August 11, 2013

Bob Keyes: Risking it all on an act of faith

Along with the rest of us, Gregory Roscoe watched with a sense of wonder as the saga of the 88-foot galleon Raw Faith unfolded over much of the last decade.

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A still provided by documentary filmmaker Gregory Roscoe shows the galleon Raw Faith underway on a calm sea.

Courtesy photo

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Courtesy photo

Additional Photos Below

This is raw footage from the actual 2010 U.S. Coast Guard rescue of Raw Faith 100 miles southeast of Nantucket, Mass., after the boat became disabled. Video by Air Station Cape Cod.


"RAW FAITH: A FAMILY SAGA" will screen at 3:30 p.m. Sunday at the Strand Theatre, 345 Main St., Rockland; 7 p.m. Thursday at Nickelodeon Cinema, 1 Temple St., Portland; and 2, 5 and 8 p.m. Aug. 25 at The Frontier, 14 Maine St., Mill 3, Fort Andross, Brunswick

MORE: Visit for additional screenings.

The boat, designed by a Maine man with no naval background and deemed un-seaworthy by the Coast Guard, was launched in 2003 and sustained its final indignity in 2010 when it sank in a December storm off the coast of Massachusetts.

Roscoe, who lives in Falmouth, has just released a documentary movie about the boat and the family that built it. "Raw Faith: A Family Saga" tells the story of George McKay and why he upset the order of his life to engage in a mission that involved building a wheelchair-accessible ship to accommodate his daughter, while facing the criticism and barbs of the boat-building community that told him he was doing it all wrong.

The movie debuted at the Maine International Film Festival in Waterville last month, and has several screenings coming up around Maine, including Sunday in Rockland, this week in Portland and later this month in Brunswick and Ellsworth. It has just been accepted into the Newburyport Documentary Film Festival in Massachusetts, which will be held in September.

On the surface, the criticisms that McKay faced appear valid. Twice, Raw Faith was towed back to port, and it sank when a bilge pump failed while McKay and a sole crew member attempted to sail it to Bermuda. The Coast Guard rescued McKay and his mate, plucking both from the sea in December 2010.

But that is not what this movie is about. It is not intended to embarrass McKay or chide his decision to push forward when most people advised against it.

Roscoe instead focuses on the human elements at play and the motives that compel a man to risk his wealth, his reputation and ultimately his life in pursuit of a dream.

"Raw Faith" tells the complicated story of a man, his family, a boat and a mission without passing judgment on any of them.

"I just am really interested in stories where people step out of the mainstream and do something different, especially when it involves boats and alternative lifestyles," Roscoe said. "To use the over-used saying, this was right in my wheelhouse."

Roscoe, whose filmmaking credits include the 2008 documentary "Ice Blink" that aired on PBS, is a dreamer and boat builder himself, so the McKay story grabbed him in deep places and drew him in. As he read the stories about the misadventures and mishaps associated with Raw Faith, Roscoe reserved a measure of sympathy. He related to McKay, and appreciated what he was trying to do.

Roscoe had just finished "Ice Blink," and was thinking about his next filmmaking endeavor. Meanwhile, a big pile of wood sat in his Falmouth driveway, his own personal boat dream slowly taking shape over the years.

Roscoe bought plans for a 48-foot trawler more than a decade ago. He has been picking away at it, and with luck, will put the engine in this year. He's got two seasons of work to go before he can close in the hull.

"That's my Raw Faith," the filmmaker says, laughing. "My family calls the project 'Pile of Wood,' because that is what it most closely resembles. ...If I spent less time filming other people on their boats, I would have had my boat built by now."

Roscoe approached McKay in 2008 about making this movie. The family was in Rockland at the time, pretty much living on the boat. They had sold their house in Winthrop, and walked away from a comfortable middle-class lifestyle.

George McKay was driven by the desire to build this boat, a galleon that looked something like what you would see in a pirate movie. It was beautiful, with three tall masts and elegant lines. He wanted an open-deck boat that would accommodate his daughter, Elizabeth, who was afflicted with a condition known as Marfans Syndrome that restricted her mostly to a wheelchair.

He wanted to build a boat that would give people like his daughter the chance for sailing adventures that they otherwise would not have.

But he had no boat-building experience. People told him he was crazy, that he lacked the know-how and that the boat would sink.

McKay plowed ahead, motivated to provide a better life for his daughter. That's the story Roscoe wanted to get at -- the depth that someone is willing to go to make a difference in someone's life, and why. At some point, the line between noble and foolish goes a little gray, and that's where the McKay story gets complicated.

Roscoe got involved at a time when Raw Faith was floundering. It had been demasted twice at that point -- two times since its launching in 2003, it had gone to sea, lost its masts and had to be towed back to port.

McKay was in Rockland licking his wounds and feeling beaten down. He needed money to fix the boat before he could get his dream back on track.

Roscoe quickly learned that another Maine filmmaker, P. David Berez of Camden, was making a movie about McKay and Raw Faith. Berez had footage from the early years, from the time the boat project began through its second demasting. With the project stalled and its future uncertain, Berez turned his attention elsewhere.

Roscoe partnered with him to tell the rest of the story. Berez gave him access to early footage, and Roscoe followed the story from 2008.

The final chapter for Raw Faith began in fall 2010. McKay was able to get the boat back on the water, and sailed from Rockland to Portland and eventually to Salem, Mass., where he was permitted to give tours of the boat.

But he overstayed his welcome, literally staying on the Salem waterfront longer than his permit allowed. He was forced to leave, and set sail for Bermuda. A storm hit, and the boat went down.

"It's a sad, sad story. It's a story about loss, and it's a story about the strength of a family. For all the things that befell this family, they are still very close," Roscoe said. "They figured out how to be a family on their own terms."

I spoke with two of McKay's sons: Tom, 30, who lives in Bangor; and Aaron, 32, who lives in New Jersey.

Tom saw the movie in Waterville at the film festival. Aaron has seen a rough cut. Both said they appreciated that Roscoe treated them with an even hand.

There are things in the movie that make them uncomfortable. It's hard to watch such personal tragedy play out in public, they said. But they feel the family is portrayed fairly and accurately.

"It's a very controversial story," Tom McKay said. "But I felt like Greg did a really good job portraying different sides of the controversy accurately and unbiasedly. That said, there are obviously parts of my life that I wish were different. There are parts of things that have happened that I don't like, and those parts are portrayed in the movie. It definitely stirred up strong feelings. But that's reality."

Said Aaron McKay, "It's such an odd thing to be in a film that is being shown in public. I do not know how to react. I just run with it, I guess."

George McKay is now living in Lowell, Mass., still coming to terms with the decisions he made and the reality of an unmet dream. He has many regrets, his sons said, and the biggest is that he was unable to fulfill the dream that motivated him and led him to change the course of his life and the lives of those most important to him.

He and his wife are divorced, and the family is scattered. But they are healing.

"Dad's doing better," Tom McKay said. "The first couple of years after the ship, he had a rough time. He was really struggling with life in general, but he is doing better. It's getting better every year, and he is definitely moving on. Our family is doing well.

"Obviously, it's covered in the documentary the changes that our family went through. We were a close-knit and tight family, and in the process of building the ship, Aaron and I left, mom and dad got a divorce, and Liz left.

"My dad was left holding the ship by himself. Obviously, there are a lot of emotions that come along with that. The family has healed a lot from all those hard feelings. But there is still a fair amount of healing to be done."

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:

Twitter: pphbkeyes


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Additional Photos

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A still provided by documentary filmmaker Gregory Roscoe shows Raw Faith builder George McKay at the helm.

Courtesy photo


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