PORTLAND, Maine — The USCGC Eagle, the only active square rigger in government service, is considered a crucial part of the training for aspiring Coast Guard officers.
But as the U.S. military sends no other tall ship to sea — the famed USS Constitution makes only one Boston Harbor cruise each year — there’s little call in the armed forces for officers who have experience hoisting the sails or stitching the canvas.
Rather, the historic Barque Eagle and its throwback masts provide up-and-coming Coast Guard officers something less tangible, Chief Petty Officer Tom Willard said.
“It’s about getting them out of their comfort zone to climb 140 feet up a mast,” Willard, who has served as one of the officers aboard the Eagle for 18 months, said. “When it comes to setting the sails, everything is done manually, so they have to learn teamwork — leading and following. A lot of the skills that were taught [aboard tall ships] 200 years ago still apply today.”
On Friday morning, the Eagle arrived in Portland, both to take on a new group of trainees from the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., and to offer tours to the public.
The 295-foot-long Eagle was initially the S.S.S. Horst Wessel, a German Navy ship constructed in 1936 with a living space once used by Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler. The vessel was taken by the United States as a war reparation after World War II, and the U.S. Coast Guard has used it as a symbol of victory and floating classroom ever since.
But for those curious about why Coast Guard officers are still training aboard a square rigger when it’s unlikely they’d man another such ship during any other point in their service, the value is in unique hardships of tall ship management.
The Eagle offers Coast Guard trainees more challenges than just serving as tour guides while docked in ports around the world.
Last summer, Willard said, the vessel encountered 15- to 20-foot seas and 45-knot gale-force winds in a storm on its way to Europe.
“That can really put you on your side,” Willard said.
On the way in to Portland, the ship pushed through a violent band of thunderstorms which soaked southern Maine earlier in the week.
“That required all hands on deck, from our youngest men to our most experienced officers,” Capt. Raymond “Wes” Pulver, commanding officer of the Eagle, told the BDN Friday. “They pulled together and we made it to Portland. It’s the type of experience you really can’t get anywhere other than a tall ship.
“Requiring them to work with sails — which takes a lot more effort and teamwork than steam or diesel — really builds a great foundation for the maritime officers they will become,” he said.
As Coast Guard trainee Kent Altobelli said Friday: “You can’t haul a line by yourself.”