Dipping the Chicken
Posted by Tall Ships America on March 29, 2011
It was a dark and stormy night. I made my way across the rolling foredeck towards the crew members on bow watch, clutching their coffee orders. It was a cold, wet, windy and miserable job that night and coffee was the beacon of warm hope in a long watch. I looked out at the ocean where the only break in the inky black was the white, foamy crests of the waves. It was pitch darkness beyond the ship. I gripped the rail, steadied my feet against the pitching deck and handed off the mugs to grateful crewmembers.
It was only the day before that Eagle was clipping along at 11 knots, every sail but one set and full on a blustery, bright sunny day off the coast of New Jersey. I went out to the bowsprit to take photos and could feel every wave reverberate. It was like being on a rollercoaster on the water. You could hear and feel the “whump!” on deck whenever the eagle figurehead plunged into the ocean and “dipped the chicken.”
Tuesday, March 15th, Eagle headed out from New London, bound for Philadelphia. This trip was part of the Officer Candidate School program and, for many, was the first time out sailing. There were several other guests on board, including some from the U.S Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, NY, SUNY Maritime, Texas Maritime Academy and Mystic Seaport Museum. We all quickly bonded in our civilian status and slipped easily into shipboard life. We ate with the crew (the food was delicious!) assigned ourselves to watches, and helped in the rig.
The rig on the Eagle is about 147 feet, about 40 feet higher than Bounty, and I had to ease myself back up the shrouds, re-learning to trust my grip and my harness. As it was, I didn’t get higher than the lower topsail (90 feet up though, not bad), but did climb at night and discovered the fun of the cranlines (fixed lines that stretch horizontally across the deck, you can see them in the photo above running past the mast) while furling the staysails, both firsts for me. It was great to be back on a ship at sea. This time, I slept better, still didn’t get sea sick (yay!), and actually felt like I knew what I was doing (mostly).
We arrived in Philadelphia on Friday morning (3.18) to a 70 degree day. While in town, Eagle was open for tours and the ship hummed with activity from 10 am to 6 pm. A small group of us, new friends from Mystic Seaport and myself, decided to see what the city had to offer. Since the ship was berthed at the Independence Seaport Museum, we headed over and I ran into Gina who I hadn’t seen since Halifax last year, the night before I was to embark on Bounty (read about the transAtlantic voyage here and here). She now worked in the boatshop of the museum and volunteered on Gazela who was berthed right up the riverfront from Eagle. Since it’s always nice to catch up with old friends and tall ships, we made plans to meet up on Saturday for a few sunset Yeunglings and a tour of the ship.
The rest of the weekend was spent sampling as many different cheesesteaks as possible (Geno’s, Pats, and Jim’s), going to Independence Park where Nick played his newly purchased concertina to a rapt crowd, walking all over the city and playing around on the “Rocky” stairs (also known as the Philadelphia Museum of Art). We enjoyed the sun and appreciated being on land after a southbound trip of motoring and rain from New London. Monday morning, we reluctantly left Philadelphia in a drizzly rain after a weekend spent exploring a very cool and fun city.
The drizzle soon gave way to sparkling seas and a steady wind. We hauled yards around, set the sails and let Eagle rip. We knew a bad front was coming up behind us and looking aft on Tuesday evening, we could see a black cloud across the horizon, bearing down on us. The storm didn’t hit until about 3am and the 12-4 watch ended up staying on deck for an extra two hours as they helped the 4-8 watch bring in all the sails. Wednesday and Thursday were spent trying to stay warm and dry as the 35 knot winds howled and the swells were at 8-10 feet. You had to trust the ship, this is what she was made for, and the weather made us appreciate the small things, like coffee, fresh baked scones at 11:30 at night and a dry bunk, little luxuries in a wintery world.
The last night, the wind blew itself out and the skies cleared in time for us to anchor off of New London. After the sunset, the stars stretched horizon to horizon, pinpricks of light above the masts, and the constellations (that we knew anyway) practically drew themselves. Next day, we pulled into New London and within the hour I was on my way home with both a heavy heart and a sense of accomplishment.
The Eagle is truly “America’s Tall Ship” and this year she celebrates her 75th anniversary and sails to Europe this summer as part of the celebration (see the schedule here). It was an amazing and awesome experience to have the opportunity to sail with the Coast Guard. The officers and crew couldn’t have been more welcoming and always took the time to explain the why and how, and I asked…alot. The sense of pride they take in the Eagle, for both themselves and us, is evident in everything and everywhere – from the polished brass and the smartly furled sails to the uber-organization of the tiny nook four levels down (you can see the lead brick ballast lining the hull) that no one ever sees except the engineer. To be on the Eagle is to be within something bigger than yourself, and I couldn’t be happier to have been a part of it.