The lonesome journey of RawFaith
By Chris Busby
To understand why a 300-ton “pirate ship” has been anchored in Portland Harbor for the past six months, you have to understand the man who’s sacrificed everything to keep it afloat.
And that may be impossible.
The story of Capt. George McKay’s controversial quest began with the first of his four children, Elizabeth. Elizabeth was born with Marfan syndrome, a disorder that affects the body’s connective tissue, causing heart problems, curvature of the spine, loss of vision, and other afflictions.
“When she was born, we were told that she wouldn’t live to be one year old,” McKay, 54, recalled during an interview with The Bollard aboard his ship. “Then after one, we were told she wouldn’t live to be two. She actually had her first open-heart surgery at just under two years old.”
When Elizabeth was 12, doctors discovered an aneurism on her aorta. Physicians at Children’s Hospital Boston, where she’d already undergone dozens of medical procedures, refused to perform the heart surgery on grounds there was no chance she would survive it, McKay said. He was able to convince doctors at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore to perform the procedure, instead.
“The plan they had was they gave her no pain medicine [after] surgery,” said McKay. “So they cut her chest wide open, peeled the ribs apart, replaced six inches of aorta, replaced her aortic valve, and the only thing she had for pain medicine post surgery was Tylenol.”
And she survived.
“So when you talk about what motivates somebody to do this,” McKay said, “you’ve got to understand a lot of the story of my daughter to understand the motivation.”
The McKays lived in Winthrop, a small town among the lakes west of Augusta. McKay had a good career as an electrical engineer and entrepreneur in the high-tech sector. After Elizabeth was born, he and his wife had three sons. Neighbors remember the McKays as an intensely Christian clan. They home-schooled their sons as teens, but Elizabeth, who is in a wheelchair, attended public high school.
McKay said his daughter’s physical limitations caused social problems. He claims she was excluded from field trips and never had access to the high school cafeteria, among other slights and disgraces. Planning family activities for Elizabeth and the three boys was a real challenge.
McKay’s solution: build a wheelchair-accessible boat the family could sail on together, away from all the stresses on land.
It was 1997, the point where the captain’s tale starts to leave the realm of the rational and cross over into murkier waters.
The DIY galleon
McKay had no previous sailing or boatbuilding experience. “It’d never been a dream of mine to go sailing,” he said. “It’d never been a dream of mine to build a ship.”
But once this dream took hold, McKay devoted his life to making it a reality.
He spent two years studying boatbuilding before construction began. Self-taught, his primary sources were library books and the Internet.
The ship’s design was inspired by the “race built” galleons the English developed to defeat the Spanish Armada in the 16th century. The relatively open, flat deck of those vessels makes it easier for wheelchair-bound passengers to move around onboard.
“People say she looks like an old pirate ship,” McKay said. “Well, more than likely she would have been favored by pirates, being faster and sleeker than the Spanish galleons of that day.”
The ship was built up in Addison, on the banks of the Pleasant River. McKay said that by pure coincidence, he built the galleon on the same site used to construct the Nellie Chapin, the three-masted clipper ship that carried members of a religious sect in Washington County to Palestine in 1866, where they attempted to establish a colony in anticipation of the second coming of Christ.
A few years earlier, while on a business trip to Israel, McKay had seen a plaque on the boardwalk in Tel Aviv commemorating the Nellie Chapin’s voyage. When he discovered he was building his ship on the same site, he said, “For me it was confirmation that I was doin’ what I should be doin’, where I was doin’ it.”
In retrospect, the coincidence was not a good omen. The Christian colony in Palestine soon disintegrated due to a combination of interpersonal and natural causes — both of which have plagued McKay’s mission since its inception.
McKay and his family devoted nearly all their time and money to the project. It took over their lives. What had begun as a way for the family to have fun getaways together grew into a larger mission: a charity that would provide sailing trips to other families with wheelchair-bound members. McKay established a nonprofit, Accessible Sailing Adventures, for this purpose and tried, with limited success, to get grant money and volunteer help to complete the galleon.
A 2002 article in Working Waterfront described how McKay’s two eldest sons “exchanged the usual pursuits of young men their age to work six-and-one-half days a week, enveloped by the smell and stickiness of pitch used to caulk her hull, and plagued by successive waves of bugs.”
The young men “camped out with their father at the site, cooking canned food on a camp stove so they could work on the boat during the week [and] return to their home in Winthrop for the weekends.” The family eventually sold their lakeside home in Winthrop and moved into a rented house in Addison to be closer to the construction site.
