Sailing ships at sea (© Steve Helber/AP Images)
Twenty-three sails adorn the 90-meter-tall ship Eagle, here leading other tall ships off the coast of Virginia. (© Steve Helber/AP Images)

The U.S. Coast Guard’s classically built tall ship, called the Eagle, is making the rounds in the Caribbean Sea during its 2018 summer training session, traveling to Barbados, the Dominican Republic, Curaçao, Honduras and Colombia.

Graphic showing details about U.S. Coast Guard (State Dept./D. Thompson)
(State Dept./D. Thompson)

The Eagle’s primary role since 1946 has been to serve as a training vessel for Coast Guard cadets, while its other mission is in public relations — sailing around the world visiting other countries and participating in races and other events with its international counterparts.

“I have the best job in the Coast Guard,” said the ship’s Captain Matt Meilstrup by phone from the port in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Meilstrup is responsible for training up to 900 future officers each year on board the Eagle while the ship makes “goodwill” calls at international ports.

Teaching centuries-old seafaring skills to present-day cadets might seem surprising in an era of mechanized boats equipped with the latest technology. But the Coast Guard, one of the five armed branches of America’s military, values the traditional lessons its officers-in-training learn aboard the Eagle.

Floating goodwill ambassador

“Every time we pull into port we bring people aboard for tours, we host receptions, we share stories and learn about each other,” said Rachel Hammond, a first-class (fourth year) cadet who will graduate from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy next year.

“We put on the best face that we can,” said first-class cadet Adam Wilhelm. “We teach the public about the Coast Guard, what we do, and that will make future interactions easier.”

The Coast Guard plays an important role in protecting areas of coastal water and seabed within a certain distance of the coastline, called the exclusive economic zone, where under international law the country claims exclusive rights for fishing, drilling and other economic activities.

The Eagle and its crew will help to celebrate Chile’s 200th anniversary this summer, joining the ensemble of South American tall ships currently circumnavigating the continent’s coastline and gathering at key locations, such as Curaçao July 15–18.

“We’re looking forward to seeing our sister ships that do the same kind of work as Eagle in Curaçao,” Meilstrup said. And each time the Eagle and her crew sail into an international port, he said, “we show a little bit of America.”

Learning by doing

Composite image: People on boat pulling rope (© MC/AP Images), and man climbing mast on boat (© David Handschuh/N.Y. Daily News Archive/Getty Images)
Left: Cadets haul a line across the Eagle’s deck in 1976. (© MC/AP Images) Right: A cadet climbs one of the Eagle’s masts in a 1992 training session. (© David Handschuh/N.Y. Daily News Archive/Getty Images)

Cadets learn to steer with the ship’s massive wood and brass wheel, navigate by the sun and stars, and operate more than 6,800 square meters of sail and almost 10 kilometers of rigging — the system of ropes and cables that position the sails and support the masts. Unlike what cadets learn in the classroom, Meilstrup said, “here they actually get to do. They do things, we let them do things — sometimes we make them do things — that push them out of their comfort zone. The growth is exponential and they build confidence.”

Hammond says she’s learning about trust and leadership while commanding the more junior cadets at the ship’s helm. “You can’t just focus on one thing. You have to see the overall picture. Officers in charge can’t know every detail of every single thing, so we have to trust our crew and trust what they are doing to make this entire operation run smoothly.”

“This is old-school sailing,” Wilhelm said. “One of the main jobs we have on Eagle is dealing with the sails, and one of the biggest lessons we learn is that you can’t do it alone. There’s not a single job on Eagle that you can do by yourself.”

“Everything requires teamwork,” Wilhelm said.