Under Sail on the EagleAll 22,000 square feet of sail

16 Apr

By Kimball Livingston

Once upon a time I was invited to sail from Portland to San Francisco on a rather special ship.

And that raised the question, what do you do with 22,000 square feet of sail? The Captain of the US Coast Guard Cutter Eagle said, “It’s basic sailing, just a lot of it.”

We were at sea for three days, downriver on the Columbia to salt water at Astoria, then south along the Pacific Coast from Oregon to California and the Golden Gate. Being a small-boat sailor, I had my epiphanies.

Imagine a medium breeze near or forward of the beam. You will see the square-rigger crew “fanning” the uppermost sails—trimming them farther aft—to account for higher wind speeds aloft. (Big-boat racing crews have a different tool kit but similar challenges.) In light air the uppermost sails of a square rigger are again trimmed farther aft than lower sails, to act as telltales and warn the driver if it’s time to fall off. Aboard the Eagle, however, you will not hear too-cool-for-school racer lingo like “driver.” Before we pulled out of Portland town, the crew was mustered on deck and the cadets were told, “Learn all you can. This is how you become a Coast Guard officer.”

I don’t know what may have been going through the minds of young cadets as they stood straight, listening to those words, but I have a notion of what they were thinking, three days later, as the light failed and the wind rose and there was a bite to that wind, and the ship was flying too much sail and came the call,

All eyes were aloft, up up up to the rigging. There’s this other saying aboard the Eagle:

If you don’t let go, you don’t fall.

TheDeckBelow_toy_with © Kimball Livingston

One of the fundamentals of going through the Coast Guard Academy at New London, Connecticut is sailing the Eagle. Most cadets do not come from a sailing/voyaging background. Most have never been to sea when they walk aboard the Eagle for the first time, and on any voyage there is a mix of upper-form students who know the drill, plus raw recruits.

They are required to learn every sail and every line. You might see them of a mid-day, in a meandering trance, or so it seems, but in fact they’re tracking slowly around the deck, classroom pamphlets in hand, touching first this line or that and reciting the names to themselves.

Memorizing © Kimball Livingston



Two hundred+ lines.

Six miles worth.

The journalist in me decided that I was going to write out a prescription for how to tack the Eagle. I went to the book, and how-to-tack ran twenty-three pages. The end of that.

But there is no end to basic services, some of them performed on hands and knees as if in prayer. Perhaps because the grip clutches something about the size of a Bible, the phrase for this is, holystoning the deck . . .

holystone.jpg © Kimball Livingston

Do they keep the brass binnacle polished? Check it out on the right . . .


Eagle is 295 feet long.

1,816 tons.

The hull is .4-inch steel plate.

Built in Germany and seized as war reparation at the close of hostilities, mid-20th century.

Eagle carries a crew of 6 officers and 55 enlisted to ensure the safety, training, and bonding of the next generation of Coast Guard officers.

This is a leadership laboratory.

This is about teamwork.

As one officer put it, “You can’t gainfully employ 120 cadets in one shot on any other ship in the Coast Guard or the Navy.”

mops© Kimball Livingston

aloft_on_the_yard My only job was to walk around and take a few pictures and smile at people who called me Sir.

Several conversations with long-serving sailors reminded me of the good work of the Coast Guard Foundation, an outfit that raises money for scholarships for service offspring and useful things like gym equipment and computers for remote duty stations.

Oh, you thought stuff was like that was taken care of?

Dream on.

Just because they jump out of helicopters to haul victims into rescue baskets . . .

Just because they go to sea when no one else wants to go . . .

[Their saying: “You have to go out, you don’t have to come back”]

. . . doesn’t mean they are rightly paid.

Sure, I’ve heard my share of stupid-things-the-Coasties-did stories, but if cowpies are raining down on my head some day, I’ll be looking for that big orange stripe.

We as directors talked about the 30-3-30 rule:

The average Coastie is 30 years old, has 3 kids, and makes 30 thousand a year—

With never enough moments like these.

sunsetsight © Kimball Livingston

Through the Coast Guard Foundation, I met remarkable people. One of them was Lieutenant Commander (soon to be promoted) Alda Seabrands. She was called in for the shouting at a Foundation fundraiser.

