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From Snow to Sun – A week on USCG Barque EAGLE

Posted by Tall Ships America on April 29, 2013

Last month, 18 Tall Ships America members had the opportunity to sail on Eagle as part of their Spring Officer Candiate School training cruise (you can read about my own experience in 2011 here) from March 8-15th.  Brian Holmen, Tall Ships America Youth Representative and 2013 summer intern, was on board. Below is his week on Eagle and you can see more photos on our Flickr photostream–  

2013 Spring Cruise

2013 Spring Cruise

   This year Captain Pulver, the Commanding Officer of the Coast Guard Barque Eagle gave 18 members of Tall Ships America the chance to sail on Eagle. Our group of 18 (9 men, 9 women) would join Officer Candidates for the Coast Guard and NOAA Corps, as we sailed from New London, Connecticut to Charleston, South Carolina.  This  Coast Guard opportunity is truly unique, as no other country allows civilians to sail onboard their military sail training vessels.

   Our Eagle trip started with an early reville at 0530. After a quick breakfast we went outside to receive stores for the voyage. To our surprise we walked out to a snowstorm and several inches of snow on the deck, which made for some interesting walking conditions. As we stood outside passing boxes of “meals to be” I looked out to the ocean wondering if we were actually going to leave the protection of our dock in the New London Harbor that day. Apparently the Captain had the same thoughts. After provisioning, we mustered to hear the plan for the day. The weather at that time was a snowstorm with visibility of around two miles. These conditions didn’t make for great sailing weather. The original plan was to motor an hour out of the harbor to Fishers Island and anchor there for the night. The following morning we would start our voyage South. However, with the weather the way it was, the possibility of leaving that day looked bleak. The Coast Guard has a motto Semper Paratus,  Latin for “Always Ready”. Well that motto slowly turned into Semper Gumbi amongst the crew and trainees, as we had really no idea when we were leaving. 

Snow on deck

   This waiting time gave us an opportunity to go over the voyage schedule. Which group you were in and what time you had watch became a larger question than our departure time.    All of a sudden a call came for sailing stations. That only meant one thing; we were leaving. As we made our way up through the companionways I could sense that my shipmates all had the same feelings I did. We all seemed excited to be disembarking, however, everybody was a little nervous about sailing into a snowstorm. As we walked out on to the deck we were all delighted to see that the fog had cleared and the seas looked a little more inviting. After a lot of work in the wet, cold snow we left the dock and made our way to Fishers Island just an hour away. There we would anchor and prepare to start our voyage south the next day. 

   The next morning, we were graced with the presence of the sun. We still sitting in the midst of a bitter New England winter, but at least we were dry. Regardless, it was something new for a guy that had grown up sailing in Southern California, where the worst sailing conditions can be overcast with 6 foot swells. All of the guests joked that this weather was just another form of character building. 

   After breakfast and a muster we hoisted anchor and pointed south. Finally we were underway and soon we were called to sailing stations to set the sails, and we set a lot of sail. It was really kind of a break for the guests, as for a day now we have been trying to assimilate ourselves into this life on a military vessel. We were finally doing something we knew, sailing. For a day now we felt a little out of place because we were civilian guest on a military ship so there wasn’t an immediate sense of belonging that we usually had on other tall ships. However, that all changed as we hoisted sail. It was a little funny to watch the tall ship sailors fall into their usual position as a deckhand, while the Officer Candidates seemed lost. We quickly realized that this was the first time on a sailing vessel for most, if not all, of the OCS trainees. I overheard a few OCS say, “Follow the Tall Ships America guys. They know what they’re doing.” It was then when we started to feel accepted by everybody on board. 

   We spent the rest of the day sailing parallel with Long Island to catch the Easterly winds. The day continued with watch drills. These were the usual man overboard, fire, and abandon ship drills that were necessary for everybody to know as we were getting underway on the open ocean.    We finally moved on to something we had all been waiting for, the Up And Over drill. This was a test to make sure we were fit and competent to climb aloft. You could see that all of the tall ship guests were so excited to finally get the chance to go a loft.   

