History: The Rhode Island School for the Deaf’s Voyage on EAGLE

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This month’s history post isn’t a tale of an amazing rescue or one about a Coast Guard legend. Instead, we bring you an inspiring story of compassion, leadership and love of the sea. It chronicles the adventures of six teenagers from the Rhode Island School for the Deaf on board the Coast Guard’s Barque Eagle during the fall of 1986. The cruise would change the lives of the youngsters and the Eagle’s crew forever.

Laura Lund, James Litvack, Suzanne Ferriera, Jeannie Desmarais, John Miller, and Lisa Wendoloski on board EAGLE.

Post written by Nora L. Chidlow, United States Coast Guard archivist.

The sound of waves against the hull is something anyone in the Coast Guard takes for granted. The stillness of night evokes images of romance at sea. Silence is broken by the shout of orders. For six high school students who sailed on EAGLE in October 1986, orders were a flurry of moving fingers. They were from the Rhode Island School for the Deaf (RISD).

Mary Cummings, wife of EAGLE’s captain, Ernst Cummings, taught at RISD. They were friends with the school’s art teacher, Peter Geisser. CAPT Cummings wanted Geisser on a cruise down to Baltimore that winter. Geisser joked that the only way he could be on EAGLE was if he could take his students with him. CAPT Cummings asked how many there were, and that was how it all began.

Geisser put together a curriculum – English: journal writing and interviews with the crew; Science/Math: navigation, piloting, and engineering; Social Studies: history of tall ships, training ships, and EAGLE; Art: photography and drawing; Physical Health: survival at sea, safety, knots, climbing the masts, and becoming familiar with the ship; and Mental Health: isolation and teamwork of a sea voyage.

Lisa Wendoloski tends to the sails on the yardarm.

The five seniors – Jeannie Desmarais, Suzanne Ferreria, Laura Lund, John Miller, and Lisa Wendoloski – were joined by a junior, James Litvack. For two weeks, the class prepared for the voyage. The more the class learned about EAGLE, the more excited they became. There was some hesitation as to how they would communicate with the hearing crew of EAGLE. Geisser, Mrs. Cummings, and two student art teachers – Cathy Davis and Tony Dina – would serve as interpreters.

Geisser explained to the class that they were to assist the crew with day-to-day operations. The students had mixed reactions, thinking in American Sign Language (ASL) – “me climb mast high, wow?”; “how communicate with crew?” ASL is not a structured or written language. Ferriera, in her daily jottings, noted that she “walked on the wing of the ship,” which Geisser thought was pure poetry.

John Miller assists in the tending of a line.

EAGLE’s executive officer, CDR Bob Petko, had reservations about the students in a hearing environment. Visual commands turned out to be a universal language. Only a few seconds were lost in translation from ASL to spoken English, crucial seconds in any search and rescue operation.

On the morning of 14 October, the students arrived at the Coast Guard Academy. CAPT Cummings invited them to sign the visitor’s logbook. Miller spotted the signature of John F. Kennedy, who boarded in 1962, and added his own signature. Miller loved to spend time with Mother Nature, gazing out at the open ocean and watching sunsets. He fought to stay awake most nights and slept on the deck, despite chilly nights.

Suzanne Ferriera teaching American Sign Language (ASL) to CDR Bob Petko

During one 2 am navigation lesson, CDR Petko was showing Desmarais how to read charts, with Geisser interpreting. Suddenly, CDR Petko shouted “YES! That’s it!” Geisser, now wide awake, had no clue what he was talking about. Desmarais had understood navigation in just five minutes, and CDR Petko had taught cadets who took much longer. In order to pinpoint a ship’s exact location, readings had to be taken in certain time intervals, probably no more than a few seconds. By the time a reading was completed, the ship had already passed that exact location. In Desmarais’s words, “You never really know where you are; you only know where you’ve been”.

Leaving New York on 16 October, LT Ivan Luke was conning EAGLE. The ship was moored at South Street Seaport. If it was not done just right, the current would catch the ship and drift it towards the Brooklyn Bridge, which is not high enough for tall ships. The students were at the helm. Just as they cleared the pier into the East River, LT Luke shouted “Left full rudder!” The rudder didn’t move. He shouted the order once more. They were beginning to drift toward the bridge. Panicking slightly, he turned around and saw that something – to this day, he doesn’t remember what – had distracted everyone. Thinking fast, he faced the students and swung his right arm rapidly in a circle in the direction they needed to turn the wheel. Within minutes, EAGLE was on her way. The students used their eyes to get their orders before turning the wheel.

John Miller poses in his office with memorabilia from his time on board Eagle.

CDR Petko was instantly drawn to the beauty of sign language. Ferriera was his primary teacher in ASL. CDR Petko made a deep impression on the students with his easygoing manner, thirst for sign language, and respect for deaf culture.  Eight months later, in a crisp white Coast Guard uniform, CDR Petko delivered the commencement address at RISD and presented each student with a certificate of service on EAGLE.

EAGLE leaves a lasting impression on all who sail her. Miller, now the director of the Illinois Deaf and Hard of Hearing Commission, has his EAGLE memorabilia in his office. Wendoloski visited EAGLE in Baltimore recently with her family. Watching his mother’s graceful signs as she told the story, 10-year-old Nick Hollywood could hear the wind blowing. There was a sense of pride in his heart; he knew deaf people could do anything but hear. And that was exactly Geisser’s message 24 years ago.

Click here to read more on the Rhode Island School for the Deaf’s 1986 EAGLE cruise.

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