Alda had been flying a pollution patrol over Puget Sound (meaning, no rescue jumper), when her helicopter was diverted to SAR. A fishing skiff had capsized, spilling two people into white water. The chopper made the scene quickly, dropped a basket, and one man climbed in. He was hauled aboard and the basket lowered again. The second man put one arm over the edge of the basket, then rolled unconscious. Alda told her copilot, “It’s all yours, Binky.”

And jumped.

OK, she didn’t exactly say that, and I’m sure the events, however dire and hurried, were more complicated. But Alda Seabrands was flying as Pilot In Command when she, in full awareness, left her post. As a certain Admiral put it to me, “We had to decide whether it was a court-martial or a medal. We decided it was a medal.”

Throughout our three-day passage from Portland to the Golden Gate, the ship received visits from service helicopters and cutters, all eyes out to see the Eagle. Their Eagle. I began to get it. What’s hard to put into words. Eagle is magic.

On our last day out the wind piped up and the old girl was hauling the mail . . .

EagleLookingForward © Kimball Livingston

It was a great ride, but just between you and me, the quarter wave was scary . . .

Cranking © Kimball Livingston

And true to form, along about sundown, there we were with too much sail up and the breeze rising. All hands, was the call, with many ordered aloft, and remember, we had newbies in the bunch who had never been to sea. When the show bogged down, the bos’n cut through the howl of the wind with a voice that carried the length of the ship, LIGHT A FIIIIIRE UNDER’EM!

Then he turned to the fellow next to him and remarked, “As a bos’n, I could lighten up. But why would I?”

ReducingSail © Kimball Livingston

The wind rose. The night fell. The cold deepened. Figure it takes a minimum of ten cadets on deck to handle a single sheet in 30 knots of breeze. And each line had to be precisely eased to compensate as sails were furled high overhead or somebody(s) would get sail-slapped serious-like, and those were real people up there, scooping handfuls of canvas and dumping them into the furl. Very real, very young people, power-pumping adrenalin and how.

And so the job was done. Another crop of young cadets scrambled down from the heights to an emotional high that kept them floating above deck level. Slapping each other on the back. Sharing sillygrins. Exhilarated and relieved and ready for the next call to duty. A little less young. Shipmates for life wherever whenever they might meet. I saw the payoff for the Eagle, the leadership laboratory that is meant to instill, “an intimate knowledge of wind and sea.” I was a witness. If you don’t let go, you don’t fall.

There were many moods in our three days offshore, leading to our passage through the Golden Gate as I climbed aloft, knowing our masts would not hit the bridge but it always looked as if they would, and yonder I could see my house up above Baker Beach and all those people in boats waving from way down at sea level and I was telling myself, this is a moment I will remember.

On the way aloft, a self-portrait . . .
shadow © Kimball Livingston

And I do remember, but I recall just as vividly the quiet, early passage down the Oregon coast, with the deck at times almost deserted while classes were in session . . .

QuietForedeck © Kimball Livingston

And the fog that swallowed us for a while. I observed the rotation and the youthful earnestness of the forward watch, and I was reminded of the unofficial motto of the service . . .

Elvis, if you’re out there, we’ll find you.

This article was syndicated from BLUE PLANET TIMES


  1. john edwards

    In 1969 I gave private sailing lessons to the wife and son of a CG Academy professor using a well worn 30-foot wooden knockabout.
    We set out onto LI sound with the company of another boat and beautiful weather.
    With wind astern, and opposed by current, conditions were about to change. The other boat was gone, as I took the comfortable helm of the heavy boat knowing how different it would be when we faced the sea.
    As green water tried to come aboard the bow, the fair leads decided to leave (with their wooden screw)– and sprang to the lee.
    The crew was in the cuddy as I made our way to the mouth of the Thames and eventually brought the boat to rest at the academy docks where I was shocked that no one noticed our departure nor welcomed our return. Now, fifty-six years later, I learned that the Coast Guard didn’t ignore. It responded generously by setting young hearts afire with a burning desire to sail Leadership 44s.

    The following summer, I developed training material and taught sailing at the Newport Naval base. After three years, I moved on and developed courses for several Hi-Tech companies in the Boston area.

    Throughout, the years, I tried to combine clarity, precision and warmth while keeping the student/reader fully absorbed.

