Becoming a sailor

“The highest compliment one can pay a sailor is to call him “Seaman.” In that one word is expressed the whole mastery of his profession. Seamanship cannot be learned in a day, a week or even a year, for within its meaning lies the ability to handle a vessel under any and every circumstance, fair weather or foul. Nor can it be learned solely from books. But as in every other profession, armed with the knowledge of what other men have found successful, the landsman in light of his own experiences will learn the more readily and surely.”

“TextBook of Seamanship,” Luce

Written by Petty Officer 1st Class Pam Boehland

Petty Officer 1st Class Melissa Polson, a boatswain's mate aboard Coast Guard Barque Eagle, trains cadets in the principles of seamanship. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Pam Boehland.

Petty Officer 1st Class Melissa Polson, a boatswain’s mate aboard Coast Guard Barque Eagle, trains cadets in the principles of seamanship. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Pam Boehland.

At the concrete pier in Staten Island, New York, Petty Officer 1st Class Melissa Polson stands aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Barque Eagle and instructs a cadet on how to belay a pin. She tells him where to put his wrist, how to hold tension on the line, and how she wants the finished product to look. When he steps back from the pin, the line is neatly wrapped in several tight figure 8s.

Polson is teaching that cadet and 120 of his classmates the basics of Eagle seamanship. The newly reported cadets are a mix of rising sophomores and seniors at the Coast Guard Academy. For the seniors, this is a recap of their sophomore summer, but for the sophomores, this is the first time they will be expected to man the lines and raise the sails like true seamen.

This training is called, “School of the Ship,” and before the cadets are allowed to handle lines, set sails or get underway, they must go through it. The school transforms the Eagle into a hands-on classroom and gives the cadets a crash course in sailing because for the next few weeks they are responsible for working the ship’s complex system of lines and sails, and it is up the crew to teach them.

However, it is no easy task. This square-rigger sailing vessel has hundreds of individually named of lines and 21,350 square feet of ‘canvas’ spread amoungst 23 massive sails. It’s a lot to take in and the cadets don’t have much time. They have to speak a new language, and words like tack jigger, bagpiping, boxhauling and baggy wrinkle become a part of their vernacular. It takes weeks to learn the basics and years to really master it.

Polson has been on board for two years and, despite being a seasoned boatswain’s mate, she remembers being humbled by all she had to learn about the Eagle in order to be able to teach the cadets.

“To say I was a little overwhelmed stepping aboard is probably an understatement,” said Polson.

She quickly went to work learning everything she could about the ship and sailing a square rigger, but says it was more than a month before that overwhelming feeling started to fade.

“The only thing I knew about the Eagle before I arrived was that it was a sailing vessel,” she said.

Cadets receive instruction from Petty Officer 1st Class Melissa Polson during a training phase onboard Coast Guard Barque Eagle. The cadets from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy spend the summer training aboard the tall ship learning basic seamanship, navigation and damage control principles that will serve them the rest of their career. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Pam Boehland.

Cadets receive instruction from Petty Officer 1st Class Melissa Polson during a training phase onboard Coast Guard Barque Eagle. The cadets from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy spend the summer training aboard the tall ship learning basic seamanship, navigation and damage control principles that will serve them the rest of their career. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Pam Boehland.

She carried around a paperback copy of Eagle Seamanship, a book originally written in 1979 specifically for cadets to teach them about tall ship operations, with her for a year. When cadets would ask her a question, she learned to be comfortable with saying, “I don’t know, but let’s find out together.”

However, being an Eagle sailor means more than just raising and lowering sails. It is an inherently dangerous ship. Whether it is climbing the masts or dousing the sails, the inexperienced cadets need to work with the equipment they are given safely. The crew watches over the cadets and advises them every step of the way.

Additionally, when the seas are rough and the weather is foul, crew and cadets have to do things that aren’t done on other cutters. When the boat is swaying and the wind is howling, the cadets and crew have to climb to the ends of the highest, tallest yards to furl sails a 145-feet above a stormy ocean. It is up to Polson and her team to make sure the cadets are ready to work hard for their ship, and do it safely.

“You know they are scared,” she said. “You have a gut check moment, and you have to look that person in the eye and assure them that you have given them all of the training and tools that they need to do this job. They have to trust their gear and trust their training, and they have trust you as the leader; that you are not just going to just take them up there and send them into danger. But we still have a job we have to do.”

The Eagle does more than train sailors; it turns people into leaders. The 50 or so enlisted members have to teach the cadets how to be good officers. For some cadets, the Eagle is their first interaction with an enlisted member, and Polson cannot speak highly enough about the caliber of Eagle’s crew.

“This crew is a very technically proficient, and they want nothing more than to share their knowledge with the future leaders of the Coast Guard,” she said.

The Eagle is a picturesque boat that requires lots of man power, muscle and intelligence to make it run. Hauling lines takes work, and learning the ship takes dedication. The crew never forgets that the most important aspect of their job is to train. They spend hours of their free time, when they could be resting or catching up on maintenance, reviewing and instructing the cadets. They learn all they can to be able to answer as many questions possible, and they work hard to ensure that the Eagle will sail another summer and train a new batch of cadets.

Polson added, “People who love their job do the best at it, and Eagle optimizes that.”

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