Connecticut to Virginia, and looping about in the Atlantic

On the fore, on the main, on the mizzen! Sailing aboard Coast Guard tall ship Eagle

Posted:  Saturday, October 26, 2013 - 7:30am
Share: 

ATLANTIC OCEAN — One hundred miles off the New England coast, you will glimpse Captain Wes Pulver on the bridge of the U.S. Coast Guard Eagle, gazing off the bow, or studying the 23 heavy canvas sails as they fill under a steady northwest breeze. Commanding with a quiet intensity, all 149 officers, crew and guests on board know when he is on deck of this barque, as it moves powerfully through the swells.

Glance back toward the pilot house a few minutes later, and he will be grinning at another officer, or a three-star admiral, a crew member, or cadet — it doesn’t really matter whom — and you can be sure he is at that moment teaching something, whether it be about navigation, rigging, or gauging the wind and weather.

This is the tone aboard the Eagle, the largest tall ship sailing under the U.S. flag, and the country’s only square-rigged vessel used in government service. At 295 feet in length, the Eagle is also the only active commissioned sailing vessel operating in the U.S. maritime services. The boat is collectively owned by taxpayers, and is a source of national pride. When her sails are full under a stiff breeze, she commands a presence on the water. It’s inevitable that smaller boats come to greet and planes buzz overtop when the Eagle sails into port.

Click here for more photos from A week aboard the U.S. Coast Guard’s Eagle.

The vessel’s strong steel hull was built for seamanship training 77 years ago at the Blohm & Voss yard in Hamburg, Germany, commissioned by Hitler. You get a sense of what it might have been like to be a 19 year-old German mariner as you stretch out on a “rack,” a bunk bed below deck. The berthing areas are filled with bunks, layered three in height. With about five inches of overhead clearance and girded by metal rails, you don’t toss and turn, nor do you try to read magazines by flashlight; yet, out on the heaving seas, the racks are reassuringly confining.

The U.S. Coast Guard acquired the Eagle from Germany in 1946, as a war reparation. A U.S. and German crew sailed it through a hurricane and into New York Harbor that year. Built for training military sailors, that remains its mission today and it is endowed with a maritime legacy that dates back centuries, even millennia. That heritage comes alive every time its square sails are hoisted proudly over the 147-foot masts.

“Ready on the fore, ready on the main, ready on the mizzen!” shout boatswain mates, slipping into Middle English, the language of the 1400s. Aboard the Eagle, they are simply called Chief — with much respect — and they stride the decks with authority, barreling commands down the length of the ship as crews haul on lines, heavy woven ropes that bite at palms. They respond in unison, “heave-ho, heave-ho” until the sails are set.

Some have already scrambled up the masts to the yardarms, loosening lines and unfurling the canvas. The Royals, those topmost sails, are the last to be set.

To sail the Eagle relies on the physical strength of many and is alive with motion at all hours. But it is only successful if the teams, or sections, work together in a necessary hierarchy. Every person on board has a function. Sail a ship like this and the meaning of “all hands on deck” becomes clear. To heave-ho is a dance, the boatswain mates say, a sailing practice that allows for no slack in the 190 lines, no fuzzy thinking. When the chiefs are satisfied, a loud “that’s well” can be heard across the ship.

Besides teaching seamanship, the Eagle is about leadership training, where everyone — crew, officers, admirals —learn from each other using a nautical language and precise set of commands as they “work the ship.” It is said that the best leaders learn how to follow. On board the Eagle, it is necessary to follow, and just about everyone has in pocket a copy of the ship’s handbook Eagle Seamanship, A Manual for Square-Rigger Sailing.

I was onboard the Eagle for a week in mid-September, chronicling the first leg of of a two-week training cruise from Connecticut to Portsmouth, Va., and then down to Baltimore for the winter. The Eagle was tied up to the Fort Trumbull pier in New London, where it had been resting since its summer cruise with Coast Guard cadets, who sailed to the Caribbean and then to Newfoundland. This September sail, however, would be with the 67 Coast Guard Officer Candidates, or “OCs.”

