Coast Guard barque Eagle showing no signs of her age

New London - It was a safe, triumphant return Friday for the cadets, crew and family members who took part in the final leg of a historic summer cruise aboard the U.S. Coast Guard training barque Eagle.

The ship docked at the pier behind Fort Trumbull, a crowd of eager family members waiting.

"Welcome home to New London!" said Capt. Eric Jones, the Eagle's commanding officer, as relatives, the crew and cadets of all classes looked on and applauded.

It was a culmination of a trip through five countries and to three U.S. ports.

For some, it was the end of a journey across the Atlantic Ocean and back, while others had a matter of weeks, mostly along the New England coast, to get acclimated.

"The cadets had an incredible chance to sail the Atlantic as it was meant to be sailed," Jones said.

But Jones said the overall "loose theme" of the summer, the 75th anniversary of the launch of the former German vessel, was remembrance of World War II.

"The Eagle is an immigrant vessel and despite all the horrors of World War II, the Eagle is a wonderful legacy we're able to continue," Jones said,

The Eagle was built in 1936 at the Blohm and Voss Shipyard in Hamburg, Germany. At the end of World War II it was taken by the U.S. as part of war reparations.

Jones said the Eagle visited the shipyard and Hamburg as part of the tour. "The reception in Germany was wonderful," he said. "Everybody in Hamburg was thrilled to see us."

Formerly called the Horst Wessel, the Eagle made cross-Atlantic stops in England and Waterford, Ireland, where a group of 20 southeastern Connecticut residents met the ship.

The Eagle also stopped in at Reykjavik, Iceland, and after leaving that port the crew participated in one of the most meaningful events of the summer cruise, Jones said.

There, in July, off the Icelandic coast, crew members laid a wreath to memorialize the Coast Guard cutter Alexander Hamilton, which was torpedoed by a German U-boat in January 1942.

"The wreckage was only discovered about 18 months ago, and we were the first Coast Guard cutter to go by the site," Jones said. "The (Icelandic) prime minister flew over the ceremony in a helicopter."

Jones said the crew sailed the length of Greenland, touching a southern part of the Arctic Circle, as the Eagle headed for Halifax, Nova Scotia, another area that was significant during World War II.

Jones said the Eagle encountered four gales during the summer, including one three days into the cruise, and 20-foot waves. The crew and cadets performed admirably under the pressure of such extreme weather, Jones said.

"The ship is well-built, and a gale is actually propulsion," he said. "It can drive the ship wonderfully."

Swabs, the freshmen Coast Guard Academy students, took weeklong tours from New York to Boston and back to New London toward the end of the summer, Jones said. Groups of 140 cadets of all classes, more than 500 in all, were trained during the cruise.

One swab, Timothy Betts, was all smiles as he exited the Eagle in New London after his week aboard.

"It was my first time at sea and it was outstanding," Betts said as he carried luggage off the ship. "I'm ready to get school started. We've finished swab summer officially: seven weeks of grueling, intense training."

Cadets were allowed to bring along family for the weeklong trip, and Jim Sullivan-Springhetti joined his son, Joe, to get some hands-on training.

Sullivan-Springhetti said he had a chance to work the sails and go "up and over" the first perch of the Eagle's main mast. "It's always more fun to be part of the crew than just a passenger," he said.

The Eagle will be in New London for five weeks before heading off for an officer candidates cruise, Jones said. It will then stay in Baltimore for maintenance and repairs before returning to New London by the end of January, he added.

Because of its schedule, the Eagle won't be in town for its popular annual Haunted Eagle Halloween event or its Christmas open house.

s.goldstein@theday.com

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