Mariner turned sculptor designing El Faro memorial in Maine

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Maine Maritime Academy graduates Jay Sawyer, left, and Mark Curtis, show the location of a memorial to El Faro victims planned for Rockland, Maine.

It has been nearly six years since El Faro sailed into Hurricane Joaquin’s path and sank in the Atlantic Ocean with 33 sailors on board. 

In Rockland, Maine, where two El Faro sailors lived, a memorial is planned to commemorate the victims. Maine sculptor and former mariner Jay Sawyer has been commissioned to complete the project known as “El Faro Salute.”

“I could see the hurt locally here,” Sawyer said in a recent interview. “The main goal of this piece is to memorialize the crew, to foster healing for these family members and to bring attention to the trade.”

El Faro sank on Oct. 1, 2015 east of Crooked Island in the Bahamas with 28 American sailors and five Polish technicians on board. Separate memorials to El Faro’s crew have been built in Jacksonville, Fla., and San Juan, Puerto Rico. El Faro sank while on a regular cargo run between those two cities. 

In Maine, the tragedy struck close to home. Five crew members graduated from Maine Maritime Academy, and four lived in the state. The Maine-based victims were Capt. Michael Davidson of Windham, Danielle Randolph and Dylan Meklin of Rockland, and Michael Holland of Wilton.

Sawyer is a Maine Maritime Academy graduate who spent his early life sailing for Exxon Shipping Co. Later in life, he found a passion for sculpture and now makes his living through art. He experienced storms, fires and “all kinds of crazy things” at sea that now inspire his sculptures. 

“On a personal level, I’m really glad to have been able to get out of that career and use it as I did,” Sawyer said.

The memorial is expected to cost $135,000, and as of June, the fundraising effort has yielded about $72,000. The Penobscot Marine Museum, Maine’s oldest marine museum, is the primary financial sponsor. Donations toward the memorial can be made on the museum’s website.

“When Jay approached us, it felt like a natural fit,” said Karen Smith, museum director for Penobscot Marine Museum. 

“It is important for us to capture and share the ongoing maritime history and culture of Maine and Penobscot Bay,” she continued. “The El Faro is an important part of the story of Maine and its maritime culture. This is a beautiful tribute to those who were lost.”

The design will feature two empty maritime officer uniforms in a salute position, constructed out of 1/8-inch-thick steel. The absence of bodies inside the uniforms is intended to capture the diversity of those lost in the sinking. At the base, a plaque will commemorate the names of each crew member.

“There are few things that better symbolize respect than a full salute,” Sawyer said. 

He recently adjusted the design, adding a profile of El Faro’s stern made from a sheet of three-quarter-inch steel, to the base of the sculpture.

Depending on fundraising, Sawyer hopes the memorial can be finished by next year. He envisions hosting a dedication ceremony on June 25, 2022, the International Day of the Seafarer.

When complete, the memorial will be located against a backdrop of Penobscot Bay with the Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse in view. “If the timing is right,” Sawyer said, “viewers could see shipping traffic way off in the distance. It really is very fitting.” 

By Professional Mariner Staff