They were fresh out of the academy boot camp; for some, it was the second Coast Guard boot camp of their careers. They came from all parts of the country, and they were older, in their 20s and 30s. Some had already served for years, based in Key West or San Diego or Alaska, adept in jumping out of helicopters to pluck victims from sinking boats, or confronting hostile vessels in offshore drug interdictions. Some had served in the Mideast, training Iraqi marines how to board ships and look for contraband or terrorists. Or they were fresh out of college, OCs with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, with degrees in geology, marine science, biology, even philosophy.

And some of them were mothers, looking forward to seeing their babies on the Portsmouth dock and spending a one-night liberty with their families.

All were smart, accomplished and motivated. They had been accepted to a highly selective and rigorous 17-week officer training course at the Coast Guard Academy. And they were exhausted, worn down by the first three weeks of boot camp — worse, they all agreed, than the boot camp they had experienced when they first enlisted. Lessons then emphasized following orders; this time, they were expected to follow orders. Moreover, they were now expected to recognize and solve problems, without hints. As they mustered aboard the Eagle for the first time on a warm Sunday morning, their eyes were glazed.

Chief Thomas Willard congratulated them for making it thus far in the program, and as he said it was time to have some fun they simply stared back at him.

A few days later, they began to smile; by midweek, they were laughing.

In addition to the OCs were 49 equally smart and accomplished crew members who staff the ship in staggered two and three-year assignments. They are sail masters, navigators and engineers, cooks and medics, and are stationed on the Eagle not only to safe-keep the vessel, but to train cadets and future officers. They take their missions seriously, and not once on my week’s passage did I hear a condescending word between officers, crew and OCs. There was an occasional sharp tongue, but respect was the operative.

Serving aboard the Eagle is a coveted assignment, and the crew fiercely loves the ship. I met just one crew member skeptical of how knowledge of sailing a tall ship applied to her work. We sat on the mess deck as we talked about the ship’s mission. Why, she wanted to know, did sailing matter.

“Why?” Others peered over the bottles of ketchup, mayonnaise and hot sauce at her. “Because you are now one of the few in the world who knows how to do this. And you have to teach others how to do it.”

Chief Edward Hubbard, a navigator, teaches celestial navigation. At night, OCs gathered with him on the rear deck to sight Saturn, Venus and other stars, as the sun lowered into the ocean. Hubbard is an enthusiastic teacher, and that is contagious. As he talked about converting arcs to time, the OCs squinted skyward through sextants.

“Why do we still do this, when we have GPS and cell phones,” he asked them. “What happens if the electronics on a boat go down? Celestial navigation is a connection to our past, to our heritage. I take the sextant and shoot the sun. There are not that many people who still know how to do this, but we are trying to change that.”

 

 Shipmates

The U.S. Coast Guard, with its 200-year history as America’s maritime guardian, not only patrols our ocean borders and the Great Lakes, but it also participates in international assignments. “Always Ready” is the motto of this smaller unit of the country’s five armed forces. Because of its size, and because of various treaties, it can be nimble in international waters, confronting drug and human trafficking, and conducting safety inspections of offshore ships in anti-terrorism activity.

With its mission — to protect those on the sea, to protect the nation from threats delivered by sea, and to protect the sea itself — the Coast Guard has been bounced around the federal government. It was once was a division of the U.S. Dept. of Treasury, and then Dept. of Transportation. Now it falls under the Dept. of Homeland Security. It currently has approximately 42,000 active duty personnel, 244 cutters, a mess of boats and helicopters, and the Eagle. In terms of size, it is considered the world's 12th largest naval force.

“The Coast Guard is an adaptable, responsive military force of maritime professionals whose broad legal authorities, capable assets, geographic diversity and expansive partnerships provide a persistent presence along our rivers, in the ports, littoral regions and on the high seas,” it says.

Competition to get into Coast Guard has increased over the past decade, and the states were well represented aboard the Eagle, from Alaska to Illinois to Virginia. Its members pursue four general career avenues: response, search and rescue; prevention and inspection; aviation; or they work aboard cutters patrolling the waters. Many begin their career with little or no knowledge about boats, let alone sailing. But on the Eagle, everyone learns to handle lines and sails. They climb the rat lines to the Royals, scramble over yardarms, become firefighters, learn to plot positions and set courses with a compass rose, study the mutable wind and weather, polish the brass and chop vegetables.

