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Tall ship Eagle heads back to the open sea

When the Coast Guard's tall ship Eagle glided under the Key Bridge on Wednesday morning, it looked a lot better than it did when it arrived at the Inner Harbor four months ago.

A fresh coat of white paint covered the upper hull. Six miles of ropes and rigging were tightrope-taut. And from the ship's bow jutted a regilded eagle, its talons gripping the Coast Guard crest.

"She's done and she's looking good," said John Downes, a Baltimore native who supervised the team of Curtis Bay Coast Guard Yard workers that carried out the $5 million refurbishing, from keel to mast tip.

Escorted by a Maryland Natural Resources Police boat and two tugs, the 295-foot ship turned down the Chesapeake Bay on its way to the Atlantic and its home port at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn.

The Eagle is shipshape for another year at sea as the Coast Guard's ambassador — and for another turn as a maritime classroom for hundreds of academy cadets.

Added to its sailing orders this year: fleet leader in the parade of tall ships participating in the War of 1812 Bicentennial Commemoration and Operation Sail 2012. The flotilla is due in Baltimore from June 14 to June 17 as part of a seven-city celebration.

Eagle is the largest tall ship flying the U.S. flag. A three-masted barque, it was built in Hamburg in 1936 for use as a training vessel for the German navy and was commissioned the Horst Wessel. It was the 508th vessel built by Blohm & Voss. The next, No. 509, was the battleship Bismarck.

When World War II ended, the Horst Wessel was taken as a war prize and recommissioned as the Coast Guard Cutter Eagle.

All Coast Guard vessels must be pulled from the water and inspected every four years, and Curtis Bay gets the lion's share of the work. Eagle's list included 75 items and an early February deadline.

It is one thing to take apart and put together something in the name of restoration. It is quite another to fuss with a 76-year-old ship that is the only square-rigger owned by the U.S. government.

"You don't want any leftover parts," said the Curtis Bay yard commander, Capt. Richard Murphy, with a smile.

Removing rigging and yardarms from the three masts is a delicate and dangerous procedure because each component supports something else.

"You have to do it in logical sequence. From the top down to a certain point, and from the bottom up to a certain point," said Downes. "The points do meet."

Each piece, from the smallest bolt to turnbuckles as large as a man's forearm, has to be tracked as it moves through the inspection process and then to repair and paint shops. Replacement parts must be handcrafted.

"You can't just go to Turnbuckles 'R' Us and pull one off the shelf," Murphy said.

Belowdeck, workers removed thousands of toddler-size lead ingots — ballast to keep the ship upright when the wind fills the 21,350 square feet of sails — to allow inspection of the hull. Each rivet through the nearly half-inch-thick steel hull was tested and deficient ones were replaced.

The moment of truth came last month, when the Eagle was lifted from her dry dock cradle and lowered into Curtis Creek. It's not uncommon for a few spots to spring leaks and for crews to scurry to plug them up. But not this time.

"It was tight as a drum," said Cmdr. George Lesher, the yard's industrial manager.

Perhaps the most delicate operation involved renovating the three-quarter-ton eagle under the bowsprit.

After years at sea, the figurehead eagle was fragile and cracked. A wooden cradle was built to cushion it for its ride to the paint shop, where craftsmen built a dust-free workshop around it. A master woodworker restored the carving and covered it with gold flake.

Downes said the Eagle's crew of 56 officers and enlisted personnel worked alongside his team every step of the way.

"It's crucial for them to see it taken apart and put back together correctly, because when their lives are on the line on a dark night when the weather is rough and they're 100 feet up there," he said, pointing at the 146-foot mast, "they can have confidence."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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