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It can be daunting when swabs first walk up to the Coast Guard Cutter Eagle during ‘Swab Summer.’ The triple-masted, barque-rigged, tall ship sways in the water like a brilliant reminder of our presence at sea and the 223 years of maritime history in our service.
The Eagle is 295-feet long, contains 22,000 square feet of canvas, and more than five miles of line used to manipulate the masts, sails, yards and much more. The exterior of the ship, with the exception of the Coast Guard racing stripe and white paint job, remains mostly unchanged from 1936 when she was built in the Blohm and Voss shipyard in Hamburg, Germany. Since 1946, the Eagle has been, and still remains, a common thread in the officer corps of the Coast Guard; almost every officer will spend time on the Eagle. All rising freshman, or ‘swabs,’ will spend a week at sea before starting their academic year; they will return for 5 or 6 weeks after finishing their first year at the Academy; and most officer candidates will sail prior to their commissioning.
As exciting as it may be for a young person to walk aboard a masterpiece of naval engineering and have the opportunity to sail across oceans, it can also be a little scary. “I was excited to come onboard, but I had never in my life been far enough away to lose sight of the land,” said Swab Victoria Mock, originally from outside of Atlanta, Ga. “The first night after getting underway and waking up in the middle of the ocean was amazing!”
Swabs aren’t aboard for a week’s vacation before school starts. They sail to gain a taste of life at sea, to learn how a Coast Guard vessel operates and to gain a liking for the sea and its lore. Their first day aboard they learn how to make a “rack”- a three-high, coffin-style bed where the cadets sleep. They learn what the different decks are called, where the heads, or bathrooms, are located and even how to walk with a tray of food while the ship is heeling, angled to one side while under sail. The swabs are assigned to a mast, and while underway they handle lines to furl, unfurl, set and douse all 23 sails onboard. Swabs are also taught firefighting skills, learn how to patch a ruptured pipe, and climb more than 140 feet above the decks to work on rigging with nothing but a harness and salty air between them and the sea.
“They tell us what to do, but they don’t hold our hand,” said Swab William Maxam. “We are responsible for ourselves, and it really helped me conquer my fear of heights.”
Even though the ship is filled with more than 120 “land-lubber” swabs, a highly skilled group of 75 active duty, reserve and auxiliary sailors pilot the ship and are tasked with imparting their knowledge to the young cadets. Some are attached to the cutter while others are temporarily assigned from all over the country. There are information systems technicians from California, boatswain’s mates from Tennessee and even food service specialists from the Marine Corps who transferred into the Coast Guard. Almost all of the temporary members volunteer for this assignment.
“I can watch them learn something right in front of me. Even if the concept is new or difficult, once my shipmates and I break it down, they get it. It is great to see their eyes widen and the sudden realization in their faces as they begin to understand something new,” said Seaman Christina Cote, permanent crewmember aboard Eagle.
Along with the permanent crew, upperclassmen from the Coast Guard Academy – all 2nd Class cadets, or rising juniors – are aboard to help lead the swabs. They are given a division of swabs to manage. Being groomed to be a leader is another common thread in the Coast Guard; members are always leading or being taught how to lead, and the students in the Academy, with only two years of school under their uniform belts, are expected to lead the underclassmen.
“Instead of intimidation, we encourage a professionally nurturing learning environment,” said 2nd Class Cadet Kevin Subramanian. “Leaders in the Coast Guard are taught to care and guide their people, and here on the Eagle, I take care of my swabs. I ensure they show up on time to watch and their training sessions. I help them understand how life operates at sea. I make sure they have the proper safety gear on when we climb aloft. I love to see them learn.”
The week underway ends with a spirited afternoon of competition, known as the Square-Rigger Olympics. Swab divisions compete against each other and are tested on how fast they can set and douse a sail, don an exposure suit, use a fire hose to fill a bucket and how accurately they can throw a heaving line.
“The Swabs are highly motivated; they are inherently driven to succeed. By ending the week with a culminating event testing everything [they] have learned, we are able to watch them put into practice all the concepts taught while also seeing them grow together as shipmates,” said Chief Warrant Officer Jimmy Greenlee, Eagle’s sailing master and first lieutenant.
The Eagle can cut through the sea at almost 17 knots under full sail, and with nothing driving her but the organic power of the wind, the ship can become very quiet at night. A gentle luff of the canvas and the sounds of the waves against the steel hull are sometimes the only sounds as the sun sets behind the sails. Swabs, having completed only their first few weeks in uniform, are taking their first step along the long blue line, and are given this opportunity to fall in love with the sea and become connected with the maritime world on which the Coast Guard operates, regulates, and thrives.
A week flies by. Before they know it, their time aboard Eagle is up. They head back to the Academy to start their first year of school, with a little bit more salt on their skin and a few more blisters on their hands.