I found the one lone Maine native, Boatswain Mate Second Class Justin Perry, from Brewer, about midweek. As a Boatswain’s Mate, he commanded the foremast, jibs and bowsprit, and all anchor details.

Perry had joined the Coast Guard after graduating Brewer High School in 2001. He served aboard a cutter in Boston Harbor, then Hull and Provincetown on Cape Cod. He has been in law enforcement and is a heavy weather coxswain, meaning he is likely to be the one to haul you aboard a Coast Guard small boat should your yacht capsize in hurricane. It’s all work he loves, including his current station aboard the Eagle.

“It’s such a good job, with a lot of responsibility,” he said.

Other crew members, like Joe Sprowls, of Somerset, Penn., wants to work in aviation.

Sprowl’s family has a military background, and he joined the Coast Guard because he was interested in being around water, and serving his country.

Karen DeJesus, of Puerto Rico, joined because she wanted to save people. Her family’s background is medicine.

“This is something completely out of the box,” she said. “And it opens the portals of new experiences.”

OC Ian Johns, who constantly had a smile on his face, even as the ship was rolling and he was hosing oatmeal and eggs off dirty trays, wants to be in the law enforcement arm of the Coast Guard. He likes its low profile in the jostling of U.S. military forces.

“The Coast Guard works in the background,” he said.

OC Thomas Whalen, who was in charge of the 67 OCs, formerly held a leadership position in Key West, stopping narcotics shipments from Colombia. He wasn’t quite sure why he was picked to lead the OCs on board, and the job entailed fielding many questions and complaints. Still, he was handling it all with patience and a sense of humor.

Everyone on board rotates through sail evolutions, including the 18 engineers, who man the 16-cylinder Caterpillar engine, two generators and the water system in the bowels of the ship.

“You really need everyone to sail,” said Engineering Officer Peter Clark. “This is a tight crew.”

For the commanding officers, it is important that the permanent crew is healthy and strong, and understands their role as trainers.

“It is the waterborne aspect of the academy,” said Boatswain Mate First Class Melissa Polson. “We’re not a floating museum. We have the responsibility to ensure safety and we’re all in this together. The captain sets a tremendous example. He sets a personal distance, and shows how to listen to a junior person and find value in my knowledge.”

 

Sealegs

The OCs boarded the Eagle and on Sunday morning, fatigued and in a daze, ready for a break, but not sure what lay ahead. I had climbed onto the vessel equally mystified, though well equipped with seasickness pills, crackers and a signed consent from my doctor that I could handle the rigors.

“The ship is yours,” Lt. Kristopher Ensley told me, at the outset of the passage. “Except for a few highly-sensitive areas: the radio room, and the crews’ quarters.”

The radio room, full of what I could only imagine was classified material, sounded investigatory. The crews’ quarters.... I already got that picture. The chief petty officers, all large, glowering men, made it clear with no uncertainty that some places were off limits.

Arriving ship-side on a Saturday evening in flipflops and shorts, I quickly learned that the razors’ edges — those steel rises below the doors that separate the nine watertight bulkheads of the ship — are unforgiving to toes. A crew member, in her Coast Guard blue, escorted me below, across the mess deck and through a bulkhead door to a berth of 12 racks.

I shared that space with three younger women, two from Tall Ships of America (there were 12 TSA sailors from all over the country, some of whom sail on Godspeed, which was built in Rockport and now moored in Jamestown, Va.), and another from the Texas Coast Guard. We made our racks with sheets, covered them with bright blue fire blankets, stuffed our sea bags into narrow metal lockers, and climbed into work clothes that became uniform for the next seven days.

The head, or “rain locker,” was a hike through the steel doors, across the mess deck, down a flight of stairs and into a women’s bathroom where we were duly notified to “flush often.” If a clog in the vacuum sewage system were to occur, it may well be our very selves who would be cleaning the pipe, the signs cheerfully said.

That vacuum pulled all the sewage and grey water of the ship to a 4,000-gallon holding tank aft of the bulkhead, and every night at midnight, providing the ship was beyond the three-mile coastal line, it was released into the ocean. That same system held for organic food waste, which was dumped daily to the Atlantic’s own composting system. Trash, meanwhile, was strictly separated, plastic from paper, and taken to shore for recycling.

