Seven years ago, the cargo ship El Faro sailed from Jacksonville, Florida, bound for Puerto Rico, carrying shipping containers, trailers, and cars. Captain Michael Davidson and four of the 32 crew members — Michael Holland, Dylan Meklin, Danielle Randolph, and Mitchell Kuflik — were graduates of Maine Maritime Academy. Two days out of port, their 791-foot vessel strained under wind gusts greater than 100 miles an hour and waves in excess of 30 feet, near the eye of Hurricane Joaquin. Soon, the El Faro had sunk, and all hands were lost.
This fall, shortly before the anniversary of the tragedy, hundreds of people attended a dedication ceremony for a monument, El Faro Salute!, that Maine Maritime alumnus Jay Sawyer erected in Rockland, where Meklin and Randolph lived. The steel sculpture depicts two faceless merchant marines, a man and a woman, saluting above a stern the shape of El Faro’s, with the names of all 33 victims etched in it.
Sawyer’s path to the arts wasn’t a straight line. He graduated from the academy in 1983, then worked for five years as an engineer on an oil tanker. After stashing away a nest egg, he came ashore for good and started a welding business, earning a reputation for skillful metalwork. To his surprise, artists began looking him up. “I had these sculptors calling me to help them finish their works or to do repairs,” he says. “I already had those skills and took them for granted. I had thought anyone could do this if they just put their mind to it.”
Eventually, he felt creative impulses of his own, and he now has public and private works in nearly every state along the Eastern Seaboard and as far away as Texas. At his studio, in the woods in Warren, he shapes steel into large spheres and other mostly abstract forms (visitors to Portland International Jetport might register one of his spheres, raised on a gracile pedestal, just down Jetport Boulevard from the main terminal). Sawyer first learned about the sinking of El Faro on TV. “I felt it immediately,” he recalls. “I remembered my own experiences in storms and how vulnerable I felt.”
He set to thinking what he could do to honor the memories of the lost sailors, and the idea for a waterfront installation took shape. “Over time, it became pretty obvious that this was something I had to do,” he says. “I truly felt this sense of responsibility. . . . I understand the power of art to heal.”
The process wasn’t easy — developing a concept, fundraising to help cover costs, creating the sculpture, working with local officials to find a site. This fall, friends and family of El Faro’s crew came to the dedication ceremony, midshipmen from Maine Maritime Academy and Massachusetts Maritime Academy formed a color guard, and attendees laid flowers at the foot of the memorial. In the background, sailboats swayed gently at their moorings in the placid harbor. “Public art is a tricky thing,” Sawyer says. “My community gave me the privilege to do this. With the help of lots and lots of people, we pulled off something good.”