to raise $30,000 to not only add the desalinator, but also to perform much needed maintenance to keep the Breezy Sea operational. She needs an engine rebuild and a new transmission, among other things. It costs $4000 CDN per year just to keep her functioning.

"Most coastal communities on the island of La Gonave have no clean water source and rely on expensive water solutions for clean water, rain water, or drink the dirty brackish water that may be found locally. By placing a portable desalination unit on the Breezy Sea, WISH will be able to visit these remote coastal communities and provide clean drinking water during the dry season," says director Churchill.

Cholera is a constant threat across the island, as is the risk from gang violence that's seemingly never far from reaching across the bay.

A military-grade desalinator like the one they hope to add to the Breezy Sea

"The Breezy Sea is waiting on a couple of needed parts before it can be placed back into service. The resent cessation of flights to the country have made this very difficult," adds Stephenson.

Despite the delays, the team at Haiti WISH hopes to resume progress with in the fall in hopes of having it providing water when the dry season starts this November. Because of the logistical struggles, team members have gone as far as carrying parts in their luggage while traveling back and forth from the island.

Support from the public and the boating community can help Haiti WISH and the local community of La Gonave ensure there is safe drinking water, regardless of whatever setbacks may come next.

A fundraising campaign for the Breezy Sea is ongoing and donations are welcome from anywhere in the world. But Haiti WISH has other projects on the go as well, all with the aim to create jobs in the community, empower locals, and provide value infrastructure along the way.

"We are excited to be launching an E-Bike water/ice delivery program," says Churchill. "The E-Bikes will essentially be small business opportunities for young moms or single females to help them provide for their families. The bikes belong to WISH but they will be rented daily to be used in the community. The rent collected will help support the program on an ongoing basis."

While there is much work to be done, there is always hope for the future.

"WISH Canada has plans to help schools with storage for clean water and initiate programs to help families earn enough to support their needs. When these programs are established, WISH Canada will look at duplicating these programs in other areas," says Churchill.

You can keep up with Haiti WISH Canada on Facebook or make a donation via their website.

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