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August 17, 2009

Rockland’s ghostly galleon

by Steve Cartwright

Is it a movie prop, a barge, an ancient ship dredged from the deep? No, it's even stranger than that. Rawfaith is one man's vision of how he can help others, but others aren't so sure about the fate of this vast, unpainted vessel anchored in Rockland Harbor.

Captain George McKay, 52, and his son Rob, 19, live aboard the boat the father dreamed would give disabled people an opportunity to sail. The 88-foot, three-masted galleon seems almost to be an apparition, particularly when shrouded by fog, alone except for a nearby fishing boat that sank at its mooring and is slightly visible at low tide.

In the summer of 2003, a bulldozer shoved Rawfaith into the Pleasant River at Addison, and in intervening years the ship has been a curiosity for fishermen, yachtsmen and tourists walking the Rockland breakwater. They stop and stare at this ghostly, gray vessel. Rawfaith is afloat, but has sailed very little since its launching, and when it has put to sea, it's become disabled, and been towed home by the U.S. Coast Guard.

McKay, with Coast Guard permission, tried out a new set of sails plus new masts and rigging in mid-June. Winds were so light that a nearby Coast Guard vessel offered to tow Rawfaith back into the harbor, and McKay gratefully accepted, according to local Coast Guard Commander Mike Sams.

"The Rawfaith will never be carrying passengers for hire," Sams declared. But a Coast Guard order keeping the vessel in port could be lifted if additional sea trials show the vessel is safe to put to sea. "It's a collaborative process," Sams said in July. "The ultimate goal is, he proves the vessel seaworthy."

Late last fall, during an interview aboard Rawfaith, George and Rob McKay ate prepared foods since neither of them likes to cook. Neither of them relishes living on board for the winter but they haven't found an affordable alternative. Below decks, the vessel is roomy but unfinished. It looks more like a hunting camp in the north woods than a cruise ship for people in wheelchairs. It's hard to imagine anyone in a wheelchair navigating on deck or below deck.

It's hard to imagine allowing any passengers on this vessel, although it's easy to picture kids having a great time playing pirates. You can't help thinking of Noah's Ark when you see Rawfaith with its wooden topsides, deck and spars unpainted. "It's rustic," McKay admits. "There's nothing pristine about her." He warms to the subject: "You can't beat triple planking for strength," he said, citing a combination of white oak, spruce and pine. "The hull's not perfectly fair. So what."

It's no Biblical fable but may offer lessons to ponder. McKay, a former Digital Equipment Corp. engineer, put nearly all his savings into a vessel he believed would take disabled people to sea for healing voyages. It's a noble cause, observers agree, and McKay says he was inspired by his handicapped daughter, Elizabeth, 29, and by his Christian faith. Elizabeth is doing well, in Virginia, he said, but his boat is stuck in a Sargasso Sea of uncertainty.

McKay, who said he later worked for U.S. Robotics, said his Rawfaith project began with a simple desire "in taking my little girl sailing." Elizabeth had multiple physical handicaps and fought for her life, he said. "She was the inspiration. If it wasn't for her I probably wouldn't have done it."

He spent several years of his life and all his savings on Rawfaith, even as people told him, in his words, "You don't know what you're doing."

Rawfaith is built more like a barn than a boat. Short timbers are fastened with iron nails, and everywhere you look there is a sense of this boat being the work of a landlubber, not a mariner. The boat was designed by McKay's eldest son, Aaron, 27, who no longer has anything to do with it. It was a family project that seems to have splintered relationships, and RAWFAITH remains a vessel that may never be fit for sea, let alone for wheelchair passengers.

McKay acknowledged in an interview last fall that he is discouraged but believes in "a divine inspiration that I am doing the right thing." His wife divorced him after a 27-year marriage, he said, and a third son, Tom, 26, has steered clear of Rawfaith.

When asked about the boat, Coast Guard Commander Mike Sams chose words carefully, explaining that his mission is to protect lives, and Rawfaith raises questions. "This is an uninspected vessel of a unique design," Sams said, reached at his Portland office. "We are awaiting some information from the owner to review." Rawfaith, he said, is under a Captain of the Port order to remain at Rockland until cleared for sailing; McKay has appealed the ruling.

Sams implied that Rawfaith could be waiting a long time. Will it ever leave port? He couldn't say one way or the other.

Rawfaith has new 12-inch diameter masts and rigging but like the rest of the unpainted ship, the workmanship has a homemade, do-it-yourself. Rawfaith managed to sail as far down east as Eastport near the Canadian border, but was damaged by strong winds. Then, in the spring of 2006, Rawfaith was dismasted off Mount Desert Rock in winds that some observers say were less than a full gale. The Coast Guard towed the disabled vessel to Rockland where it has remained ever since, other than short sea trials that are so far, apparently, inconclusive.

McKay's web site declared that God deserves the credit for the progress he has made so far. But now McKay blames the Coast Guard and the local harbormaster for stalling his dream. It's a dream built with chainsaw and a stoic, perhaps stubborn will, along with the devoted help of son Rob. On recent visit, Rob was laying out new sails in an unheated waterfront loft.

As McKay shows me around Rawfaith, he seems bitter about what hasn't worked while proud that he built a vessel that is afloat and in his mind, still part of his dream. For him, the problems are not of his own making. He has a sense of humor but not much humility. "I'm still fighting with the Coast Guard," he said, adding that Rawfaith is "one of the best, well-built wooden vessels the Coast Guard has ever inspected. I've had so many inspectors look over Rawfaith it's ridiculous."

Rockland harbormaster Ed Glaser said he has tried to be lenient with Rawfaith's skipper: "We've given him a fair amount of leeway. I have a certain sympathy for him." Glaser is himself the former owner and captain of the 19th century windjammer, Isaac H. Evans. But if the Coast Guard rules that Rawfaith must stay put, Glaser said he is obligated to enforce the order.

"Why are they restricting me? What's the issue with me?" McKay asks in a plaintive voice. He gets angry: "If you had a boat built by a [well known] shipyard you'd be free to go. I'm not one of the pretty boys. I'm just an average guy."

Glaser's harbor committee has discussed Rawfaith's presence in Rockland Harbor without coming to any firm conclusion. Local schooner captains have commented on Rawfaith's unpolished appearance but Glaser said no serious complaints have been lodged against the galleon.

For now, Rawfaith must call Rockland Harbor home, where it is anchored in full view of the Samoset Resort. Rawfaith perhaps embodies one man's dream to build a dream, to help disabled people experience the healing power of blue-water sailing. But somewhere along the way his dream ran aground. Perhaps his very determination to do this thing by himself, despite advice to the contrary, led to Rawfaith's uncertain future.

Perhaps Rawfaith presents a hard lesson to us about matching dreams to reality. But if no one dreamed, our ancestors would not have crossed oceans, sometimes in clumsy, flimsy vessels. Some failed, others succeeded. Our judgment to some extent depends on our values, how we define success and failure.

It's easy to pass judgment on Rawfaith but perhaps harder to understand the project. Most observers think it's a good idea gone south. George McKay, builder, dreamer and would-be sailor, doesn't know what's next. "Maybe Rawfaith is just a proof of concept. Maybe Rawfaith will never take anybody out but will be the proof of concept for a $14 million ship," he said.

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