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Sea Trek may sail again — into court

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Sea Trek 2001, a sailing adventure that commemorated the 150th anniversary of the Mormon migration from Europe to America, survived the stormy waters of the Atlantic Ocean last summer.

However, the Provo-based Sea Trek Foundation is now apparently awash in red ink and may find itself sinking into the depths of a foreign court battle.

Sea Trek still owes companies that operate the three tall Norwegian sailing ships used in the event at least $530,000.

It also hasn't paid another $40,000 to $80,000 to the operators of the Russian sailing ship, Mir, according to Per Langhelle, managing director of the foundation that operates one of the three Norwegian sailing ships.

"Sea Trek Foundation's lack of will or ability to pay is causing severe damage to a number of Europe's oldest and proudest tall ships still in operation," he said.

Langhelle is finalizing papers to file in Norwegian city court within the next few days to try to recoup the money.

Leif Brestrup, director for the nonprofit organization that operates another of the three Norwegian ships, also said Sea Trek has overdue bills. However, his estimates of the bills for the three ships total $767,339 plus interest.

Brestrup said the outstanding debt has put his organization into the red and caused problems operating their ship.

William K. Sadleir of Salt Lake City, founder and chairman of the nonprofit Sea Trek Foundation, is overseas and could not be reached for comment.

However, according to the Associated Press, Sadleir has indicated the only way he can pay all of the bills is if he can raise the money. The report said he has plans to pay the Russian ship bill as early as next week.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was not a sponsor of Sea Trek and has not offered to pick up any of the overdue bills.

"Sea Trek was a private venture not sponsored by the church," LDS Church spokesman Dale Bills said. "From the outset, the church has declined all requests from Sea Trek organizers for financial support."

Despite that distinction, Langhelle said in Europe it was difficult to separate the LDS Church from Sea Trek during the actual event.

"Of course, technically, it (the LDS Church) is not a member of the Sea Trek project," he said. "However, it would take an expert to separate the church and project over here."

Langhelle said while the church's headquarters in Salt Lake City may not have had anything directly to do with Sea Trek, the LDS Church in Norway and other parts of Europe was very prominent and involved.

He indicated he's maintaining an ongoing dialogue with LDS Church leaders in Norway.

"This is a big deal," he said, in a story on the past-due bills that received front page newspaper exposure in Norway last week.

The headline of the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten stated, "Faith in the Mormons lands tall ships in court."

Langhelle said normally the use of the sailing ships requires a substantial up-front prepayment. However, he said because the LDS Church seemed a part of the project, he didn't feel the need for that requirement.

He said Sadleir has recently approached the LDS Church with a plea for financial help, but that was denied.

Some crew members of the sailing ships are now being laid off because there is no money to pay their salaries amidst an already difficult economy. Sea Trek had promised that all bills would be paid by Dec. 31, 2001.

Sea Trek estimated its operating costs based on all the ships being full. However, that didn't materialize and there were also many last-minute cancellations, especially during the event's last leg to New York following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Sea Trek re-created the historic migration of some 85,000 Mormon converts from Europe that took place from 1851 to 1882. The event attracted considerable attention in European ports and cities.

Aside from the financial troubles of late, Langhelle was impressed with the event.

"It was very positive for us. The media exposure of the ships in each port was fantastic," he said.

Brestrup said he was very impressed with the outstanding behavior of the Sea Trek participants on the voyage, but the debts have now clouded those memories.

E-mail: lynn@desnews.com