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Groton - Heads tilted skyward in unison on Thursday as the crew of the U.S. Coast Guard barque Eagle watched with unease as the ship's 134-foot aft and main masts passed under the Gold Star Memorial and adjacent railroad bridges.
The ship slipped beneath the railroad bridge with 1-foot, 8-inches to spare and under the Gold Star with a comfortable 3 feet of clearance.
"Thank God my math is good," said Coast Guard Chief Warrant Officer Jimmy Greenlee, a sailmaster and 19-year Coast Guard veteran who didn't hold back a smile once the ship was safely through.
In its first voyage since it was docked for three months for maintenance and repairs, the Eagle left the Naval Submarine Base in Groton Thursday morning and traveled 4 miles down the Thames River to a pier at Fort Trumbull in New London.
The crew of the training vessel takes the tide and weight of the ship into account when calculating needed clearances to pass safely under bridges. Coast Guard Lt. Kristopher Ensley said the masts are 147 feet tall, but the tops slide down 13 feet for occasions such as this.
Along with the regular Eagle crew, the Coast Guard welcomed aboard two dozen Navy sailors to help pull lines and steer. It was the kind of collaborative effort between the Coast Guard and Navy that Eagle Capt. Raymond "Wes" Pulver said had allowed crew to spend more time with their families over the past three months.
The 76-year-old Eagle's annual maintenance and repair work was completed at the submarine base. The Eagle is no stranger there, having used its protected piers during storms. But this was the first time extensive repairs of this kind were done outside the U.S. Coast Guard Yard in Baltimore.
The barque arrived at the base on Sept. 26 for the start of the $3.4 million project.
Lt. Matthew Keller, superintendent of the work on the Eagle and a native of Warwick, R.I., said the main task included overhaul of the 134-foot mizzen mast and steering system, along with replacement of teak decking, mast wires and ropes, electrical equipment and a host of other repairs.
The ability to perform the Eagle's maintenance so close to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London was a major boon for crew, who travel with the ship even during repairs.
"The Navy welcomed us with open arms and truly made us feel at home during our time in Groton," Pulver said. "Whatever we needed, the Navy accommodated us. We are genuinely grateful for their cooperation in making life on Eagle a little bit more comfortable for the crew this year."
Coast Guard Ensign Joe Della Rosa of Groton, the ship's assistant navigator, said the crew typically is either sleeping on the ship or in nearby barracks or hotels during repairs. But with the maintenance taking place in his backyard, he was able to stay home with his wife, Casey, and 2-year-old son, Dessten.
"It's tough enough when you're underway," Della Rosa said.
Coast Guard Chief Frank Brown of North Stonington, in charge of deck maintenance, said it was a morale booster to be able to be close to family.
"Once we're done in March, we're gone all summer again," he said.
The Eagle will spend the winter preparing for training deployments in the spring and will undergo a bi-annual inspection to ensure the ship is seaworthy and the crew is properly trained.
The 23,500 square feet of sail will unfurl again in March with its permanent crew of six officers and 50 enlisted personnel on their way to Savannah, Ga.
This summer, the Eagle will sail with officer candidates to the Caribbean and Canada, with port of calls along the way that include the British Virgin Islands, Aruba, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and Boston.
To follow the Eagle's summer cruise, visit the Face book page at www.facebook.com/CoastGuardCutterEagle.