The U.S. Navy Sea Cadets are known for giving young people opportunities to experience the sea services, but relatively few get a chance to harness the wind and experience sailing on a large craft. Gunnar Keenan, a 15 year old member of the Pentagon Division Sea Cadets, recently embarked on a 19-day sailing adventure aboard USCGC Eagle, the Coast Guard’s celebrated 295-foot barque and training cutter, that took him from St. John’s, Canada, to New York City, to Bourne, Mass.
The only steel-hulled sailing vessel in U.S. military service, the Eagle has trained generations of Coast Guardsmen since it was taken from Germany as war reparations in 1946. Constructed a decade earlier in Hamburg and commissioned at Segalschulschiff (SSS) Horst Wessel, the sailing school ship served as the flagship of the Kriegsmarine’s sail training fleet. She was repurposed as a docked training ship and later as an anti-aircraft vessel, serving in that role until the end of the war.
Since the Coast Guard received and renamed the tall ship, it has served as a training vessel for U.S. Coast Guard Academy and Officer Candidate School cadets. The Eagle has also participated in several goodwill cruises during its long service. A limited number of Sea Cadets are accepted aboard every summer and Keenan counted himself lucky for the opportunity.
Along with a handful of other Sea Cadets from around the country, Keenan learned sailing skills and nomenclature, basic damage control and watch standing. Keenan found the middle watch to be the most enjoyable, perhaps due to the advantages it offered in the way of eating. And little wonder, since hoisting sails, pulling lines and practicing damage control are enough to arouse an appetite in anyone.
“It’s pretty nice,” he said. “You get late [rations] and mid rats. The food was great. The officers and enlisted crew on the Eagle were elite Coast Guardsmen and they gave us great experience. The cooks have to apply to serve on the Eagle.”
Keenan’s favorite activity aboard the Eagle was one that most people only see in movies or read about in books. “Climbing up to the royals, the top of the sails, was the best,” he said. “I only went up once, but we had to stand on the ropes and throw over the sails. There were three masts with three sets of top sails and two sets of square sails.”
Of course, just because sailing designs have been around for millennia, doesn’t mean they are simple to operate. The crew of the Eagle must manage more than six miles of standing and running rigging, and 22,300 square feet of sail. “If you need to turn the ship, you have them helm, but if the wind shifts, you need to turn the sails,” said Keenan. “You’re hauling the yardarms and turning the yardarms and the sail-it was pretty difficult.”
The work was not only a physical challenge, but a mental one as well. “It was hard work, but you also had to know something like 200 lines going down the ship,” said Keenan. “If you looked down the pin rail, you’ll see a line of metal spokes to hold the lines.”
All of that learning occurred alongside cadets from the Coast Guard Academy and a few midshipmen from the U.S. Naval Academy. The environment was fast-paced and the learning curve steep, but Keenan said he thrived on the challenge. “You eat fast in the small galley, the quarters are small, you stand watch-but it is a shock to you when you [first] get aboard,” he said. “We get a minor dose of that in the Sea Cadets.”
The cadets and crew aboard the Eagle enjoyed fine weather during most of the voyage, though they encountered some heavy downpours and thick fog off the Canadian coast. “You have to blast the foghorn every five seconds, for two minutes,” said Keenan. “The crew had fog for a couple of days straight coming to St. John’s, so I felt like we had it kind of good.”
When the Eagle sailed in to New York Harbor, Keenan took some rather outstanding photos of the Statue of Liberty at sunset and continued his adventure ashore. “We walked around the city,” he said. “I went to Grand Central Station, Times Squares, the Empire State Building-though I didn’t go up to the top because it cost $20 and I already spent my money-and Central Park.”
When the Eagle finally ended its voyage in Bourne, Keenan had a new perspective to consider as he decides on his next chapter in life. “I’ve been really gung ho for the Naval Academy and I want to be a diver, but recently I’ve widened my search,” he said. “I’ve been looking at the Coast Guard Academy and they’re making diving a rate. I really want to go to one of the academies. It’s the lifestyle I want to live.”