    I admire the preceding article for its marvelous mixture of images, words, and clarity; and the warm and natural feel.

    Nicely expressed.

    Well done.

  2. dibts.com

    Oh my goodness! Amazing article dude! Thank
    you so much, However I am going through issues with your RSS.

    I don’t know the reason why I can’t join it. Is there anybody else getting similar
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  3. David Duplessis

    My daughter (1st year) is sailing the Eagle right now off the coast of Aruba….. How proud am I….

  4. Bob Kimble

    Nice job Mr. Livingston. The two best photos – the cadet on bow watch and the self portrait aloft, which should be a 16 x 20 on your wall at home.

  5. Dave Flanagan

    In the summer of 1954 Eagle was underway around ten in the evening on a port tack in the north Atlantic with all sails set. The wind was shifting and to make headway to our destination we needed to tack. Ken Forslund was the cadet Officer of the Deck and I was the Boatswain of the watch in charge of the 14 man ready boat crew. The off watch were below asleep and waking them was repugnant. I convinced Ken that we could tack the ship with the watch and we talked Captain Bowman and our guest aboard, Alan Villiars, both outstanding square rig sailors, into letting us try it. The wind was about twenty knots and the seas were relatively calm. With judicious use of man power and carefully faking sheets and braces out to run free when cast off, we managed to execute the tack perfectly. I remember the the sounds of the shouted orders and the running blocks clattering up the leeward side,the sound of feet running on deck, and the flap of sails with cast off sheets. It was absolutely exhilarating.

  6. Jack Kelley

    I remembered the first time I set my feet on this ship. I took my wife with me.It was in SF. It brought back why I joined the coast guard. Love this article. Thanks to all who put there life on the line to save others.

  7. Ken Feiler

    I love these square riggers. My mother was an artist that was in love with the sea. Most summer vacations were spent on the east coast from Key West to Prince Edward Island. Any vessel open to the public was visited.
    Lighthouses, sea ports, fishing villages, towns and boatyards.
    The sea favors no man above another. All are treated equally as its waves ceaselessly glide to our shores century after century. The commerce carried on upon the waters is always a challenge, even in good weather. It calls for every faculty to be honed and applied to the best of ones ability…and even then problems can arise, and then it is comforting to know the Coast Guard is there…
    The sailing days of the past called for men of many abilities that are now mostly unknown, and there remains no replacement for that which could and can be learned from sailing such ships.

  8. Bob Dutton

    Hit a wrong key before I finished:
    Picture is a dark-30 close-up of the bell on the foredeck, with a nearly full moon behind it.

  9. Bob Dutton

    Great article & pictures. Curious questions that perhaps needs answers from the Academy:
    Are the cadets actually using holly stone to scrub the teak deck? If so, (through the years) how have they kept from rubbing the teak down to nothing? Are the decks oiled in any way, such as Semco which I use on my teak, to try to keep the teak looking good (i.e. not the gray weathered look).
    I was a guest on the Eagle in Charleston, SC years ago. One of my favorite pictures is a

  10. john g barnegat, nj

    Great story- I sailed for 5 years in SF bay as crew on a 58 foot charter ketch. Coldest place I have ever been, Can imagine how cold windy the trip was.

  11. Kimball Livingston, author

    Gentlemen, in the parlance of the United States Coast Guard, this is the USCGC Eagle. She is a Coast Guard cutter, and yes, she is rigged as a barque. She is not cutter-rigged like, perhaps, your neighbor’s boat in the marina. I quote from the Academy’s web site: “USCGC Eagle is the sixth U.S. Coast Guard cutter to bear the name in a proud line dating back to 1792.”

  12. Barney Mathie

    At 72 years of age I am too old to climb the rig but not too old to get excited about Eagle and the great photos.