For the next few days we fell into a pattern of setting sail, taking classes, standing watch, and usually dousing sail in the afternoon. By this time we all had clearer understanding of the schedule and we realized the method to the madness. We also got to know the OC’s that were in our watches and we were beginning to really feel part of the crew. 

Sunrise line handling

     By day five we were about 70 miles off the coast of Cape Hatteras, and you could feel it. It was storming all day with swells up to 16 feet. Over the course of that day, we would come across two squalls that would limit our visibility to less than two miles.  That day my watch had scullery and galley duty so we were preoccupied by washing dishes. We all agreed that this was actually a good day to have scullery duty since it was raining constantly and the steady stream of dirty dishes helped us stave off the impending seasickness that was plaguing many of the other shipmates. We were lucky enough to pick up a country channel on the radio, which was surprising considering we were 70 miles off shore. After this experience I now feel that country is the only music you should listen to when sailing into a squall. 

   By day six we were off the southern coast of North Carolina with a cool, steady wind. We utilized this wind do to some good sailing for the day. By now we had fallen into routine and setting sails went smoothly.  As the sun started to set we were called to sailing stations again to bring in sail. At this point in the voyage, a rapport had been established between the permanent crew of Eagle and the guests. Safety and seamanship were obviously strong suits for the Coast Guard. However, the tall ship sailors were able to add some insight into the education side of sail training. For days now we had a permanent crewmember stand at the end of the yard organizing the furling. If you were on the opposite end of the yard it was very hard to hear the other person giving orders. This created for less than perfect furls. This afternoon we were going to try something different. I was going to lead the furl on the main course. Instead of being at the end I was going to stay in the middle so both sides could hear orders and I could keep track of how far along everybody was. I felt this change worked well and apparently the crew did too. This was when I realized what our purpose was onboard the Eagle. This was a time for sail trainers from both the Coast Guard and civilian sail trainers to get together to better our skills as a whole. It was an exchange of knowledge that both sides benefitted from it. As I climbed back down to the deck I received a few complements. I told them that I usually do that with kids that have no idea what they’re doing. Having people that could follow orders made my job a lot easier. 

Under Sail

   We motored into the night and as I stood lookout on the bow I was lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a shooting star soaring across the night sky. I had to laugh to myself because I haven’t seen a shooting star for a long time and of course I had to see it on a tall ship. The scene was very appropriate to the life of a sailor. 

   We had arrived at Charleston a day early so we spent our time drifting in the extremely calm seas. There was a sense of anxiety amongst the crew and more importantly the OC’s. The Officer Candidates have not had leave for a very long time. The use of free time became the topic of the day. Around noon we received some guests. We would be receiving a number of students from a military school in Charleston. Throughout the day we slowly integrated them into our ship board duties and I felt right at home teaching the students about sail training.

    By this time all the watches had bonded with one another and a question I began asking many of the Officer Candidates was where they wanted to be stationed when they got out of OCS. All of the OC’s lit up and seemed excited when I asked. It was a time for them to reflect on the past and express what they hoped would be the future, and I enjoyed listening. As I sat down with one Candidate she expressed how sad she felt about all of the guests leaving and it was then when I really felt part of the crew. We may not have gone through all of hardships of life in the academy, but we shared this one experience that will always last a lifetime.

    The end of our voyage came and, as we fired a single cannon salute while passing by Fort Sumter, I knew that this was another sailing experience that I would never forget. There was the feeling of joy to get off the boat that was quickly followed by sadness when I realized that I may never see those shipmates again. It was then that I realized what it was like for my trainees back in California as they bond as a crew and become a part of the ship. For nine days the Eagle had been our home. It’s always sad to leave your home when it’s a ship. 

 Learning sailing maneuvers



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