Americans use derelict ships to help Haitians

A group of American businessmen is towing derelict ships from Florida ports to the southern coast of Haiti to create a campus for a school that would teach Haitians to improve their fishing techniques - and give them a means to make a living.

One ship found abandoned in St. Petersburg has already been towed to the Haitian coastal town of St. Louis de Sud, about 84 miles from Port-au-Prince, and it is being renovated there by Haitians under the direction of a nonprofit organization known as Caribbean Industries.

Now the group is looking at a second freighter that apparently was abandoned in Tampa's port eight months ago.

By the time the school is completely set up in three to six months, it will be teaching Haitians how to make a living for themselves. Organizers hope this will provide some Haitians an alternative to risking their lives trying to come to the United States, says Jerry Price, speaking for the group.

A letter from Ernest Dane, the US consul general in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, to the Tampa Port Authority praised the project.

''I want to advise you that I have been following the development of this project since its inception six months ago,'' Dane wrote, ''and from my perspective as US consul general in Haiti, it should prove very constructive and beneficial to the local population and to the Haitian financial picture.''

''We want to put these Haitians to work; that's what they want,'' Price says. ''There are no jobs on the south coast of Haiti. If we can put them to work there, they won't want to leave. All we are doing is making just a little dent in the problem, but you have to start somewhere.''

Docked in Tampa's port, the 2,000-ton SS Linera is listing slightly to port, filling slowly with rainwater that pours through its open hatches, and rusting. It has been a home for derelicts who sneak into its crew's quarters to sleep.

But Price says that when he looks at the Linera, he envisions a brightly painted school for Haitian fishermen moored permanently on the tropical south coast of Haiti. Its holds would be outfitted as dormitories and classrooms, he says, and its officers' and crew's quarters transformed into lodging for faculty and staff. Its generators would provide the electricity that the village lacks.

The foundation's educational plan goes back to the basics, Price says, and it is geared to provide jobs in an area that now has few.

''We want to begin by teaching them basic health and hygiene,'' he says, ''and then teach them language skills so they know something besides the Creole dialect.

''This is all going toward teaching them seamanship and aquaculture,'' he adds. ''There are some areas in Haiti that are overfished, but most areas are underfished. The Haitians don't have the facilities to get to the areas that have abundant fish.''

Price says his group would teach the Haitians to fish the same way it was done 150-years ago on the Georges Bank off New England, with small sailing or rowing dories. The fish and shrimp caught would be picked up by boats that go from dory to dory, he says, and enough should be caught to export shrimp to the US.

But there are many skills that would have to be learned, he adds, and that would be the job of the school.

''As far as being educable, the Haitians are sponges,'' Price says. ''They pick up information very quickly.''

The group has started by teaching 21 students at a time, but it plans to get up to 120 a year when the program is fully developed, says Price. The work begins with the renovations of the ships, which will cost up to $40,000 for each vessel. Price points out that the Haitians want to decorate the ships themselves with brightly colored murals.

''They want it to look good because it becomes a big part of their environment,'' Price says. ''This program will give them something they can do. It will give them a marketable trade.''

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