My Two Weeks on the USCG Barque Eagle
Posted by Tall Ships America on September 18, 2015
As I mentioned before, we sent a few Tall Ships America members on the Fall EAGLE OCS cruise. Here is Becca’s write up of her experience…
Lunch tray in hand, walking down the wide companionway from the galley to the mess deck of the 295′ barque Eagle, to find an open seat in a sea of a hundred matching navy blue uniforms and two hundred polished black composite toed boots is somewhat surreal. On my last tall ship, our motley crew of twelve or so squeeze through a tiny galley in our torn up, paint and pine tar covered Carhartts, grab our plates and personalized coffee mugs, then scatter around on deck. There are a few points of culture shock going on here: one is the sheer scale of things, the other is being a civilian on a military training vessel.
The Eagle is truly massive. Not only the actual dimensions (39′ beam, 25′ freeboard), but the size of the crew (47 permanent and, for my cruise, 70 officer candidates), and even the rabbit-warren maze of below deck compartments feels huge. The rig, of course, also dwarfs those of just about every other ship I have sailed. The royal yard is the size of some tops’l yards I’ve seen, and even the buntlines are at least 3/4” line. There are so many shrouds we climb three or four sailors abreast, at least until the futtocks. What does not feel huge, however, is my rack: one of twelve in its compartment, stacked three high with built in personal storage unit under the mattress leaving just enough head room to roll over without my shoulders hitting the overhead.
Now for the other culture shock: me, a professional tall ship sailor in the private/non profit sector, joining the Coast Guard training routine for two weeks. My trip on the Eagle was my first exposure to military life, with its very particular structure and discipline. Morning muster and the midday “call to quarters” were striking examples of this discipline. Everyone stands at attention in formation of perfect rows, fists clenched and shoulders taut, looking straight ahead. Section leaders snap their heels around, saluting superiors and going through formalities I’ve never seen before except maybe in a movie. I’m still not sure I completely understand the chain of command with its petty officers, warrant officers, enlisted men and women, and all the other positions on board with their abbreviations and numbers. I introduced myself by my first name to the crew and often only got a series of letters and numbers as a reply, or maybe a last name. The exchange might sound like this: “Hi, I’m Becca. I’m here with Tall Ships America.” “Hi Becca, I’m BM3.” And, in that way, I spent two weeks with the crew and never learned many of their names.
After my first couple days on board, transiting from New London, CT to Portsmouth, VA with friends and family of the Eagle’s permanent crew and a handful of representatives from Maine Maritime Academy, King’s Point, and the USS Constitution, plus three of us from Tall Ships America as the only other passengers, culture shock faded away, I became more comfortable with the routine, and the ship did not feel quite so huge. It turns out that there are many similarities between shipboard life in the Coast Guard and what I am used to, and square sails work the same way even when they are twice the size of those I’ve sailed before. I made it my goal to get to know the deck crew and try to be as helpful as possible in everything related to rigging and sailing evolutions. By the time we loaded the cohort of 70+ officer candidates for a week of sail training I felt as at home in the rig of the Eagle as in any other rig, and was able to assist in aloft training.
For day-to-day life with the officer candidates aboard, we civilians were assigned to sections for watch standing, mess cooking/scullery and training. While I stood my watches and did my time in the scullery alongside my section mates, when it came to training sessions I took advantage of the flexibility we were allowed to attend those that interested me and skip those that did not. So while the rest of my section learned about career paths in the Coast Guard, or rudimentary dock line handling and sailing maneuvers, I often headed aloft to sew sails, patch service, add leather chafe gear, or replace seizings. And when the opportunity to practice celestial navigation was offered, I attended every evening.
The average permanent crew member sails on the Eagle for no more than two or three years. Trainees, one to six weeks depending on if they are officer candidates or cadets. Either way, this is barely enough time to scratch the surface of traditional seamanship, especially when most of that time on board is engaged in other training and responsibilities which keep the Eagle on par with the rest of the Coast Guard fleet. As a result, I found that I had a lot to bring to the crew of the Eagle, and was able to teach some of the bosun’s mates a few marlinespike type skills such as the round seizing which are essential to traditional rigging but of lower priority when training crew who will spend most of their career on a modern cutter. I found many of the crew were eager to learn these things, and very interested in learning from my experiences on other ships.
The opportunity to sail aboard the Eagle was truly amazing, and I am very grateful to Tall Ships America and the command staff of the Eagle for making it happen (and grateful to my employers back home for giving me the time off on short notice in the height of the season!). I learned a great deal from the people I met on board, and I hope they also gained from the experience I was able to share. My advice to any Tall Ships America members taking advantage of this opportunity in the future is to be proactive in making it into the experience you are looking for. It would have been easy to end up sitting on the sidelines, along for the ride, but that wouldn’t have been very rewarding. Instead, its very much up to the participant to get involved in sail evolutions, maintenance, training, etc. I would recommend this opportunity to any other Tall Ships America member, and hope that the permanent crew of the Eagle are able to find opportunities to sail on other tall ships as well.
Thank you for sharing, Becca! We hope to be able to offer this opportunity to our Tall Ships America members again (not a member? Become one now!). We will make the announcement with the requirements via this blog, Twitter and Facebook.