Eagle settles into a new downtown nest

It was appropriate that New London Main Street's Big Picture this week, an annual downtown gathering of city faces for a group photo, included in the background the unmistakable outline of the masts of the Coast Guard's barque Eagle.

America's Tall Ship, as the Coast Guard has nicknamed her, is at City Pier downtown, trying out a new space that could become the ship's permanent berth.

The notion of permanently mooring Eagle downtown first surfaced publicly at the recent announcement of plans for a downtown National Coast Guard Museum.

Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr., the Coast Guard commandant, said he would eventually like to see the Eagle moored near the new museum, if logistics could be worked out.

And, as the wishes of a commandant generally become the orders of Coast Guard officers, the Eagle arrived soon after at City Pier downtown, giving the berth alongside the recently-restored City Pier a try.

It looks great, the ship's tall rigging now looming over the magnificent 19th-century Henry Hobson Richardson train station. And why wouldn't it look great? What waterfront city wouldn't welcome America's Tall Ship in its downtown?

The Eagle not only looks wonderful from many downtown city streets, the gold eagle figurehead appearing to gaze up State Street. But it now fills out the skyline of the city, whether you see it from across the Thames River in Groton or crossing the Gold Star Memorial Bridge on Interstate 95.

I caught up with Cmdr. Michael Turdo, the Eagle's executive officer, Thursday morning, and he told me that the City Pier berth seems to be working out fine.

Most recently, the Eagle has been using a pier at Fort Trumbull when it's in its homeport. It used to be moored at the Coast Guard Academy, but infrastructure issues with the pier there led to the move to the fort peninsula.

The downtown berth is a little tighter, with less water depth, and it's a little harder to move in and out of, Turdo said, than the Fort Trumbull space. The ship would almost always need a tug to get in and out of the berth downtown, while sometimes, if conditions are good, they practice shiphandling skills by moving in and out of Fort Trumbull without assistance.

But once in place, the downtown location is good, Turdo said, adding that members of the 55-person crew generally seem to prefer being in the heart of the downtown. The number of visitors has also spiked.

Eagle is generally at sea much of the spring and summer and fall, completing its missions of sail training for academy cadets and officer candidates.

The rest of the time it would generally be moored in its homeport.

An overhaul of the 76-year-old ship is in the planning stages, though, and that project could keep it away most of the winter for the next four or five years. For much of this coming winter it will probably go to a Baltimore shipyard for continuing maintenance.

Then, if the overhaul is approved, the ship will probably spend four more winters in Baltimore.

That schedule could eventually bring the ship back to New London, possibly in its downtown berth, in time for the opening of the new museum.

The Eagle will remain at City Pier until May 11, when it heads out for the start of its annual training cruises. This year the ship will be heading to the Caribbean, including a stop at Guantanamo Bay, then to Florida, Bermuda and on to Canada. It will probably be here again before going to Baltimore.

The ship will remain open until May 10 for people who want to take self-guided tours of the ship's topsides. It is open from 2 to 7 p.m. weekdays and from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekends. It's a great chance to take a closer look at a ship that often attracts long lines of visitors in foreign ports.

The Eagle is not only America's Tall Ship, it is also New London's Tall Ship.

And for the next few weeks it's a pretty grand placeholder for a new Coast Guard museum downtown.

This is the opinion of David Collins

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