Sea stories: Square-rigger sailors

In the need for adventure on the high seas? We have your answer. All week long, Coast Guard Cutter Eagle is taking over our social media accounts by sharing crewmember sea stories. Check out the sea story below or see the action on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

Training is a shared responsibility aboard Coast Guard Barque Eagle. All crewmembers help ensure the future officers who take part in the training program learn to appreciate the complexity of life at sea and learn to appreciate the sea. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd class LaNola Stone.

Training is a shared responsibility aboard Coast Guard Barque Eagle. All crewmembers help ensure the future officers who take part in the training program learn to appreciate the complexity of life at sea and learn to appreciate the sea. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd class LaNola Stone.

Written by Chief Petty Officer Judy L Silverstein.

As the wind blew and temperatures dipped, Barque Eagle dropped anchor in the lee of Cape Charles, Md., to weather the approaching storm.

“We checked the anchor chain, evaluated whether we needed an extra lookout, and added baggywrinkle to the sails to decrease chafing against the wires,” said Chief Petty Officer Frank E. Brown Jr., a boatswain’s mate, rig captain and command chief aboard the Barque.

Chief Petty Officer Frank Brown acts as a safety observer while Petty Officer 1st Class Melissa Polson manages the side during a boat lowering detail. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd class LaNola Stone.

Chief Petty Officer Frank Brown acts as a safety observer while Petty Officer 1st Class Melissa Polson manages the side during a boat lowering detail. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd class LaNola Stone.

With nearly 19 years of afloat experience, Brown is one of the more experienced sailors on the only active square-rigger in U.S. government service. While most of his sea time has been on motorized Coast Guard cutters, Brown fell in love with sailing when he was growing up on the California coast. Being stationed on Eagle has been the pinnacle of his career.

As a light snow began falling during the officer candidate spring deployment, Brown notes that Eagle is frequently away from homeport for more than eight month in a given year. The grueling schedule, however, is in sharp contrast to the professionalism and skills of the ship’s complement.

“I’ve never worked with a finer crew and the collective amount of education they have is just incredible,” said Brown, just before relieving the watch.

A qualified officer of the deck, his job is to oversee the navigation of the ship, ensure the safety of the crew and trainees, determine when and if to set or douse sails and to carry out the plan of the day. Brown is quick to note that while that collaboration, communication and leadership are vital at any unit in the Coast Guard, they are crucial aboard the barque, with more than 23,500 square feet of sail and six miles of rigging – lines – running above the decks.

Training is a shared responsibility aboard the ship. All crewmembers help ensure the future officers who take part in the training program learn to appreciate the complexity of life at sea and learn to appreciate the sea. Petty Officer 3rd Class Shelbie Smart enjoys this mission. From the day she reported 10 months ago, she’s been teaching basic seamanship, knot tying, true wind, pyrotechnics and line handling.

“Sailing a square-rigger is completely a team effort; I love working with the cadets and officer candidates to help move this giant vessel,” says Smart, 23. “When we are underway, the focus is on safety, teamwork and training,”

Currently assigned to the mid-watch, from midnight to 4 a.m., Smart knows that life on Eagle requires deliberate time management skills. There are always training programs taking place and more work to be done. However, standing a night watch has its perks.

“Out in the ocean, you see stars that you would never see anywhere else. It’s beautiful,” Smart says.

A member of the operations department assigned to the foremast, she is a qualified quartermaster of the watch, standing two four-hour watches daily. During watches, she makes compass checks to ensure the helmsman stays on course, logs the weather hourly, releases position reports and maintains a smooth log recording every major action that occurs aboard. In addition, she manages the 1MC – the ship’s internal announcement system – and makes pipes, or announcement, to the crew. During the work day, while not on watch, Smart assists with deck and rig work and helps lead seamanship training.

Also in the operations department, Petty Officer 1st Class Melissa Polson spends most of her day topside and relies on situational awareness to balance training with square-rigger sailing.

She thoroughly enjoys instructing trainees, which began with her own on-the-job training in July 2013. That, she says, has given her a useful perspective. Currently working toward her qualification as the mizzen mast captain, she is often seen wearing a safety harness for working aloft. She works with the trainees to provide instruction on sail setting, sail evolutions and line handling.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Shelbie Smart holds onto a monkey line while being lowered to the sea in one of Eagle's small boats. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class LaNola Stone.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Shelbie Smart holds onto a monkey line while being lowered to the sea in one of Eagle’s small boats. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class LaNola Stone.

“The trainees have requirements to meet, so I try to provide an environment conducive to learning,” she says. “This is their first opportunity outside of the classroom to begin the transition to an at-sea watch. Learning on a square-rigger gives them a great environment to come together as a team.”

Polson is captivated by the rich history of Eagle and enjoys sharing tidbits about the sailing vessel. But she’s also quick to say that the crew makes it all worthwhile.

“From the food service specialist who stands oiler watch, to the damage controlman handling lines on deck, every single member of the ship supports a team environment, resulting in a higher level of professionalism than I have ever seen elsewhere,” she says.

Later, when off the deck and down in the sail locker, she led a training session on qualification requirements, including sail nomenclature, rigging on the pinrail and leadership.

“The foundation of square-rigger sailing is to bring the officer candidates and crew together in a positive, yet challenging, environment to help them succeed out in the fleet,” Polson says.

In turn, she appreciates all she has learned about leadership. Despite being away from her husband and two small children, she has recognized the opportunities open to her aboard Eagle.

“This has been described as the experience of a lifetime,” she said. I just had to grab that brass ring.”

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Certificate given to active duty crewmembers after successful completion of a full tour. U.S. Coast Guard Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class LaNola Stone.

Certificate given to active duty crewmembers after successful completion of a full tour. U.S. Coast Guard Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class LaNola Stone.

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