This relationship with the ocean also extended to our drinking and bathing water. The Eagle is equipped with 63,000-gallon reverse osmosis system, and my first taste of ship water had been collected from sea water 12 miles offshore and pressed through a membrane at 800 pounds per square inch. It was good water, and everyone drank it, filling their plastic or metal water bottles to stay hydrated as they worked around deck and in the rigging.

The gender-specific head was also where the conversations broke down to the familiar. There, I learned about the lives of the women OCs, who had barely gotten to know each other during the basic training. It was their first time to open up in more than three weeks. Some alternated between laughing and tearing up from exhaustion. One was looking forward to seeing her two year-old daughter, whom she hadn’t seen in a month. OC Lureida Soto-Gonzales’ husband was flying up from Puerto Rico to greet her for a two-day liberty in Virginia.

One morning, several were trying to figure out how to deal with a troubled fellow OC. It began to feel like a college dorm in that head, which swayed like a New York subway car while we took our sea showers — one minute power showers. And when it came time to sail into Portsmouth, Va., the make-up bags came out.

I learned midweek around 2:30 a.m. that the Eagle is always alive. The coffee pot is on, and it is normal to find someone making a jelly sandwich or toasting a bagel at any hour, either coming off watch or going on. 

“Hello, ma’am,” they’d grin. I’d grin back. We were family by then, 147 souls on a ship in the ocean.

 

 Where are we?

 “Smooth is steady, steady is fast,” said OC Charron McCombs, quoting her former superior, Coast Guard Captain Thomas Crabbs, a former captain of the cutter Bertholf on the West Coast.

We were 75 miles offshore in the Atlantic on a Monday morning, moving about 5 knots. The day before, we had slipped away from the New London pier, with the help of Navy tugboats and sail power.

That Sunday had started early at 5:30 a.m. with a “reveille, reveille, reveille, up all hands, up all hands, up all hands,” bearing forth through the ship’s microphone system. It was a daily mantra, and if one’s head were two feet from the berth’s loudspeaker, there was no slipping back beneath the pillow.

By 10 a.m. Capt. Pulver sat below in the vessel’s mess deck, listening intently to OCs Conor Maginn, Joseph Brinkley and Christina Ramirez present the daily weather and navigation briefing. Each day, the briefing would fall to a different trio of OCs, and they all prepared for the nerve-wracking presentation well in advance.

The Sunday briefing called for a departure on the slack tide, with a 2.9 mile stretch to the Race, the area of Long Island Sound that empties into the Atlantic Ocean, and an anticipated speed of 4.8 knots.

The Thames had filled with rain the prior week, adding another half a knot of speed to carry the Eagle out to the Sound. As the briefing, open to anyone not preoccupied with other tasks, became more complex with plotting of coordinates, predictions of commercial shipping traffic and pleasure craft, rudder angles, and sail strategy, Pulver cut through the discussion.

“What’s really happening,” he asked.

“That’s us backing into the channel,” said Brinkley, his pointer resting on a nautical chart.

“I like the plan,” said Pulver. “I love the plan. Hopefully, she’ll start to carve to starboard.”

That briefing had followed the first muster of the trip, convened on the ship’s “waist,” the middle part of the ship on its teak deck. The briefing ended with a general assessment for risk (GAR), numerically rating the hazards of the impending sail. Officers and crew members took turn raising points of concern: The introduction of a new group of trainees to the boat, the risks associated with the complexity of sailing off the wharf, a tide swollen with rainwater, and the “dusting off the cobwebs” of a ship that had not been on the sea for three weeks.

As the GAR number rose, Pulver asked, “what are some of things we can do to mitigate?”

The response: the weather was benign, the engine could be employed, the tugs could be called upon for help.

“Sunscreen and water,” the captain instructed. “There’s a shifting wind out there. Let’s have some fun with this and do it safely.”

By Monday, the Eagle was totally under sail, 75 miles offshore, the engine turned off. Porpoises had joined the cruise, as they would throughout the trip, leaping below the bowsprit. As the Eagle slipped away from the dark green-blue New England Atlantic, the waters became more turquoise and the breezes warmer.

