Another setback for RawFaith

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Coast Guard rescues, restricts tall ship to port

For the second time in as many years, a tall ship built to accommodate people with disabilities required assistance from the Coast Guard. RawFaith, an 81-foot galleon, lost her three masts in a gale just hours after setting sail from Jonesport, Maine, bound for New Jersey.

After RawFaith was towed to Rockland (Maine) Harbor, the Coast Guard ordered the vessel to remain in port until its repairs are inspected and approved by the agency.

“[Owner George McKay] put the people on his boat and himself at risk,” says Lt. Daniel McLean of the Coast Guard’s Marine Safety Dispatch in Belfast, Maine. “It’s the second incident in which he caused a Coast Guard unit to go out and render services costing taxpayers money.”

McKay had never sailed when he built RawFaith with his three sons over four years. During that time he says he received “not one sentence of advice” from any boatbuilder.

“I knew the masts were undersized when we put them in,” says McKay, 50, of Winthrop, Maine, who also skippers the vessel. “The trees for the masts were donated. If I had more money I would have done it right the first time. I was hoping to get the boat to New Jersey to do some dockside tours, raise a little money, and buy some proper Douglas fir trunks. We obviously didn’t make it that far.”

McKay, his 17-year-old son Rob, and a crew of three volunteers began their passage May 9, slipping the lines in Jonesport at about 7 a.m. McKay says he checked the marine forecast before leaving but “didn’t see anything that would make me not want to go,” he says.

The National Weather Service in Gray, Maine, had issued a small craft advisory at 3:22 a.m. that morning, according to forecaster Art Lester. Winds were predicted to blow between 10 and 15 knots through the morning, he says, building to 20 to 25 knots in the afternoon, with gusts to 30. Seas would be running 4 to 6 feet. A gale warning was issued at 3:11 p.m., calling for sustained winds of 25 to 35 knots and seas from 8 to 12 feet after midnight.

McKay writes in the log on his Web site (www.rawfaith.org) that he had been mindful of his masts, watching for signs of bending and stress. In Jonesport, McKay had reinforced RawFaith’s three hand-cut spruce spars with aluminum tubing, thinking that would strengthen them enough to get to New Jersey.

“It certainly looked like the aluminum fix was doing its job,” writes McKay. “The mast wasn’t bending, and so we thought it was doing fine. Then, without notice, at about 4 p.m. the [foremast] broke 17 feet down from the top, which was about 5 feet below the aluminum tubing.”

In the log, McKay recalls how the broken mast — held up by rigging and lines — swung as the boat pitched. With his crew seasick, McKay deployed RawFaith’s sea anchor and contacted the Coast Guard, maintaining communication every 30 minutes.

As forecast, the wind continued to build, and by 11:30 p.m. McKay reported that the other two masts had snapped and RawFaith would need to be towed. He says no one was seriously injured when the masts came down.

The 270-foot Coast Guard cutter Seneca reportedly found RawFaith at about 8 a.m. May 10 in the Gulf of Maine, some 15 miles off Mount Desert Rock. The Seneca and the 175-foot cutter Abbie Burgess towed RawFaith into Rockland Harbor. Coast Guard officials issued McKay a captain-of-the-port order.

“The order restricts movement of the vessel, requiring it to stay in the confines of Rockland Harbor until the masts and rigging are fixed within standards that the Coast Guard recognizes,” says the Coast Guard’s McLean.

McKay and RawFaith first ran into trouble during her maiden voyage Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 25, 2004. In 30-knot winds gusting to 40, RawFaith was 80 miles off Maine when the foremast snapped 5 feet from the top, the rudder broke, the batteries died, and the boat began taking on water. The Coast Guard towed the ailing galleon to Rockland Harbor. McKay was issued a captain-of-the-port order then, too, requiring the vessel to remain docked until repairs were made.

McKay began building RawFaith in 1999, with no boat carpentry or design skills. He wanted to build a ship that his daughter Elizabeth — who is afflicted with a connective tissue disorder called Marfan syndrome and is unable to walk — and others like her could cruise aboard comfortably and perhaps help to sail.

“RawFaith will help provide families with disabled children a full coastal sailing adventure, totally free of charge,” McKay says. “It will be a real escape.”

McKay says he is confident that with proper funding RawFaith can become a successful project.

“If people want to try and find the negatives in regard to what I’m doing, then that’s unfortunate,” he says. “This story isn’t about me or about my failures as a person. It’s about trying to make a difference in peoples’ lives. I’m not going to lose faith in what I’m trying to do.”