The 2002 article reported that McKay estimated he had spent about $300,000 by that point, “including most of their savings and funds from the house sale.” Asked recently how much the galleon cost to build, McKay said he purposely stopped paying attention to the total years ago, knowing he’d be asked that question over and over again — and not wanting to know the answer.
It took 24 months over the course of four years to complete the ship. The family took turns driving the final nail into the hull — a six-inch, bronze spike dating from the Nellie Chapin days that they’d found on the site.
They christened the galleon RawFaith.
“Children born with disabilities have a faith that life is worth living,” McKay said. “They persevere through what you and I can’t even imagine … and they do that because they have a faith that life is worth living. That’s a raw faith, because they’re too young to understand anything else.”
But McKay himself could not have imagined what happened next. Three days after the ship was launched, before the masts were set in place, his two eldest sons, daughter and wife told him they no longer wanted to be part of the project.
“Not their dream,” McKay said.
“That was a very difficult time for me,” he continued. “As far as I know, we were building the ship as a family project. We do this as a family and then the family kind of abandoned it .… I had no idea they were leaving. Nobody had talked to me ahead of time.”
McKay’s youngest son, then 14, remained by his side, but otherwise he was alone, essentially broke and homeless. He’s been living aboard RawFaith ever since, sustained by his religious faith, the inspiration of his daughter’s courage, and the hope that his dream can one day bring happiness to other families.
“When you see your child coming out of an operation on a gurney, dead to the world, more tubes and hoses coming out of her than you can imagine, you always wish you could have that pain instead of your child,” McKay said. “When they go through open-heart surgery with only Tylenol for pain medicine, you wish you could’ve had that surgery as she’s crying out, ‘Make the pain go away, daddy. Make the pain go away.’
“So when you realize what these families are going through, part of what RawFaith is all about is an outreach to these families …. And it’s a struggle. Every bit of the way, it’s a struggle, but if you can understand a little bit of my background, a little bit of what’s motivating me to do this, then you can understand what it’s all about.”
Plenty of people — many fellow sailors among them — understand McKay’s mission. They just don’t think he can pursue it without causing a tragedy.
“RawFaith appears to be very polarizing,” McKay said. “People love it or they hate it. There’s an online blog where people are plotting my demise daily. There’s someone in Italy who wishes I would die. I kid you not. I’ve gotten life-threatening e-mails from people where they wish they could kill me.
“They don’t want me to take people in wheelchairs out sailing,” he said. “They’re afraid I’m gonna kill somebody if I do.”
“Here’s what I’d say about that,” McKay added, addressing his online critics. “There’s 30,000 people that die from drunk drivers every year. The most I’m gonna kill is 10. Put it in perspective. You spending a lot of energy hating me because I might kill 10 people when there are bigger issues than me.
“And I haven’t killed anybody,” he continued, in a more serious tone. “I haven’t done anything illegal. If the Coast Guard thought my ship was unsafe, they’d shut me down in a heartbeat. But they haven’t done that, and that’s because the ship’s not unsafe.”
Granted, McKay and his vessel have experienced some growing pains. The day before Thanksgiving in 2004, McKay and his volunteer crew were sailing from Rockland to New Jersey to raise funds and have additional work done on the ship over the winter when a storm damaged the galleon’s rudder and sails and the vessel lost power. The Coast Guard towed RawFaith back to Rockland.
In May of 2006, after leaving Jonesport on another attempt to reach Jersey, RawFaith’s masts were brought down in a storm. The Coast Guard towed it back to Rockland again.
The local press and online sailing sites had a field day disparaging McKay and his mission in the aftermath of those incidents.
“Maybe the sailing vessel RawFaith should have made sure it had more than ‘raw faith’ when it set to sea the other day,” began a post on sail-world.com after the 2006 dismasting. “One mast coming down is terrifying enough. [W]hen all three fall to the deck in stormy conditions and injure crew, it’s probably time to consider whether the vessel should be allowed to sail at all.”
(The same post later quoted a Coast Guard officer who said, “Nobody was injured, they’re just a little seasick.”)
McKay is still bitter about the reception he received in Rockland after the mishaps at sea. He recounted angry confrontations he had with city officials, including harbormaster Ed Glaser, whom he claims wrote a letter to the Coast Guard “condemning my ship, requesting that they confiscate it and sink it.”
Glaser said that though he did alert the Coast Guard to what he considered to be safety issues on the galleon, “I never said it should be confiscated or sunk. Neither one would be a good solution.”
McKay said he and his boat got the cold shoulder from fellow sailors, and even tourists, during RawFaith’s convalescence in Rockland.
“We’re out sailing in Penobscot Bay,” he recalled. “Schooner goes by, full of people, they’re taking pictures and stuff. You wave frantically at them. They won’t wave back. What is being said to those people?”