“It really doesn’t get any better than this,” said OC Timothy Lae, from San Diego, standing watch on the bow.

 

Wear-O!

Being a square-rigged vessel, the Eagle’s sailing maneuvers are complicated, and given the number of lines, intricate. You don’t just come about; a tack on this ship requires coordinating many pieces, and a good one is accomplished in seven minutes, ideally with winds blowing 10 to 25 knots. Given the wind’s direction, its relative lightness, and the course set for Virginia, we did not tack once.

But we did wear, which, done right, is an elegant sliding of wind over the stern, and familiar to most sailors as a jibe.

A square-rigger’s wear takes less preparation than a tack, but it still requires all hands on deck. Crew has already taken to the rigging, the seasoned scrambling up and over and into the ratlines, while novices more cautiously toward the Royals.

The top is “initially terrifying,” said OC Michael Ball. “When you get to the top and run out of ladder you end up grabbing whatever.”

Another OC, who has no problems leaning out of helicopters, suspended in air and adjusting guns, said: “I don’t think I want to do this again.”

And then there is the young woman they call “Monkey,” a crew member who had come aboard the Eagle just three months prior. The first time Lawren Hill-Hand climbed the rigging she got to the top, and froze. It was a long process to convince her to climb back down. Three months later, she was fearless, and loves to sit up on the yardarms, feet in stirrups.

“It is the young, brave and agile versus the old, tired and scared,” said one sage observer.

Like seahorses, the brave curl around the yards, smiling and waving to those on deck.

“Stand by to wear ship,” shouted the commanding officer.

“Manned and ready,” the chiefs shouted back, and turned to their crew: “Rise tacks and sheets,”

“Wear-O!” the officer yelled. “Helmsman, left full rudder,” and the three at the wheels turn the ship.

History of the Eagle

The U.S. acquired the 295-foot cutter from Germany following World War II. The vessel was built in 1936 as training ship for young Germans for 10 years, and was originally named the Horst Wessel after one of Hitler’s lieutenants, who was killed violently in the dark of night.

The Eagle has four sister ships, three of them apportioned to other countries following WWII. Mircea is owned by Romania; Sagres II, Portugal; Gorch Fock I, Germany (this ship returned to Germany after being owned by Russia, but then in need of repairs, was privately funded to go home). In the interim, Germany had built another Gorch Fock II in 1958, based on the original Gorch Fock I design. The last time they sailed together was in 1976 during the U.S. Bicentennial, in New York Harbor.

The integrity of the boat lies in its superior design, craftsmanship, and durability.

Length: 295 feet

Beam: 39.1 feet

Draft: 17 feet

Ballast: 344 tons

Water: Holds 56,000 gallons

Height of the main and fore masts: 147.3 feet (above waterline)

Sail area: 21,350 square feet

Diesel engine: 1,000 horsepower, 16-cylinder Caterpillar (installed in 1980 and due for upgrade this coming year)

Speed under sail: up to 17.5 knots

Speed under power: 11 knots

Number of sails: 23

The boat is made from German steel, riveted together and welded together. The plating is half-inch thick.

The weather decks have three-inch teak laid atop the steel.

Nine watertight bulkheads run from the bilge to the main deck. ”

A former resident of Camden and Rockland, Paul Wolter, trained aboard the ship when he was a teenager, maybe 15, in Germany. He later joined the merchant marine, and then for 30 years, he was captain of Thomas Watson’s Camden-moored sailing yacht, Palawan.

Paul Wolter has since died, but his wife, Barbara, lives in Camden at Quarry Hill and remembers that he had once trained on the Eagle, when it was under German ownership and known as the Horst Wessel.

”It was a big honor when they were allowed to be on it,” Barbara said. “They dreamed about it.”

“Brace your yard to square the wind,” and the heave-ho began on deck, until the ship’s bow set its new course.

At last, a final “Very well,” and the crew relaxed.

“Are you coming down,” shouted one crew member, to an OC, who was working in the rigging, oblivious to the time. “You’ve got dinner with a three-star.”

The smaller quarter deck dining room was reserved for officers and guests, and where Vice Admiral Parker, a high-ranking Coast Guard officer on board and Capt. Pulver were inviting various crew members and officer candidates to eat with them. It was a shipboard honor, and the OC hustled quickly back down to the deck.

