NEW YORK – It is, largely, a symbol: 295 feet of what once was a time capsule for the public to come aboard, to touch, to think of a world where power came from the wind, and every inch of travel had to be earned.
But it is time to leave port, time for the Coast Guard cutter Eagle to make its transition from symbol to ship, to become what it really is: a teacher.
Eagle, like the other tall ships that will arrive in Boston Saturday for Operation Sail 2012, is a training vessel, a way for countries to teach their future maritime leaders how the ocean works when the best tools available are sweat, elbow grease, and experience.
With more than a million people expected to visit Boston’s waterfront for the tall ships event, including a mock battle in the harbor and a July Fourth extravaganza, Eagle will be one of the most-visited attractions. It is one of two sailing vessels in active commission in the US military, and on July 4 it will escort the other, USS Constitution, as it makes its annual turnaround.
OpSail is the latest in a series of tall ships events dating back decades, efforts to give the public access to past and present-day warships and experience history up close. In May 1963, President John F. Kennedy, an enthusiastic sailor, said: “The sight of so many ships gathered from the distant corners of the world should remind us that strong, disciplined, and venturesome men still can find their way safely across uncertain and stormy seas.”
Eagle is, despite its very American name, in fact, German in origin; it was built in Hamburg in 1936, and Adolf Hitler attended its christening. The United States took ownership as a war reparation in 1946, but had to rely on its German crew and captain to sail it to its new home port in New London, Conn.
As Eagle prepared to push off from a pier last month on the west side of Manhattan on Memorial Day, its lesson plan for the Coast Guard Academy cadets on board — many of them teenagers who have just finished their first year — was quite simple: make me move.
“It’s a unique honor to be able to do something like this, because you’re the one that puts everything in motion, cranking the sails, doing everything by hand, everything as a team,” said Cadet Third Class Trevor Pennyweather. “And then you get to these moments when the ship is at its best, when the sails are up, it’s sunset . . . it takes you back.”
Its historical value is interesting, its beauty is unquestioned, and its symbolism is well established. So the question many ask is: Why train Coast Guard cadets on a sailboat when most will spend their careers on state-of-the-art motorized cutters?
The answer, according to Captain Eric Jones, is that the ways of old still have much to teach.
“Many of these cadets are accomplished in the individual sense,” Jones said while standing on the rear deck as navigators nearby mapped out the ship’s route with paper maps and compasses. “But here, no individual, even me, can accomplish anything. That old saying, ‘We’re all in the same boat,’ comes from a boat like this. It’s a humbling experience. Because Eagle is so labor-intensive, it’s a demanding trainer, and that intense process is what allows us in four short years to make officers of these kids.”
As Eagle made its way down the Hudson River toward the Atlantic, the symbolism was still very evident. People lined docks to take its photo. Smaller boats followed the ship, waving at the crew. As it passed in front of the Statue of Liberty, on Memorial Day, the busy cadets couldn’t help but pause and soak in the symbolism. Others gathered on the port side where the Freedom Tower, nearing completion, shot into the skyline on the site of ground zero.
The moment almost feels staged, a setup for a postcard photographer. And while such visuals are important for the crew and the public image of the Coast Guard, the real value of Eagle is the work it demands, said Ensign Joseph Della Rosa, a Needham High grad who is part of the permanent crew on Eagle that trains the cadets.
“It’s not just for show. It’s not a museum,” said Della Rosa, 30, one of the navigators who had planned the departure route. “It’s definitely a source of pride, but this ship is all about attitude. Sometimes we’ll have worked hard all day, then have an emergency ‘sail station’ in the middle of the night. But knowing that the public feels such pride when they look at us makes it all worth it.”
The wind is light, so the ship leaves New York under the power of its engine. The plan is to head for a buoy far off the coast that marks the beginning of the ocean, pick up some cross winds coming up the coast, then raise the sails. With the motor running, the cadets have a chance to eat, to rest, and gossip – most have just experienced their first go through the legendary, and infamous, “Fleet Week” in New York – and gaze at the Manhattan skyline as it recedes into the distance.
Cadet First Class Emily Morrow, 23, a native of Springfield, said that it is in these quiet moments when one is reminded again of the beauty and majesty of “America’s Tall Ship.”
“You don’t sit down during the day. Ever. There’s always work,” she said.
“But at the end of the day, when we’re under full sail, and you see a dolphin pod go by, it’s just so rewarding.
“One of my favorite things to do when the work is done and we’re under full sail is to lay on the boat deck and look at the stars. If the seas are calm and the wind is calm, it’s so quiet. It’s magic. I mean, how many times do you get to sail on a tall ship?”
The previous week, when they were sailing the Bermuda Triangle, the captain turned off all electronics and they navigated using only the stars.
When Eagle reached the ocean buoy, it was time for the Globe reporter and photographer to disembark as another transformation got underway, that of ship to sailboat.
The cadets were in place, ropes in their hands, ready to work, as a Coast Guard cutter took the journalists back to land.
As the sun began to set, Eagle’s sails rose. And with that came a tinge of jealousy from the Coasties on the motorized ship. Some had done time on Eagle. All were quiet as it bloomed into its full majesty.
“I’ve been hearing stories about it since I was 5 years old,” Elizabeth Ansley said as the white sails rose up Eagle’s mast. Her father had gone through the academy and sailed on Eagle, and someday, she said, she would like to do the same.
“It’s just so beautiful.”
Billy Baker can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.