Ever since I was a kid, I’ve loved Tall Ships. Growing up in a city with a rich nautical past and learning to sail at the age of 9 certainly helped. So it was that in 1976, while America was celebrating her 200th I volunteered with Operation Sail. I had just graduated high school in Baltimore and had plans to move to Northern California. But what a great way to say goodbye to my hometown – to revel in a scene that was right out of the 1800’s.
I recall that scene like it was yesterday: walking around the corner at Aliceann Street and Broadway in Fells Point, I gazed down to the water’s edge and the entire horizon was filled with huge wooden ships. Adding to the look and feel of a page right out of our history book, all the beer gardens will filled with sailors from far & wide, speaking every language imaginable. And all dressed in their dress uniforms. For an impressionable young woman (sailor) like me, it was mind-blowing!
“OpSail” as it was called, was the second such Tall Ship Rally in the world. The first was the World’s Fair Parade of Ships in 1964. Each event is coordinated by Operation Sail, Inc., a non-profit organization established in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy and must be approved by the United States Congress. Of the relatively few tall ships that were in service around the world at the time, 16 sailed to New York to participate in the Parade of Ships. From New York, the ships sailed on to Baltimore, docking at the Inner Harbor and in Fells Point.
My first assignment was selling T-shirts in the Inner Harbor, but that didn’t last long. Day two brought with it a great surprise and amazing opportunity. Due to illness, the OpSail postman did not show up to work. I overheard that the position was open and jumped at the chance. Whether it was because I was a young woman, or perhaps my overwhelming excitement, I was chosen to deliver the mail to each ship. It didn’t take long for me to see the what an amazing opportunity I’d been handed. Before I got to the first gangway, I had made up my first rule…from the bottom of the gangway, I yelled up,
“Would you like your mail?”
To which the reply would invariably be, “YES!”
To which I would reply…
“If you want your mail, you have to give me a tour! Permission to come aboard?”
And so it was on that incredible day in the Summer of OpSail ’76, I got to tour all 16 ships. They were all fabulous, but most memorable were the Esmeralda (Chile), Danmark (Denmark), Gorch Fock (Germany), Amerigo Vespucci (Italy), Christian Radich (Norway) and the Eagle.
The United States Coast Guard cutter Eagle has been the host vessel to all five Op Sail events. I got to tour her on her recent visit to Fort Lauderdale.
July 25, 2010 – Port Everglades, FL
I “pulled rank” to get ahead of the hundreds of people waiting in the humid mid-day heat of South Florida to gain access to the Barque Eagle. With my BWI credentials looking very official around my neck, I went to the exit and spoke with the security detail holding down the fort. One of them called the Officer of the Day who asked to speak with me. I explained that I wrote for sailing pubs and wanted to tour the ship. He gave the OK and said to meet him “near the bow.” It took some effort to locate the OD, but we finally met up and Jann & I boarded, quickly found a cadet to give us a tour of the decks.
Eagle is the largest tall ship flying the Stars and Stripes and the only square-rigger in U.S. government service. A three-masted barque, Eagle‘s foremast and mainmast carry square sails and her mizzenmast carries fore-and-aft sails. The ship was built in 1936 in Germany, and commissioned as Horst Wessel, one of three sail training ships operated by the pre-World War II German navy. At the close of World War II, Horst Wessel was taken as a war reparation by the United States, recommissioned as the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Eagle and sailed to New London, Connecticut, – their homeport ever since.
According to their website, “Eagle provides an unparalleled at-sea leadership and professional development experience for future officers of the U.S. Coast Guard, the smallest but arguably the busiest of the U.S. Armed Forces. A seasoned permanent crew of six officers and 50 enlisted personnel maintain the ship and provide a strong base of knowledge and seamanship for the training of up to 150 cadets or officer candidates at a time. Augmented by temporary crew during our training deployments, Eagle routinely sails with over 230 hands on board. Eagle offers future officers the opportunity to put into practice the navigation, engineering, and other professional theory they have previously learned in the classroom. More importantly, the challenges of living aboard and working a large square-rigger at sea build the teamwork, character, and leadership skills necessary for success in the Service.
One of the primary training tools aboard the EAGLE is her unique rig set up. In order to get the vessel moving by means of her sails alone, it literally takes the entire crew, including guests and OC’s to participate in the evolution. Without full participation of everyone on board it seems it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible to get the ship moving under sail in a timely manner. Not only do you need a substantial amount of people on the deck hauling around on and slacking the lines as necessary, but you also need people willing to climb up into the rig to unfurl and douse sails as necessary. The need exists for everyone to do their job not only to accomplish the goal, but also because, without all hands at work, the risk of potential injury increases exponentially. In order for the sails to be successfully set everyone has to pay attention and do what they are told when they are told. Should someone fail to do their job or pay attention to what they are doing then someone on deck or in the rig could be seriously injured.”
It was a pleasure to tour this ship once again, some 33 years later. I can’t wait until the next “OpSail” event.