Overhead, a crescent moon rose in a darkening blue sky, and the boat’s speed picked back up to 5 and then 7 knots.

“This is an amazing opportunity to see something that died out in 1938-39,” said TSA Gerard Ghaibeh, from San Francisco. ““For me, as a sailor, it is 100 percent applicable in every aspect. The maritime tradition teaches us a whole bunch of things, especially how a lot of people are doing small parts that all fit together into a bigger whole. You have to rely on your teammates up on the yard, and try to get out on the foot ropes. This is an intricate ship. I am so grateful the Coast Guard had the vision to open it up.”

 

Safety: a practice and a philosophy

“Where are we,” I asked, up on the deck at 4:30 a.m., watching the sky lighten, a 360-degree expanse of silver-plated ocean beneath it. Those on watch had reported meteors streaking across the sky, as they climbed the rigging for a 1 a.m. wear.

“We’re still in the middle of the water,” said Aaron Hillard, a TSA sailor, leaning over the chart table, a straight-edge in hand.

We were looping around a point 110 miles off of Cape May and the chart was increasingly graying in one spot, as various sections had plotted course around that one latitude and longitude pencil mark.

By midweek, Hurricane Gabrielle was looming east of the Caribbean, her path uncertain. That developing storm had excited the ship for 24 hours, with the possibility of taking advantage of building winds. We were “southing,” as the captain said. “And any southing is good on the deck.”

Gabrielle, as it turned out, shifted to the east and dissipated. The storm’s swells, however, under the Eagle for a good 24 hours, and in berths, items not tied down banged back and forth, all night along the steel floors.

The Atlantic remained mild for that second week of September, and as we approached Virginia, ship traffic increased: fishing vessels and tankers appeared to the north and south. On the bow, those on watch recorded the movement of those vessels, calculating their vector with a gyroscope and estimating their constant bearing decreasing range (CBDR).

“If we have CBDR, then we have the risk of collision,” said Lt. Brandon Schumann.

 Chief Willard, a tall robust figure on board, convened the daily morning muster, and he established the call for safety from day one.

“We always want to keep positive control,” he said, laying out the boat rules. No cell phones, no skylarking, and no camera flashes after dark, ensuring constancy of vision for those on night watch.

If seasick, the instructions were clear: “Hurl over the lee of the boat,” said Willard. “Grab a harness and lean over. Do not, do not hurl on the deck.”

In the event of an emergency, we were to shout “avast,” the opposite of “that’s well.” When avast it is uttered everyone is to freeze. If unsure, we were to yell avast anyway.

“We would much rather lose 10 seconds on 50 different occasions than have one person get injured,” the Coast Guard states in its welcome packet.

“Nothing we do jeopardizes safety,” said senior Boatswain Mate and CWO Jimmy Greenlee during the first-day muster. “And there’s no screwing around on the rig. Our ultimate goal is that we keep everybody safe.”

That rubric of safety is a philosophical umbrella that rises over the Eagle. For safety’s, sailors clip to rigging. On deck, you stay away from the blocks (widow makers or coconuts). Firefighting crews must be in full battle dress before tackling fires. Earphones are mandatory in the engine room. There is never grandstanding and shipmates operate in unison, following a chain of command.

“Observe the professionalism of this crew,” said Capt. Pulver, on the New London pier. “Get the full experience,” he told the OCs. “It’s what you make of it.”

Steven Henkind, a doctor, Coast Guard auxiliarist and guest navigator aboard the Eagle, wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association about the parallels of safety practiced on the ship and in hospitals. The article, “Patient Care, Square-Rigger Sailing, and Safety,”  published in 2008, illustrates how crews on watch are relieved of duty at different times to stagger the flow of information.

The goal in caring for patients in hospitals and changing watch are similar, he wrote: “Despite the different environments and vocabularies, the intent of these communications is the same: to pass critical information from one shift to the next.”

The Eagle’s structure, its checklists and routines, empowers crew “by providing guidance in many routine and nonroutine situations.”

