By David Sherwood
PORTLAND, Maine (Reuters) - The captain of the ill-fated cargo ship that sank in a hurricane off the Bahamas with no survivors last week was an experienced and highly trusted mariner who had spent a lifetime on the water, friends and colleagues said.
The captain of El Faro, Michael Davidson of Windham, Maine, was raised in South Portland, alongside Maine's largest port, and spent summers nearby at a family home on an island in Casco Bay.
The U.S. Coast Guard called off the search and rescue mission for the 28 American crew members and 5 Polish contract workers aboard El Faro on Wednesday night. The 790-foot (240-meter) container ship, owned by Tote Inc, went down during Hurricane Joaquin while on a cargo run between Jacksonville and Puerto Rico.
Some mariners have questioned Davidson's decision to steam into the path of Joaquin. It is not known why the ship took the path it did, and a federal investigation into the sinking was launched on Tuesday.
Nick Mavodones, a manager with Casco Bay Lines in Portland who met Davidson as a child and later worked with him captaining ferry boats, said Maine's rugged coastline taught Davidson important lessons.
"I like to think that it was a real proving ground," he said. "We have a lot of fog, big tides, nor’easters and winter storms. This was where he honed his skills in boat-handling and navigating."
Maine's island-speckled coastline, popular with holidaymakers, has a long seafaring history, and is world famous for its lobster fishing.
Mavodones said Davidson was an athletic child who loved water-skiing and diving off the dock.
"He took his job as a captain very seriously. He was meticulous about details," he said.
Davidson attended Maine Maritime Academy, which held a vigil on Tuesday attended by hundreds of students and alumni in Castine, Maine, in memory of five graduates lost on the El Faro.
Scott Futcher, a fellow captain who graduated from the Maine academy in 1987 a year ahead of Davidson, recalled him as a passionate mariner who studied hard.
"I knew him well. He was very cheery, gregarious, I would say charismatic," he said.
As a young mate in the 1990s Futcher worked on one of El Faro's identical sister ships for New Jersey-based Tote Inc, running between Tacoma, Washington and Anchorage, Alaska
"Tote put a lot of trust in their captains and Mike was a very trustworthy guy. He worked his tail off."
Futcher last saw him in the late 1990s at an academy reunion. "His ultimate goal was to be a Portland harbor pilot," he recalled, a job that affords a more stable shore life.
Davidson's family did not immediately reply to requests for comment.
(Additional reporting by David Adams in Miami; Editing by Frances Kerry)