Raw Faith: sound vessel or ‘sitting duck’?

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A 100-foot galleon is damaged in heavy seas, but her skipper says the crew didn’t need to be rescued

By David Liscio

The morning wind was blowing 30 knots and gusting more than 40 as the mostly inexperienced volunteer crew of the three-masted tall ship Raw Faith huddled in the cabin to await a break in the weather or the arrival of a Coast Guard cutter, whichever came first.

Rudderless, dismasted, without navigation lights and taking on water, the 100-foot (LOA) home-built English galleon drifted on a sea anchor about 50 miles off Maine. Skipper George McKay, his 15-year-old son Robert, and four other men ate a breakfast of sliced baloney washed down with Gatorade. It was Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 25, 2004, and it was Raw Faith’s maiden voyage.

At 3:30 a.m. that day, the Coast Guard cutter Dependable was on patrol off Massachusetts when orders arrived to assist a vessel in distress. The cutter immediately changed course and headed northeast toward mountainous seas in the Gulf of Maine, some reportedly topping 30 feet.

Hours later, the cutter commander would order four crewmembers off Raw Faith. McKay, who is 48, was allowed to remain on board with his son as the cutter began towing the galleon back to Rockland, Maine. Precisely what transpired when the Coast Guard arrived, and during the hours just before and afterward, depends on who’s telling the story, but some facts are mutually acknowledged.

Raw Faith had left Rockland the previous Saturday, bound for New Jersey, where McKay hoped to finish her rustic interior with help from volunteers who shared his dream of a tall ship designed to accommodate wheelchairs. The ship was designed with a 26-foot beam and uncluttered deck, creating a stable platform with plenty of room below for families to join their disabled relatives on sailing adventures. She was a charming sight, modeled after 16th-century English “race-built” galleons — smaller than their Spanish counterparts and, therefore, more agile in battle, as proved by Sir Francis Drake.

After leaving Rockland McKay steered Raw Faith eastward, far enough to avoid the arm of Cape Cod, Mass., and the shipping traffic bound for New York as he ventured south. He says that had his ship not run into foul weather, she easily would have made it to New Jersey and, ultimately, to Jacksonville, Fla., where stronger, Douglas fir masts could be stepped. He says the events that unfolded during those six gray November days were nothing more than what might be expected on any shakedown cruise.

Others have disagreed, convinced the ship wasn’t ready to sail, lacked proper safety equipment, and was constructed by amateurs in a way that made her less than seaworthy and — in some respects — jeopardized the lives of those on board.

The dream

Raw Faith was born of a dream. In 1999 McKay quit his job as a computer electronics technician, sold his house — as well as stocks, bonds and furniture — and eventually moved his family from Winthrop, Maine, to Addison, just up the coast from Bar Harbor. Shortly thereafter he began building Raw Faith, with no boat carpentry or design skills. He apparently didn’t even know how to sail.

It was a sea change fueled by the image of his daughter, Elizabeth, now 25, who is afflicted with a connective tissue disorder called Marfan syndrome and is unable to walk. He wanted to build a dry ship that she and others like her could cruise aboard comfortably and perhaps help to sail.

“We prayed for this. We prayed a lot,” says McKay. “Then somebody told us about a guy in Addison who had been building a schooner in his yard for years but hadn’t finished. They told me to go see him for inspiration, or maybe to understand how difficult it might be so that I’d forget about the whole thing.”

The sight of Gino Fonda’s unfinished schooner proved motivational. “When I got up there to look over the boat, he offered his back yard, convinced we’d keep each other company,” he says.

McKay praised Fonda’s schooner but knew it was the wrong design for his own purposes. “Schooners are narrow, and they heel, which isn’t what you want for people in wheelchairs,” he says. “They’re great for hauling cargo, much faster, which is why they replaced the galleons, but we needed comfort. Speed was secondary.”

A deeply religious man, McKay figures he recognized a sign from God. “Gino told me a story about the Nellie Chapin, which was built on the exact same spot where we would build Raw Faith,” says McKay. Nellie Chapin was a three-masted ship that left Jonesport in 1866 with 157 men, women and children aboard and bound for Jaffa in Palestine, where a Christian group established an American colony.

During the first year of Raw Faith’s construction, McKay and his wife, JoAnne, daughter and three sons lived in an RV camper parked in Fonda’s yard. They eventually rented a nearby home as the ship began to take shape. By 2002 her keel had been laid, and zealous laborers joined the McKay family as white oak frames and triple oak planking were affixed with 6,400 8-inch spikes. A spruce deck followed suit.

As if to confirm the heavenly sign, McKay found a rusted drawknife in the mud beneath Raw Faith, the kind used for shipbuilding in the 1800s. He also found a 6-inch-long square bronze spike, common in that century. “I shined it up and drove it into Raw Faith’s port side — a third of the way back, just above the waterline,” he says. “So many doomsayers told me I couldn’t build this ship, that it just couldn’t be done. ... We laid the keel. We cut and sewed the sails ourselves. We persevered and made it happen.”