McKay suspects jealously was also a factor.
“I got all kinds of reports from people who’ve said I had the best-looking ship in [Rockland’s] harbor, in the whole fleet,” he said. “They’ve got, what, eight towns that sail out of Rockland and I’ve got the best-looking ship? Who am I? Not one of the pretty boys.”
“She’s a large vessel, and she looks different than most of the small sailboats that people see, so she certainly becomes a topic of conversation,” Glaser said. “I’m sure she will no matter where she goes.”
Glaser said that among the sailing community in Rockland, people admire McKay’s goal of taking kids in wheelchairs on the water. “There’s absolutely nobody who’ll criticize that,” he said.
But if RawFaith were to have an accident while carrying passengers, “especially if they have kids onboard,” said Glaser, “it would affect everybody who’s in the industry of carrying passengers.” Fellow captains were worried that in the wake of an accident aboard RawFaith, the Coast Guard would enforce stricter rules on them, he said.
Glaser said McKay has addressed most of the problems he cited in his letter to the Coast Guard. “She’s certainly a better boat than she was when she first showed up,” he said.
Shelter from the storm
RawFaith was sailing south along Maine’s coast again last October. The plan was to stop in Salem, Mass., give Halloween tours, scare up some donations, and try to recruit additional volunteer crew for the much longer voyage to Brazil, where McKay had hoped to get copper plating for the hull, Carol McCracken reported on her blog, Munjoy Hill News.
So how did RawFaith end up in Portland?
“A storm,” McKay told The Bollard, chuckling. “I can’t go out without there being a storm.” The captain and others among his crew of five got seasick. McKay said he decided to “tuck into Portland” for just a few days before setting off again for South America. But upon arrival, half the crew abandoned ship.
Phin Sprague, owner of Portland Yacht Services, has been allowing McKay to anchor RawFaith at his boat-yard’s marina on the East End since it showed up.
“I put an umbrella over his head for the winter so he wouldn’t get in a big battle with everybody,” said Sprague, who was aware of McKay’s scrapes with the authorities in Rockland, and said the captain’s had a better relationship with the Portland Harbor Commission.
“I think there’s been way too much tearing down of this guy and not enough help,” said Sprague. “It takes an awful lot of hubris to decide to build a galleon.”
Sprague, a fellow sailor, had just returned from an extended trip in the Caribbean where “there are tons of boats that make this look like a Class A yacht.”
“I think it’s fine to sail around the coast of Maine,” said Sprague. “I wouldn’t be taking it to Bermuda without a lot of work …. He just needs to sail the boat around a lot, to basically just get to know it.”
McKay said he hopes to be sailing RawFaith around Casco Bay all year, beginning this month. (He recently moved the boat to the mouth of Portland Harbor while docks were being installed at Sprague’s marina.) He plans to stay in Portland, giving tours, soliciting donations, and recruiting crew by day. By night, he wants to make the boat available to local nonprofits so they can hold their own fundraising events.
McKay’s nonprofit, Accessible Sailing Adventures, no longer exists. He said he didn’t have time to maintain both the organization and the 118-foot galleon. “In one of my pamphlets that I hand out, I have a thing in there that says if you know someone who has the means to start a nonprofit, they ought to contact me,” he said.
RawFaith is still far from being able to fulfill its mission. Before it can operate as a public passenger vessel — even one that doesn’t charge or leave the dock — there could be expensive repairs or upgrades the Coast Guard will require, Sprague and Glaser said.
“He’s got a big, big challenge,” Sprague said. “Hopefully he’ll be OK. He needs a good movie contract.”
In fact, there is a film being made about McKay’s quest: a documentary called RawFaith— An Uncharted Journey, produced by the Camden film production company Post Office Editorial. Shooting began in 2002, said director David Berez, the company’s founder and senior producer. He didn’t expect the project to last eight years.
Though McKay’s journey is continuing, Berez has decided it’s time to wrap up the film. He said it will most likely screen at the Camden International Film Festival this fall.
“George is an anachronism,” said Berez. “There are not many people like George McKay left. These are the kinds of people that rode covered wagons to the West Coast. He just has a never-say-die attitude.”
“He’s been portrayed as a pariah in the media — some of it deserved, some of it not deserved,” Berez continued. “It’s easy to take potshots at him and his mission. Frankly, I have great admiration for him, whether his mission is right or wrong, whether he’s good or bad.”
How will McKay’s quest end?
“I really don’t have a sense of how this is going to finish out,” Berez said.
For more information about RawFaith, visit rawfaithsailingadventures.com.