Eagle 75: Crucible moments

Line Handling

Crewmembers from the Coast Guard Cutter Eagle, a 295-foot square rigged sailing vessel home ported in New London, Conn., yell heave-ho as they haul on a line attached to the main sail of the ship during a storm, May 9, 2011. The cadets and enlisted crew worked shoulder to shoulder to pull in the sail, a difficult task that could only be done with a large number of people. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Robert Brazzell.

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Eagle, America’s Tall Ship, is currently located about 400 miles off the coast of Ireland on day 17 of its 75th anniversary voyage. During its run across the Atlantic, the three-masted barque confronted challenging heavy weather conditions providing an exciting journey for the cadets and crewmembers aboard. This Friday, Eagle is scheduled to make its first port call in Waterford, Ireland, as it charts a course to trace its roots across Europe.

To track Eagle’s position, speed and miles covered, click here, and stay tuned to the Compass or the Eagle’s Facebook page to follow its adventures.

Climbing the Rigging

A cadet aboard Eagle scales the rigging to pull in sails during a storm. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Robert Brazzell.

Written by Petty Officer 3rd Class Robert Brazzell, public affairs specialist aboard Eagle.

Daylight broke over the horizon, illuminating the vast North Atlantic Ocean and the gray, overcast sky. Gale force winds were developing, and the cadets aboard would soon realize that the Eagle’s summer cruise to Europe was in fact no pleasure cruise, but a crucible that would put to test the many things they had learned during their first year at the United States Coast Guard Academy.

“During the first couple of days out of port, many of us dealt with mild to severe seasickness due to the choppy waves, but there didn’t seem to be any apparent danger or difficulty,” said Allyson Mason, a fourth class cadet or freshman from Willits, Calif. “Everyone went about their business just fine. The cadets were busy trying to get comfortable in their new roles on board.”

The day the ship set sail, a low pressure system was developing in the Gulf of Maine and deepened as it headed south across the Gulf Stream and the Eagle’s path.

“The cadets and crew on Eagle were informed far in advance that there would be rough seas on our trans-Atlantic voyage, but I don’t think anyone had a full grasp on just how rough the seas would be,” said Mason. “With warnings of 12 to 15-foot waves, we all knew there would be a lot of physical work needed to get us through the gale.”

The storm

As the gale moved closer, the cadets began to realize that completing simple tasks such as walking across the deck or carrying a tray of food were drastically complicated.

“I was expecting an easy cruise across the Atlantic,” said Campbell Fall, a fourth class cadet from Hudson, Wis. “On that day, when the seas started to build, I remember stepping out on the deck and seeing huge waves and heavy fog, resembling something from what looked like a movie – I had never seen anything like it in my life.”

Torn Sail

Crewmembers aboard Eagle work to gain control of the flying jib sail that tore from its station during a severe storm. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Thomas Burckell.

Eagle experienced up to 15-foot seas and wind gusts to 45 knots. Two headsails were tattered by the strong winds and other sails needed to be quickly taken in to prevent further damages and help the ship ride more comfortably.

“They needed 12 people to volunteer,” said Fall. “Some friends and I were looking around and no one was raising their hands, so I thought to myself, ‘somebody’s going to have to do it.’ I looked at my friends and without saying anything, we had all agreed we were going to go up, so I raised my hand.”

One by one, the selected cadets followed the crew to the approximately 80-foot high yard. With cold, wet hands, they climbed up the rigging, the unrelenting winds stinging their hands and faces as they went.

“When I went aloft to take in sail,” said Fall, “we kept furling some in and then a huge gust of wind would just rip it from our hands and we would have to start all over again.”

The lesson

Little by little the cadets furled the sail, securing it back to the yard. Once the sails were safely in their gaskets, the cadets and crew made their way down to the deck below.

Cadets ride out the storm

Cadets stand on the waist of Eagle as it lists from side to side during the heavy weather storm. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Thomas Burckell.

“When our boots hit the deck we felt empowered, like we had just overcome something that we thought was impossible,” said Fall. “It took me all day to digest what we had done. I kept thinking to myself, ‘I can’t believe I did that.’”

“This was said by many of the crew to be the worst conditions they had ever seen while aboard Eagle,” said Mason as she reflected on the sea state. “Everyone managed to keep calm and focus on the tasks at hand, regardless of the physical hardship and level of seasickness.”

As future leaders, cadets will need to know how to operate under pressure.

“It’s a very interesting mix when you’re scared and have adrenaline pumping through your body,” said Fall. “Having gone though something so intense, I feel as though I can look at almost any challenge and know that deep down inside I have what it takes to do it.”

Before the cadets enter the fleet they will need to complete three more years at the academy, at which point they will become commissioned officers. As officers they may again find themselves in difficult situations, perhaps with lives on the line. It is in these moments that they will be able to act with confidence, relying on training they received not only in a classroom but also on the decks of the 75-year-old tall ship Eagle.

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