McKay says they just needed some help finishing her down below with cabinetry and berths.

Trouble at sea

Raw Faith departed Rockland Harbor on her maiden voyage amid fanfare on the docks and a flash of regional media attention. She appeared both solid and enchanting, a fairy tale vessel aiming for the horizon.

“She was sturdy, stable, and nobody was headed out to sea feeling threatened,” says McKay. He says Raw Faith was perfect for her mission and scoffs at criticism from those who had questioned how the ship would perform under sail.

The crew slept in hammocks below, which functioned as one large cabin since the interior was unfinished. “It was like primitive camping,” says Daniel Sicotte, 57, of Pemaquid, Maine, Raw Faith’s cook for the voyage.

Sicotte says only one crewmember — 40-year-old Steve Rinker of Hampden, Maine — knew how to navigate, trim and change sails, and use the VHF radio. “The rest of us didn’t know much, so it was extremely helpful to have him aboard,” Sicotte says.

Hours from land the weather turned sour, with high winds and big seas. Sicotte says the crew knew the storm was headed their way, but Raw Faith was sailing nicely at 6 knots with all sails unfurled. “After a while the seas became confused,” he says.

McKay insists Raw Faith was holding course and making progress despite the conditions, at least until a galvanized 8-inch rudder bolt — 5/8 inch in diameter — sheared off under pressure. And even then, he says, the sails alone were enough to keep her moving.

“We had the sails up and could have done figure-eights if we’d wanted,” says McKay. “We held a tack for six hours without a rudder and never deviated more than 5 degrees.”

A day and a half later things got worse as waves began pounding Lady B, Raw Faith’s 16-foot fiberglass outboard lifeboat. “I tried to pull her up on davits and use the construction straps, but they broke,” says McKay. “So I let out a tow line about 20 feet, but she crested over a wave. Rather than risk anything, I just cut her loose.” McKay says Raw Faith also carried a four-person life raft and another tender, a 14-footer.

“When the storm came on full, the seas were just towering — mountains of water all around us,” says Sicotte. “It was absolutely harrowing.”

The severe conditions caused Raw Faith’s foremast to snap about 5 feet from the top, snarling the rigging and sending the boom crashing to the deck. Shrouds kept the broken spar from coming down with it. Luckily, nobody was injured.

It’s here that McKay’s take on the situation differs markedly. “I still don’t believe we were in any danger,” he says. “In those 20- to 30-foot seas, Raw Faith never pitched or heeled more than 25 degrees — we’ve got a tilt meter below. And there was never any water over the bow or the gunwales, not a drop.”

The mast failure damaged the navigation lights, and things apparently weren’t much better below deck. Water was seeping in, and though the two bilge pumps were keeping up it was only a matter of time before the batteries failed. Since the ship had no engine, the batteries needed recharging by generator, a difficult task given the circumstances. And the battery banks were installed low in the ship, making them susceptible to flooding.

“We had water continuously coming in,” says Sicotte. “It’s a wood boat, and wood needs to swell in order to be watertight. But under way, the wood that was higher up hadn’t swelled.”

Sicotte says the bilge pumps worked but not consistently, noting that the lack of reliable electrical power also challenged the GPS and the cabin lights.

“We were freezing from trying to get the sails down,” he says. “When you have three masts, it takes awhile. But we weren’t in the water at all. We were cold because a successive series of events kept us on deck for prolonged periods of time.”

Search and rescue

McKay hove-to and hoped a sea anchor would keep them from drifting. He also knew that without navigation lights it was dicey to remain stationary. He radioed Raw Faith’s position to “any station, any station,” hoping ships in the area would monitor the broadcast and take notice. The Coast Guard station in Southwest Harbor, Maine, received the communication and inquired about Raw Faith’s condition. It was about 1 a.m., and McKay maintained she was in no danger. After a second conversation, however, the Coast Guard group contacted First District headquarters in Boston to apprise personnel of the situation.

Inside Raw Faith water crept higher, flooding the battery compartment just above the keel and threatening to knock out radio communications, which could explain why communications with the Coast Guard was spotty.

“We kept checking in with him. We lost contact at 3:30 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day,” says Kelly Newlin, a public affairs officer at First District headquarters. “At that point, we had no way to monitor the situation. We had to respond.”

The Coast Guard dispatched a Falcon jet that established Raw Faith’s position, as the Dependable changed course and slogged north to the rescue. McKay says the jet dropped an emergency beacon by parachute, which couldn’t be recovered.

“When that Falcon jet passed overhead, it supposedly dropped an EPIRB,” he says. “It was a beacon of some sort with a long line attached. Maybe he was trying to drop it across our deck, but he never came closer than 200 yards.I don’t think he was dropping it for the cutter. If it was for us, he should have just told me to turn on mine.”

Newlin says Raw Faith was taking on water when the cutter Dependable arrived on scene early Thanksgiving morning. “[McKay] had lost all of his electronic capabilities,” she says. “His sails were damaged, he had no navigation lights to show he was there, and he had no survival suits on board. Besides that, the weather was atrocious.”

