UPDATE: The photo’s caption at the end of the post has been corrected to read the cadets promote to First Class rather than Second Class.
Built at Blohm and Voss Shipyards in Hamburg, Germany, in 1936, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Eagle is celebrating its 75th anniversary. The three-masted barque is the largest tall ship flying the American flag and is the only square-rigger in U.S. government service. Dubbed “America’s Tall Ship,” Eagle will set sail with about 140 cadets on a summer training voyage this Saturday to recognize the anniversary and trace some of its roots across Europe and the Northeast United States.
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Post Written by David M. Santos, Communications Director, U.S. Coast Guard Academy
Training aboard a 295-foot tall ship has been part of the cadet experience at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy for more than 60 years. But in an age of shipboard computers and unmanned aerial vehicles, why does the institution still train future officers aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Eagle, where sails and muscle are the preferred source of power?
According to Capt. Eric Jones, Eagle’s commanding officer, the answer is simple.
“The decks of a sailing ship are the best place to experience the power and majesty of the ocean first-hand,” he said. “And, since the ocean is both their workplace and the key resource they’ll be charged to protect, this experience is vital in developing them into effective and confident leaders.”
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the vessel’s construction. Built in 1936 with teak wood decks laid over a steel hull, Eagle and her crew will commemorate the event during the annual training cruise this summer. The barque will log approximately 11,000 nautical miles, much of it in the challenging conditions of the North Atlantic. Crewmembers anticipate fog, heavy seas and sea ice in the waters around the Grand Banks of Newfoundland.
One highlight of the deployment will come when the crew visits Blohm and Voss Shipyards in Hamburg, Germany, where the vessel was built. Other plans call for a wreath-laying on the resting spot of the former Coast Guard cutter, Alexander Hamilton, which sunk in 1942 off the coast of Iceland.
A permanent crew of six officers and 50 enlisted personnel guides the trainees through a rigorous underway and in-port training curriculum dedicated to the skills of navigation, damage control, watchstanding, engineering and deck seamanship. The work of climbing the rigging, hauling line to hoist or douse sail, and the reality of living and working in close quarters for weeks at a time is an arduous experience. Long hours standing watch in the rain and cold, and cleaning dishes and scrubbing decks take cadets out of their comfort zones – if there is such a thing at a military academy.
During their four-year journey at the academy, cadets spend a minimum six weeks aboard Eagle. To maneuver the tall ship under sail, Eagle’s crew must handle the 130 different lines that set, trim and douse the ship’s 23 sails, in all kinds of weather, day or night. All of the lines are managed by hand and very few can be handled by a single person, which naturally develops team coordination and cooperation. There is another challenge for new hands to overcome – going aloft. Work on Eagle can often put a cadet 143 feet above the water while standing on the yard arms working with sails, an experience not soon forgotten.
The physically and mentally demanding work aboard Eagle strengthens the bond between cadets. Most do not romanticize their time aboard the barque, but the training does something that no amount of classroom discussion or assigned reading can do. It gets young men and women back in touch with the type of experiential learning that cadets have experienced since the Coast Guard Academy was founded in 1876 aboard the schooner Dobbin. Back to a time when the ship was the school and the sea was the teacher.