  13. Greg

    I learned celestial navigation aboard the Eagle in 1975. Most cadets didn’t care for it, but I loved it, hoping that one day I could use it in my own long distance cruising. I believe we were required to submit something like 3 complete sight reductions during the cruise, as well as several local apparent noons. I did many more than required, but they didn’t count unless our fix was within 5 miles of our actual position. My fixes, though having closely converging lines of position, were always many miles off, so I didn’t bother to submit them, knowing I wouldn’t receive credit. At that time there was no GPS and the most advanced offshore navigation we had was Loran C (the one with the sine waves on the screen). The quartermaster’s Loran C position was always used to grade us and I wasn’t even close. Most of the other cadets’ fixes were within tolerance to get credit. Then one day one of the officers suspected a problem with our charted position and took a sextant out to get a fix. He got a 5 LOP pinpoint fix and it showed the Loran was off by over 100 miles. This proved that all the cadets who had gotten credit for their sight reductions had not acquired them honestly. There was a process, known as “gundecking”, whereby you could work your sight reduction backwards using the quartermaster’s plotted position to make all your star sights show up the way they were supposed to. Nothing was ever done about this, since they couldn’t exactly expel half the entire sophomore class for cheating! Made me feel good that I wasn’t among the cheaters, but I still had to shoot all my star sights over again.

  14. Chris Dewhirst

    Great Articel; and to Terry’s comment, the CG Cutter Eagle is a Barque, but she most certainly is a Cutter, as are all the ships serving in the CG. I had the privilege of sailing eagle to Europe in 1972 where we raced from Portsmouth to Malmo, then paraded with several tall ships to Keil where the summer olympics water events were held. I also got to do two other summers on Eagle and remember them well taking in Mobile, New Orleans, Charleston, Puerto Rico and other towns. She gets around; we hit 18 kts crossing the atlantic, and won the beanpot trophy that summer for fastest crossing by a square rigger. The ship is a bargain for the taxpayers of our country, and a fabulous good will ambassador every where she sails.

  15. Greg

    I was a cadet at the CG Academy, entering in 1974, and sailed aboard the Eagle twice, once during her last trans-Atlantic crossing before a major refit. At that time she still had her original M.A.N. 18(?) cyl diesel with external rods, requiring constant manual oiling by a cadet while running. They worked us half to death with a one in three watch schedule and a full work day besides. Many cadets hated her, but to me all the hard work and lack of sleep was worthwhile for the brief 30-40 minute time we had after lunch (when not on duty) when we could lay on deck and enjoy nothing but the feel of being under sail.

    I still recall how one day on the Atlantic crossing we caught the edge of a hurricane. At that time we were always supposed to have an escort, but one of the cutters escorting us had to return to Rota, Spain for repairs and the other cutter went with her. We were all by ourselves and the Eagle was nearly knocked down by the strong gusts. I was in the chow line at the time on the leeward side and we all had to scramble up to the port side, crawling and grabbing anything we could to reach safety. Just imagine how over 100 people lined up on the leeward side could affect the heel. The helmsmen could not bring her upwind and we had to put 8 on the main wheels and several more on the emergency steering to finally bring her upwind. Meanwhile, the captain called for the regular crew to go aloft and shorten sail, figuring he wanted only the most experienced crewmen aloft rather than the inexperineced cadets. All this time we were thinking about one of Eagle’s sister ships which had reportedly capsized and sunk after heeling over with her leeward ports open, filling her with water and sinking her in minutes. Still don’t know if that story was true or not, but we sure believed it that day. We were very grateful for the safety condition in place at the time which had all the ports dogged down securely. I developed my love of sailing at the academy and will always cherish my memories aboard the Eagle- even if I did not fully appreciate it at the time.

  16. TerryStuck

    The Eagle is a Barque not a cutter as ascribed in the intro.

    I know, I sailed on her August ’85 for a week, I was escorted by a Cadet to the top of the rigging in the first 1/2 hour, what a kick.

  17. Ellen Hodos

    In 1962 I was a Mariner Girl Scout and would have joined the CG in a second to sail on the Eqgle. I would still love to sail on it. Instead, back then, I went through the program at Mystic Seqport and eventually sailed on the Schooner Brilliant. Fabulous experience for young people. Glad the girls are able to participate now. Great article, great photos.

  18. Mark A. Erickson

    That is a nice story and pictures. My dad was in the Coast Guard and taught at the Academy. One afternoon he brought me to the Eagle and being a 12 year old boy, I was so excited at being on a tall ship. Looking at all the sail related stuff, had me day dreaming of sailing and finding new lands. Amazing ship and what is more amazing are the men and women who serve in the Coast Guard. Many people are around today because of what they do.

  19. Linda

    Thanks for a great story….always wanted to ride one of these tall ships downwind on a good run.

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