fb-pixel Skip to main content

‘Raw Faith’ film tells saga of a family bond lost at sea

Captain George McKay at the helm of Raw Faith on Penobscot Bay.  He built the ship himself and hoped it would host families whose members have disabilities.
Captain George McKay at the helm of Raw Faith on Penobscot Bay. He built the ship himself and hoped it would host families whose members have disabilities. SeaWorthy Productions

Tom McKay says he has “visions of grandeur” of one day sailing around the globe. Set to graduate from the University of Maine, he’s about to marry a woman who’s willing to join him.

“We both have an adventurous spirit,” he says.

Given the saga McKay and his family endured on the water, it’s a wonder he still feels that way. The McKays — father George, mother JoAnn, and Tom and his siblings, Aaron, Rob, and Liz — are the subject of the documentary “Raw Faith,” which chronicles their ill-fated effort to build and launch a 300-ton galleon-style ship from the coastal town of Addison, Maine.


The film, named Best Feature Film at last year’s Newburyport Documentary Film Festival , screens at CinemaSalem on April 24 and at Hyatt Place in Medford on April 26.

As the film reveals in sometimes overpowering detail, the family’s self-imposed mission — Liz suffers from Marfan syndrome, and her father envisioned the ship as a wheelchair-accessible sanctuary for families grappling with similar disorders — became an obsession that eventually tore them apart. The unorthodox, hand-built ship, Raw Faith, lost masts in two storms before sinking off the coast of Nantucket in December 2010.

Now divorced, George and JoAnn McKay are both living quietly in Lowell, where they are co-caring for Liz and are closer to Boston, where she receives medical treatment. Her three brothers have varying degrees of interaction with their father, whose mounting obsession with the ship’s mission became a point of contention. The combination of suspense over the fate of the vessel and the discomfort that comes with watching a family pulling apart gives the film an epic feel.

“There were so many opinions about what was going on,” says Greg Roscoe, the filmmaker. “Part of the strategy was to tell the story with many voices, as opposed to the voice of God, the narrator.”


George McKay has endured plenty of criticism for his determination to sail even after requiring Coast Guard rescue on two occasions. He says he was homeless for a time after the ship sank.

Four years after losing the boat, he still has a hard time understanding why the project attracted so much vitriol.

“I’ve never done nothing to anybody,” he says on the phone from his apartment. “We were inspected by the Coast Guard a dozen times, and every one of them told me it was the most well-built vessel they ever saw.”

The storms the boat faced weren’t nearly as trying as the anguish of alienating his sons. As gripping as the documentary is, he says, “I don’t think it touches on 20 percent of what went on.”

Yet he maintains a good relationship with Roscoe, meeting for an occasional “burger and a beer.”

McKay is writing a memoir of the experience, he says, not so much for publication as “to get it off my chest.” Self-taught in the art of boatbuilding, he has little interest in the ocean these days, he says.

“I can’t say I ever really had a passion for the ocean,” he says. “It was always much more about the mission that came to me.”

When Tom, the McKays’ middle son, was offered an opportunity to deliver a sailboat to North Carolina two summers ago, he thought about friends who could help with the job. Then it occurred to him to ask his father.


“It was my dad’s first time being on the water since Raw Faith,” he recalls. “We had a great time.”

When the engine broke down off the coast of Delaware, the owner panicked. “Me and my dad were like, ‘So what?’ ” Tom says with a laugh. Having been through some utterly harrowing circumstances together, he says, “It was not a concern for either of us.”

Tom McKay says the whole family has mixed emotions about the film. “I definitely feel it’s an amazing story. I personally played a small part — my dad is the amazing character in the movie.” Each time he sees it, Tom says, “It’s surprising . . . yeah, we did do all that.

“At the same time, it brings to the forefront a lot of not-so-pleasant memories. In a lot of ways, it’s airing my family’s dirty laundry.”

That wasn’t Roscoe’s intention when he took over the project, but he couldn’t ignore the personal drama as it unfolded.

“This is the kind of story that can only be told by being embedded seven years with a family,” he says. “It’s a special story, and those sometimes come around once in a filmmaker’s lifetime.”

Ultimately, he’d like to get the film shown on public television: “That’s where hundreds of thousands of people will see this story.” Working on a shoestring budget, he has secured a “letter of intent to distribute” from Boston’s American Public Television, which syndicates programming around the country. But he needs a corporate sponsor, and that’s been difficult to find.


“It’s hard out there,” says Roscoe, who lives in Falmouth, Maine. “There’s no Disney ending. It’s hard to pitch the brand alignment. Who wants to underwrite the story about the man who failed?”

While he continues to promote his remarkable film, the filmmaker has another project lined up for this summer: He wants to build a 48-foot powerboat.

“It’s always been a passion of mine,” he says.

“Raw Faith” (rawfaithmovie.com) screens at 8:30 p,m. on April 24 at CinemaSalem, 1 East India Square, Salem, and at 7 p.m. on April 26 at Hyatt Place, 116 Riverside Ave., Medford. The latter screening is in conjunction with the Medford Arts Center and the Massachusetts Cultural Council.