USCGC Eagle (WIX 317) is an impressive sight. Long and slender with three masts towering over a gleaming white hull cut only by a red Coast Guard stripe, she is a nautical vision. After an ominous beginning, Eagle's mission is now to prepare people who are dedicated to helping others as Coast Guard officers.
The Eagle was built as a training ship, not for the United States but for Germany. In the 1930s, the German Navy (Kriegsmarine) was growing at such a rate that it was decided to build three sailing ships to train would-be naval officers. The ship that would become Eagle was a sleek barque with a steel hull and three steel masts built by Hamburg's Blohm+Voss shipyard.
By this time, the Nazis had taken control of the German government. As a result, the new training ship was given a Nazi overlay. She was named Horst Wessel after an infamous stormtrooper. Her eagle figurehead clutched a swastika in its talons. Adolf Hitler even attended the ship's naming ceremony.
As the flagship of the training fleet, the Horst Wessel undertook numerous training cruises before World War II. She was decommissioned in 1939 when hostilities broke out but resumed her training role in 1942. In April 1945, the ship was surrendered to the British.
Following the war, the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union divided up the remaining assets of the Kriegsmarine. The Horst Wessel was allocated to the United States, reportedly as a result of a deal made between the Soviet officer and the American officer in charge of the reparation process. Accordingly, the ship was sailed to New York.
The ship was requested by the Superintendent of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy to act as a training vessel. Stripped of its Nazi regalia and re-painted in Coast Guard colors, the newly-renamed Eagle took up residence in New London, Connecticut.
Each summer since 1946, Eagle has deployed as a training ship. Cadets from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy rotate through the ship in groups of about 150. Underclassmen perform the tasks typically performed by enlisted personnel while upperclassman perform the supervisory functions of officers and senior enlisted personnel. Both male and female cadets participate.
Eagle is the only Coast Guard sailing ship, all of the other Coast Guard ships rely on some form of mechanical propulsion such as diesel engines. Then why train future Coast Guard officers on a sailing ship?
The Coast Guard cites two reasons. First, Eagle builds character. Having to climb rigging and be on an open deck in all weathers pushes the trainees to the limits of their endurance. It requires them to face and overcome their fears. In addition, they have to work together as a team in order to sail the ship. These are good strengths to have in future officers.
Second, while all ships are affected by the wind and current, when she is under sail, Eagle is completely dependent on these forces for propulsion. Consequently, the trainees get a concentrated course on these forces aboard Eagle. Along the same lines, the cadets get practical experience in navigation. This knowledge should serve them well when they are in command of a rescue cutter in a storm or vying to intercept a drug smuggler.
In order to maneuver Eagle under sail, the cadets must manipulate some 22,000 square feet of sail. This involves climbing Eagle's three masts, which rise as high as a 15 story building, and handling some five miles of rigging. Each cadet must become familiar with the name and function of each of Eagle's 200 lines.
Life aboard Eagle is not luxurious. The ship is about the length of a football field but is just under 40 feet wide. Thus, there is not much space. In addition, Eagle was built more than 80 years ago. She is not like a modern cruise ship.
Yet, there is a magnificent atmosphere to her. The masts towering over the teak decks. The lines and the neatly arranged belaying pins. The polished (steering) wheels. It has the romance of another age.
Eagle's secondary mission is to act as a good will ambassador for the Coast Guard and the United States. To this end, “America's Tall Ship” visits both foreign and U.S. Seaports during her training cruises. Flying a giant American flag, she is often open to visitors.
When summer ends, Eagle returns to her homeport of New London where she docks by the Coast Guard Academy. Eagle has a permanent crew of seven officers and 50 enlisted personnel.
Above: Eagle's ship's wheels used to steer the ship.
Below: The Emergency wheel.
REGISTRY: United States
ENTERED SERVICE: 1936: Horst Wessel
DISPLACEMENT: 1,816 (full load)
LENGTH: 295 feet
BEAM: 39 feet
DRAFT: 17.5 feet
CREW: 50 (plus 150 trainees)
OFFICERS: 7 to 12
SPEED: 17 knots (under sail)
POWER PLANT: 22,280 sq ft of sail;
one auxiliary diesel
Ship profile - - United States Coast Guard - - Eagle