Newlin says the seas were treacherous as the cutter came close enough to launch an inflatable, deliver a pump, and evacuate Raw Faith’s crew. McKay was against removing the crew, repeatedly insisting he and the ship weren’t in danger of sinking.

“They said we were volunteers and that we had to leave,” says Sicotte. “The boarding officer looked right at us and said, ‘If George McKay wants to kill himself that’s his prerogative.’ So we got into the inflatable, and that took us to the cutter.”

Sicotte says they had no intention of abandoning ship. “We were in distress, certainly, but we were not in peril of sinking,” he says.

Homeward bound

By the time Raw Faith was tied to the cutter and under tow, Sicotte, Rinker and two other crewmembers — Mike Flagherty, 41, of Portland, Maine and Charles Brugh, 40, of Orange Park, Fla. — were aboard the cutter eating a warm holiday meal. Raw Faith still was taking on water.

McKay says the Coast Guard crew that came aboard with extra pumps didn’t know how to operate the equipment. “Water was coming in through a leak that developed on the starboard bow — not a whole lot of water, and the bilge pump was keeping up with it,” says McKay. “But the Coast Guard wanted to use a utility pump with a 4-inch-diameter hose, and they couldn’t get any suction. The hose was too big. So they asked if I could let in more water to help them get enough suction. Then they trained me on the pump and left.”

McKay says the pump wouldn’t stay running. “I hailed them on the portable [radio] to get somebody to run the thing,” he says.

McKay says two Coast Guardsmen came over to relieve him and his son so they could get some sleep, but they got seasick and couldn’t run the pump. “We radioed back, but we couldn’t hear what was being said,” McKay says. “Two or three hours later, I told the cutter this Coast Guard guy on my ship had to be replaced, that he was seasick. By now I had only one pump. I asked for a replacement within an hour.”

The Coast Guard delivered another pump. McKay says Raw Faith now was listing about 3 degrees to starboard and taking on water at a rate that made him uncomfortable. “They took the first pump apart and found out it was clogged,” he says.

As the hours passed, fog shrouded the Gulf of Maine, and the cutter reduced speed. Aboard Raw Faith, McKay disconnected the batteries and moved them to the deck to keep them dry.

“By then I was in tow, so [disconnecting the batteries] was not a big issue, even though the Coast Guard tried to make it seem like one later on,” he says.

On Friday, Nov. 26, Raw Faith was back in Rockland Harbor. The media was assembled again, along with Coast Guard inspectors and harbor officials.

“I realize the Coast Guard … needs to be rescuers and heroes in the public’s eyes, but a lot more was made of this than should have been,” says McKay.

McKay says the Coast Guard insisted on towing Raw Faith after his second navigation light went dark. “They told us we were a hazard, but the lights weren’t broken,” he says. “One had come unplugged, and the other had a light bulb that came out. As for the rudder bolt, it’s just a matter of drilling a hole and putting in a new one.”

Newlin, the Coast Guard public affairs officer, describes Raw Faith as a “sitting duck” that was clearly in distress, without an engine or reliable radio and with a crew whose safety was in jeopardy. “I can’t speculate on the pumps,” she says. “We dewatered the vessel and got it to where it needed to go. That was our mission, and it was accomplished.”

A Coast Guard safety inspection conducted in Rockland after Raw Faith was towed in found an adequate number of non-commercial life jackets and one survival suit on board. Since Raw Faith was registered as a recreational vessel, she wasn’t required to carry the more extensive safety equipment required of commercial vessels. Nonetheless, given her condition, she was placed “under port order” by the Coast Guard in Rockland Harbor, Newlin said, preventing her from leaving until suitable repairs and modifications are made — work that could last into spring.

Sicotte was the only crewmember to require medical treatment, for hypothermia. Shaken but undaunted, he vows to return to sea with McKay later this year. “My wife, Linda, gave me the trip of sailing on Raw Faith as a birthday and Christmas present combined,” he says. “I’d never sailed before in my life, but I love boating.”

McKay has pledged to follow his vision by making the necessary repairs, extending the broken mast, and raising funds to complete the interior, purchase new masts, and get the word out that Raw Faith is available to families of the disabled. On board, tacked to a bulkhead, is a knickknack half hull with a house protruding from it. Above are the words “Professionals built the Titanic. Amateurs built the Ark.”

McKay and his son are living aboard the ship for the winter, tethered to a mooring in Rockland Harbor. They plan to sail Raw Faith in Maine for the summer before attempting another voyage to New Jersey and Florida.

“I am a man of faith,” McKay says. “My daughter was diagnosed many times by doctors who claimed she was going to die, that she was not going to live to be 2, then 4, then 21, and now she’s 25. Obviously she has a guardian angel.

“One day we were sitting around the table, talking about how children with disabilities have faith that life is worth living and how they persevere. And that’s why we named the ship Raw Faith.”