He wrote: “Although Eagle is a military ship, and highly regimented, all individuals on board are empowered when it comes to safety. In particular, every individual, from the captain to the newest recruit, is instructed to use the word avast if he or she detects, or even suspects, a potential safety issue. Essentially, all members of the crew are expected to act as safety observers.” This practice is “instilled, accepted and honored.”

That’s not to say the Eagle has avoided misfortune. Three young men have died aboard the vessel, two falling from the halyards, in 1998 and 1961, and another died in 1983 when a cable snapped and rigging fell on him, according to newspaper reports. The stressing of safety is now the culture of the ship, and there are no exceptions. 

Sailing aboard the Eagle is also about knowing the strength and danger of oceans, sailing by the wind and contending with arduous conditions. There is a legend, or maybe it’s true, told aboard the Eagle: A captain of military vessel patrolling the Pacific had lost engine power. But he was equipped with sailing knowledge, and with ingenuity, he and the crew made sails from bedsheets and cloth, rigging the boat well enough to make it to port beneath the wind.

Traditions have been handed down over generations, kept alive now in pockets around the world, in countries with strong coast guards and navies, in merchant marine academies, and in organizations, such as Tall Ships of America. They are repositories of nautical knowledge and in Maine, we have them on the Penobscot Bay, at the Maine Maritime Academy in Castine; in the schooners that sail out of Camden, Rockland, Rockport and Boothbay, and at Coast Guard Station Rockland.

Rockland is an official Coast Guard city, earning the distinction in 2008, and committing to a municipal mission of extending considerate relations to Coast Guard personnel and their families. In doing so, Rockland joined 13 towns and cities around the country — in Minnesota, Michigan, California, Alaska and Florida.

The maritime heritage

Aside from having a three-star admiral on board, another notable and long-time Coast Guard member was on the ship — Chief Warrant Officer Red Shannon, who served for 33 years around the country, in Hawaii and twice was stationed in Rockland. He also deployed to the Eagle, first in 1957, and most recently in 1981; in total, 13 years.

While he loved Hawaii, Guam and the South Pacific, and though he served on the Voice of America ship in Greece and sailed up to Russia during the Cold War, he said, “I always wanted to get back the Eagle.”

A Boston-born Irishman, Red enlisted at age 18 in 1953, and in 1966, “was sent as far east as the Coast Guard could send me, to Rockland, Maine.”

In Rockland, Red was aboard the cutter Laurel as first lieutenant. In 1969, he was aboard the White Lupine, tending buoys from the Damariscotta River to the St. Croix River.

Famous for his wealth of knowledge and experience, “Red,” as he is known, worked with OCs and conferred with the chiefs. After retiring, Red turned to private yachts, becoming captain of E.F. Hutton’s Sea Cloud II, a 400-foot-long, three-masted barque, and sailed for 20 years the Caribbean in the summer and Mediterranean and Black Sea in the winter.

He now teaches advanced ship handling and other courses at the Massachusetts Marine Academy, and sails when he can, aboard the Eagle.

“Rockland was my second home,” he said, remembering the late 1960s and early 1970s in that Coast Guard City, where everyone, including the mayor, fishermen, reporters and the police chief would convene in the evening at the Red Jacket.

“God’s Country,” is what he calls the Penobscot Bay region.

Today’s Coast Guard enlistees impress Red.

“They are more mature, more widely educated and aware,” he said. “They are well-traveled and many of them have done a lot of public service. Two years after graduation, most of them are off to graduate school, some off to get a Ph.D.”

The crew members and OCs aboard the Eagle in September were just that: bright, educated and disciplined. They knew the value of the Eagle — historical, national, academic, even political (sailing into port under sail, with all its pomp and pageantry, pays off in spades when budget season rolls around and the vessel needs to justify its budgetary requirements.

Its greatest value, however, is what the Germans knew 77 years ago: to train young military sailors aboard a ship steeped in nautical knowledge creates a living laboratory for passing on maritime and leadership skills, all for a common goal.

“The Eagle,” the ship welcomes, “proudly represents our nation and our service, using every opportunity to tells the Coast Guard’s story of over 200 years of exemplary service as a military armed force, and a humanitarian service.”


 

Editorial Director Lynda Clancy can be reached at lyndaclancy@penbaypilot.com; 207-706-6657