Aircraft searching for a missing cargo ship with a Maine captain and three Maine crew members aboard located a life ring from the ship early Saturday evening, the Coast Guard said.

But the aircraft were called back at nightfall because of the high winds and rough seas caused by a slowly departing hurricane in the Bahamas, where the El Faro was last reported before it vanished Thursday morning.

Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Gabe Somma said the life ring was spotted by a C-130 aircraft, and a helicopter dispatched to the area was able to get close enough to confirm that it was from the El Faro, a 790-foot cargo ship that left Jacksonville, Florida, on Tuesday headed for San Juan, Puerto Rico. The crew was unable to pull the life ring aboard, he said, but identified it by markings on the ring.

After putting out to sea, the ship ran into Hurricane Joaquin, which strengthened to a category 4 storm during the week as it lingered over the Bahamas. The El Faro’s crew made a satellite distress call Thursday morning to report that the ship had taken on water and developed a 15-degree list, but that flooding of the vessel had been stopped. That was the last message from the ship, which is captained by Michael Davidson of Windham, who once was a Casco Bay Lines ferry captain in Portland, former colleagues said.

The other Maine crew members are Dylan Meklin, 23, of Rockland, whose father, Karl, confirmed that his son was aboard. Dylan Meklin’s Facebook page said he is a third assistant engineer with TOTE Services, a reference to TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico, the owner of the ship, and was a member of Maine Maritime Academy’s class of 2014.

Karl Meklin said he and his wife were headed to Jacksonville on Saturday to be closer to where the search was based.

Meklin confirmed that another Mainer, Danielle Randolph, was aboard the ship, and WCSH-TV reported that she is also from Rockland. The fourth Mainer is Michael Holland of Wilton, WCSH reported.

Davidson’s family declined to talk to the news media Saturday. A neighbor in Windham who declined to be identified said the family would make a statement once it hears more definitive news about the fate of the ship.

MAINE MARITIME GRADUATES

In addition to Meklin, some of the other Mainers on the ship are reported to be graduates of Maine Maritime Academy in Castine, but the Coast Guard and TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico have not released any information on the crew.

Somma said finding a life ring is significant but that searchers realize that they sometimes blow off a ship and travel a great distance. But he said searchers would refine their search patterns overnight to adjust to the fact that the ring was found about 70 miles north of the El Faro’s last confirmed position Thursday.

In a statement released late Saturday night, TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico reiterated that finding the life ring was a significant development but cautioned against attaching too much importance to it.

“While this reflects that the ship was caught in rough seas and extreme weather, it is in no way indicative of the ship’s fate. In fact, it helps confirm the El Faro’s possible location and helps the USCG confirm the search areas. Small items such as life rings and life jackets are lost at sea frequently, particularly in rough weather,” the company said.

Somma said the search was called off at nightfall Saturday because of the terrible conditions – aircraft flew close to the hurricane’s eye and encountered winds of 100 knots, with low visibility. Crews saw seas of 30 to 40 feet, he said, and that kept two Coast Guard cutters that are set to join the search in port Saturday.

One Coast Guard pilot said Saturday on Twitter that the conditions were the most challenging he and his crew had ever encountered.

Somma said the Coast Guard expects that conditions will improve enough Sunday to allow them to send the cutters to sea to join in the search.

Three Coast Guard fixed-wing planes equipped with sophisticated search radar and a Coast Guard helicopter, along with Navy and Air Force aircraft, searched 31,000 square miles of the sea before they returned to bases in Florida on Saturday night, Somma said from Miami.

David Schuhlein, another Coast Guard spokesman, said it’s very unusual for such a large ship to disappear. The El Faro was carrying a mixed cargo, including groceries, cars and retail products in 391 deck containers and 294 trailers below.

TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico is a subsidiary of TOTE Inc., headquartered in Princeton, New Jersey. The El Faro was built in 1974 and was last updated in 2006.

Maine Maritime Academy President William Brennan acknowledged Saturday that there may be MMA graduates on the missing ship, but the school has not confirmed the names of Maine crew members.

“The distressing news about El Faro, the cargo ship that is currently missing near the Bahamas, has us all extremely concerned for the safety of all on board. We are watching the situation closely as search efforts continue today,” Brennan said in a statement.

“TOTE, the ship’s operator, is in contact with the ship’s crew families. We don’t want to speculate or offer inaccurate information regarding crew members who may be connected to Maine Maritime Academy, but we seriously share the concern for all who are aboard El Faro. As we learn more, we will share what we know, and in the meantime, we share the hope for a good outcome,” Brennan said.

‘HOPING AND PRAYING’

Maine Maritime Academy is a public coeducational college with about 950 students, according to its website. They take courses in engineering, management, science and transportation, and many become merchant mariners upon graduation.

Karl Meklin said Saturday that he last talked to his son Tuesday when he headed out from Rockland to Florida for the trip. He was being trained as a third engineer by another crew member from Windham.

Nicholas Mavodones, a Portland city councilor and operations manager for Casco Bay Lines, said he has known Davidson since they were both toddlers. He said Davidson was a deckhand, then a captain for Casco Bay Lines back in the 1980s.

“He is very skilled, very prudent and very detailed. We are hoping and praying,” Mavodones said.

TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico has not released the names of the crew members, who include 28 Americans and five Poles. The company said it has communicated with the families of the crew members.

“I wish I had better news,” said Mike Hanson, a TOTE spokesman.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, said she received a briefing from the Coast Guard on Saturday afternoon and was confident everything was being done to find the ship.

“I know this is a very difficult time for the families of the crew and my thoughts are with them as they wait for news,” she said.

TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico President Tim Nolan said early Saturday afternoon that “TOTE Maritime continues to work closely with the U.S. Coast Guard and all available resources to locate and establish communication with the El Faro.”

Hurricane Joaquin was centered about 455 miles southwest of Bermuda on Saturday night and was moving northeast at 17 mph. It had restrengthened into a Category 4 storm with winds up to 145 mph, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center. A tropical storm and hurricane watch were on in Bermuda, where Joaquin was headed.

The search area is large and the search effort has been hampered by a dearth of ships in the area because of the rough weather, Chris Lloyd, the operations manager of the Bahamas Air Sea and Rescue Association, told The Associated Press.

“The fact that there has been no communications is not good news,” Lloyd said.

The Coast Guard said it rescued 12 sailors from another sinking cargo ship from Bolivia off northwest Haiti late Thursday. It said all crew members were rescued from a life raft off the 212-foot Bolivian vessel.

Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at:

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Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

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Twitter: QuimbyBeth