Rafters schedule Saturday departure|[10/19/07]

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 19, 2007

After being beached in Vicksburg for 35 days, three rafters, who journeyed more than 1,000 miles down the Missouri and Mississippi rivers only to be stopped by the U.S. Coast Guard for safety purposes, will be continuing their voyage this weekend.

James Burkart, 24, Libby Hendon, 24, and Laura Mattingly, 25, who met while attending University of California-Santa Cruz, started their river journey July 21, from Burkart and Hendon’s hometown of Kansas City, Mo., as part of an art project. They were stopped Sept. 15 by boarding officers from the Coast Guard about 15 miles north of Vicksburg.

Made of household and commercial refuse and bicycle-powered, the raft was ordered off the water on the grounds it lacked proper registration. According to the rafters, Rear Adm. Joel R. Whitehead, commander for New Orleans-based 8th Coast Guard District, gave the orders upon being contacted by boarding officers.

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But now, Kelly Loyacono, the attorney who has been assisting the rafters with legal issues for free during their stay in the river city, says they will be back in the water at about 11 a.m. Saturday.

“Neither myself or the Coast Guard have found a standard criteria for recreational nonmotorized vessels that can legally terminate this voyage,” Loyacono said.

Loyacono said personnel from the Coast Guard are expected to come inspect the raft today. Regardless of any opinions given by the Coast Guard at that time, Loyacono said the raft will be afloat come Saturday.

Prior to the lack-of-criteria discovery, legal briefs were filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi Sept. 27 asking that a judge order Whitehead appear before a federal judge to show cause for giving the order to Coast Guard officials to pull the vessel off the river.

In a letter to Loyacono, Whitehead confirmed he issued the order to terminate the voyage under federal laws dealing with water-borne recreational craft deemed unsafe. Whitehead cites it as having an “unsuitable design and configuration” for the lower Mississippi River.

In court filings, the plaintiffs argue Whitehead was not qualified to make the judgment because his determination was based on the reports of the boarding officials. Also, they note the timing of the order, which was made Sept. 21, six days after the three rafters first encountered Coast Guard officers.

Burkart, Hendon and Mattingly were on the river as part of a project titled Release Yourself onto the Water until it Tastes of Salt. Burkart, who is spearheading the project, said its goal was to experience the river through its people and locales. About a half-dozen strangers joined them on their excursion at various times in the nearly two months the raft floated down river.

Before their local encounter with the Coast Guard, the rafters said they had experienced 14 other encounters with law enforcement, which included police, fire, sheriff, state conservation, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Homeland Security. However, all previous encounters resulted in a go ahead.

After the halt of the journey, the raft sat securely tied by the side of the river until it was retrieved Sept. 28. Since then, the rafters have been making improvements to their vessel behind Carriage House Apartments, 1215 East Ave., which was permitted by the property’s owners, Bill and Nancy Libbey.

For the past month and then some, the rafters have been housed by a number of Vicksburg residents, primarily Ross Andrews, a 30-year-old lumber inspector at Anderson-Tully who met the three travelers downtown the night they were pulled off the river. They have been working as substitute school teachers.

When the rafters put back on the river Saturday, they’ll have one additional passenger. Scott Moerson, 25, who also attended the University of California-Santa Cruz, came to Vicksburg to meet up with the group, only to arrive on the day they were forced off the river.

Burkart said Thursday they are willing to take more passengers. “Our invitation is still open to anyone in Vicksburg who wants to join us in continuing the voyage,” he said.