Eagle transforms swabs into cadets
When members of the Coast Guard Academy Class of 2021 officially join the corps of cadets on Monday, their new shoulder boards will be an obvious physical symbol of their status. The transformation, though, may have been most complete at the conclusion of their one-week sail on the Coast Guard’s training ship, the barque Eagle.
Virtually every moment of the swabs’ or new cadets’ seven-week Swab Summer experience in Chase Hall at the academy in New London is focused on transforming the individual into a member of a team. On the deck of the Eagle, they learn the much more concrete reality of what their training cadre had been shouting at them for weeks.
The sails on the U.S. Coast Guard barque Eagle do not raise themselves. Nor can one person raise them. It requires a coordinated effort of dozens of hands and eyes and voices to take a folded mass of canvas and turn it into a sail that captures the wind and propels the nearly 300-foot-long tall ship forward.
“The tall ship is a wonderful piece of machinery,” says Capt. Matt Meilstrup, Eagle’s commanding officer. “To make her work properly, everybody has to work together.”
Swab Maylis Yepez, from New London, agrees. “As they’re yelling at you in Chase ‘stop being an individual,’ it really pays off because when you’re hauling lines, there’s five people hauling one line, and they have to be in sync in order to set that sail.”
The Swab Summer experience on Eagle is broken into three trips for the eight swab companies. The first trip this summer, from July 23 to 29, sailed with three companies from Quebec to Halifax, Canada. The second trip, from July 29 to Aug. 5, from Halifax to Portland, Maine, with three more companies and the final phase, from Aug. 5 to 11, with the final two companies, sailed from Portland to New York City.
For the 110 swabs on this second trip from X-Ray 2 and Yankee 1 and 2 companies, the experience began with a 16-hour bus ride on July 28 from the academy to the Port of Halifax. It was on the bus that the transition from the Chase Hall experience to Eagle began. Before the buses even cleared the academy gate, the swabs adopted an easier demeanor. Cellphones, allowed for only a one-hour use a week prior, were released to the swabs for the entire drive, and a steady stream of calls to family and friends ensued.
Once in Halifax, the cadre serving the three swab weeks on Eagle took control of their charges, breaking them into new divisions for their shipboard watches and teaching them how to properly salute both the bridge of the ship and the flag when boarding Eagle. Once rooms were assigned, each division received a basic orientation to the ship.
Cadre on Eagle take a different approach to their colleagues back in Chase Hall. The style is more mentoring.
“All cadre teach, it’s just different how you teach it,” says Cadet 2nd class Anna Maria Vaccaro. “Chase Hall cadre use a lot of yelling, they use a lot of push-ups to get their point across. Eagle offers a softer environment, but it’s still one that’s very focused toward education.”
The first two days in Halifax are aimed at orientation and acclimation to the narrow confines and routines of shipboard life. The new divisions learn their watch duties and adapt to a schedule of four-hour watches, some of them in the middle of the night. Those not on duty were granted liberty, a chance to go ashore and see the sights of Halifax and the tall ships festival there.
Day three dawns with the much-anticipated “School of the Ship,” where the swabs will get their first hands-on lessons in the skills and knowledge needed to sail a tall ship, from line-handling to emergency procedures and rig-climbing. For many, the “up and over” — where they climb the main mast to the first platform, called the “tops” — can be the most daunting task. For the first ascent, that first platform is the only requirement. To be able to actually work the rig, many swabs will go higher on subsequent climbs.
Swab Nazere Jones, a Waterford resident who graduated from the Marine Science Magnet High School and attended military prep school in Alabama before enrolling at the academy this summer, was glad to make it through his “up and over” but also thankful to not have to go aloft again. “Thank gosh this is the only tall ship they (the Coast Guard) have, because I don’t think I could do it,” he quipped.
Yepez, on the other hand, felt climbing the rigging was her best experience of the trip, “because I thought I’d be scared to do it, but because I was pushed to do things that I’m not comfortable doing, climbing was not as hard as I thought it would be. It was just another thing, another feat that I was ready to knock out.”
Eagle departed Halifax following a Parade of Sail on Tuesday to conclude the Rendezvous 2017 Tall Ships Festival there and sailed south and west for Portland. Favorable winds on Wednesday morning sent the swabs and crew aloft to set the sails, and the next 24 hours of the voyage would be under sail.
While underway, the swabs received lessons in shipboard damage control, learning how to fight a fire and patch leaky pipes. They took an introductory lesson using a sextant for celestial navigation and continued to stand watch on the bridge, in the engine room and on lookout on the ship’s bow.
“In many ways,” says Capt. Meilstrup, “it (sailing on Eagle) is somewhat of a capstone. They have four-plus weeks, depending on which group comes, to become acclimated to the Coast Guard and how we do business. They get that in the Chase Hall program, then they come out here and they get the at-sea experience. It’s a primer, in many ways.”
Once docked in Portland, the members of the Class of 2021 pack their bags for the ride back to New London.
Of his trip, Jones says, “Eagle was so peaceful compared to waking up in Chase Hall to yelling and screaming and whistles blowing, knocking on the door. Compared to Chase Hall, this is the life, sailing around, getting liberty occasionally. It’s fun!”
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