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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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"Reveille, reveille, reveille. Heave out, trice up, lash and stow." At 6:30 every morning, seven on Sundays, these words were preceded by the piercing shriek of a bos'n's pipe sounded over the public-address system. Its duration seemed to depend on the whim of the piper, but it always did the job, even the morning after the storm. The wind, which had blown at 35 to 40 knots through most of the night, had eased to almost 25 by morning, but the swells were still huge, and breakfast was an adventure. Coffee and toast could be handled, but anything more complicated, anything that required letting go of the coffee cup, for instance, was out of the question, even though a rubber mat had been stretched the length of the table. The mat held the coffee cup, all right, but the table failed to hold the mat, and a seat on the leeward side was undesirable. The entire ship shivered and whirred, the propeller of the auxiliary engine spinning freely as the hull was lifted and buffeted by the seas. "The forward mess is a mess," said a cadet emerging onto the deck.

The shredded remnants of the two blown-out jibs still clung to the forestays, and dozens of lines made the deck an obstacle course. The wind was rising again, and the radar room reported a squall to the WNW.

At 8:05, with the wind up to 38 knots and the seas building to 30 feet, Eagle received an order from the Coast Guard Commander Atlantic Area, on Governor's Island in New York Harbor, to proceed to the scene of the Marques's sinking, 75 miles to the south. Cummings replied that heavy weather prevented him from complying, but that he would "proceed when feasible." Meanwhile, he made his decision: Douse all sails, heave to, bow to the wind, turn on the engine and wait in place for the low-pressure system to pass. "We're going the same speed as the low," Cummings explained. "It's uncomfortable and unsafe and if it keeps up we could be blown all the way to England. As for the race, we'll note our position and take the consequences, whatever they are. It's a good ship, but two or three days of this stuff, where just walking is work, is no fun. The kids are tired of it, everybody's tired. The best-laid plans of mice and men.... But I think we're safer this way."

At 10:45, with several cadets furling on the main and fore upper topsail yards and more still climbing the network of ratlines to join them, one last squall, a parting shot carrying 30-knot winds, hit Eagle, and it began to rain. The few sails still set whomped and cracked dangerously. B.J. Whitley, bos'n's mate extraordinary, bounded aloft alongside his charges, shouting hoarsely over the wind and the thundering sails, "Don't wimp out!"

Fifteen minutes later the squall passed, the rain stopped, the wind dropped to 25 knots, which now seemed tame, and the ship's main engine was started. For the next 24 hours, now on standby for the Coast Guard's search-and-rescue operation. Eagle remained hove to, her Caterpillar engine, known as Max, holding her in position.

On the evening of the second day the wind finally abated, the seas flattened, and the work of repairing gear and checking for further damage began. The work continued through three watches, and by the morning of the third day Eagle was ready to set sail for Halifax once again. Her engine was taken "off line," and at 10:15 she was officially released from standby status.


Stress, exhaustion and the continually pressing manual labor of sailing a square-rigger in high winds combined, in the case of many aboard Eagle, to postpone for a day or two an understanding of the ordeal the ship had been through the night of the storm. The enlisted men were the most matter-of-fact, having had the experience at sea to measure the night against. Tim Ciampaglio, quartermaster Second Class, would be completing his four-year tour in August. "Last October," he said, "off Cape Hatteras, there was a Canadian trimaran in distress in 12-to 15-foot waves. I went out in a small boat and helped pull three people out, but I never saw anything like this. Five of us were sitting on the port side of Eagle's foredeck. The ship went over, and we all started sliding down toward the starboard rail. I got two fingers on the rail behind me with one hand, and I managed to grab on to another guy with the other hand, and that's how we stayed for the 15 seconds or so until the ship righted itself."

"I've been in 10 years," said Rick Graves, radioman, First Class, "and I've never before been afraid for my life. Anybody who says he wasn't scared that night is lying. We were over for three or four minutes."

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