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A RACE BACK IN TIME
Sarah Ballard
October 01, 1984
Coast Guard cadets aboard the square-rigger Eagle learned of the majesty and intractability of the sea firsthand on a voyage from Bermuda to Nova Scotia
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October 01, 1984

A Race Back In Time

Coast Guard cadets aboard the square-rigger Eagle learned of the majesty and intractability of the sea firsthand on a voyage from Bermuda to Nova Scotia

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For an hour or more, the crew had been carrying out a barrage of commands while scattered over a deck the length of a football field. Because Eagle is a form of classroom and learning is the goal, an officer explained the maneuver on the public-address system. "We were overpowered, so We took in the royals," said the hollow, disembodied voice, cutting through the wind and the constant thundering of the sails. "Then we began trying for speed, and in the process we gained two knots." A somewhat tired cheer rose from the decks. "Just for your information," the voice continued, "if the wind holds we could reach Halifax by 1600 hours on 5 June." This time the cheer was heartfelt.

On the bridge Cummings allowed himself a little pep talk. "Maybe we'll catch the Poles tonight," he said. "Keep an alert watch all night. That's what'll do it. If they ease up a little, we'll have them. Got to keep her driving."

At 9:10 the wind out of the southwest was 25 knots. At 9:30, with the ship back in the hands of the Ready Boat Crew, the nightly movie began to roll, on the mess-deck for the cadets and crew, in the wardroom for the officers. In the wardroom pantry, Lieut. Phil Heyl, a political science teacher, made popcorn.

Twenty minutes later, the ship's siren sounded again. Wee wah wee wah wee wah. "All hands to sail stations." A line of heavy squalls had appeared on the radar 20 miles out. Time to start dousing the sails. In the Coast Guard this is called being forehanded, anticipating an emergency and preparing for its arrival. By 10:13 the crew, working hard, fast and steadily, had doused the mizzen gaff topsail, the spanker, the mizzen topgallant staysail, and the main royal staysail. The fore and main topgallants had been placed "in their gear"—gathered in to spill the wind but not yet furled.

At 10:16, 30 cadets and crew were spread out along the two topgallant yards, 120 feet up the fore- and mainmasts. Balanced on swinging crane lines, they were beginning to furl the topgallant sails, leaning over the top of the yard to grab a hunk of sail, pulling it up to the yard, anchoring it with an elbow, then reaching for another piece. The seas were 13 feet and building, and the ship was heaving violently, but the cadets were attached by their safety belts to the metal jackstays along the top of each yard.

Suddenly and without any warning, a squall with winds of up to 70 knots hit Eagle with tremendous force and knocked her down to starboard. The starboard rail was underwater, and the 150-foot masts, each weighing several tons, hung out over the mountainous seas at an angle of 50 degrees to the right of vertical—Eagle's normal angle of heel in a steady breeze is 15 to 20 degrees. At the moment of the knockdown, the flying and outer jibs, suspended from the fore-stays, both exploded, though in the precise, understated language of the sail they are said to have "carried away."

"When the blast came I gave the order, 'right full rudder' to the helmsman," said Shannon later. "To fall off, to get the wind on the stern. She started turning nicely, but then at the peak of the blast she stopped turning. The kids got scared, the helmsman had taken the rudder off [meaning he returned it amidships]. Here we were, laying over at 50 degrees. I yelled to get three more people on the helm so she could turn."

Even at her insane angle, Eagle's momentum continued to carry her forward. "We kept going two or three minutes," said Shannon, "maybe more. Then we righted ourselves."

The crisis within a crisis having passed, no shouts of "man overboard" having been heard and no serious injuries sustained, the dousing and furling continued on well past midnight.

It wasn't until eight the next morning that Eagle's exhausted crew learned the fate of the people aboard Marques (SI, June 11)—"went down in seconds, nine rescued, one body, overturned life raft, 18 probably lost"—as the result of a squall similar to the one that hit Eagle.

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