• Maryland

Unusual, aged visitor to Coast Guard Yard undergoes repairs

In summer the Eagle is used by the Coast Guard Academy as a training ship for cadets, its miles of ropes and expanses of sail developing their teamwork skills and problem solving abilities. But the 79-year-old barque is scheduled to make four annual trips to the Curtis Bay shipyard to undergo $28 million in renovations.

If eight decades of exposure to water and sea air have conspired to dangerously rust away bits of the hull or masts of the Coast Guard Cutter Eagle, there would be no helpful creak or crack of warning.

The first sign of trouble, Lt. Tom Crowley said, would be water rushing into the ship.


"We wouldn't know until it was too late," he said.

So the Eagle, a 295-foot sailing ship whose three masts now poke above the roofs of workshops at the Coast Guard Yard, has become a regular wintertime visitor to Curtis Bay, where engineers patch up problems and try to sniff out future trouble spots.

Joseph Cote, the project's superintendent, said he's hopeful his team can give the vessel a few more decades of life.

"From what I've seen it was exceptionally well built — it's still around," Cote said. "I hope 30 to 40 years from now I'll see that ship still sailing."

In summer, the Eagle is used by the Coast Guard Academy to train cadets, its miles of ropes and expanses of sail are ideal for developing their teamwork skills and problem-solving abilities. But the 79-year-old barque is scheduled to make four annual trips to the shipyard to undergo renovations that are projected to cost $28 million.

The ship motored from the Inner Harbor last week to its home for the next six months to begin a second phase of repairs. Now it sits at the Coast Guard Yard, where the clank of machinery and the smell of paint and bay water mingle in the air.

The Eagle is unlike any of the other vessels that are hoisted onto the shore or dry docked in the facility, used by the Coast Guard in recent years to carry out major updates to its fleet.

Built in 1936 at the Blohm and Voss shipyards in Hamburg, Germany, to train cadets for Adolf Hitler's navy, it was originally named Segelschulschiff Horst Wessel — a sailing school ship to honor a Nazi Party martyr.

It was the twilight of the age of sail. Cote said the ship wasn't given sails out of necessity, but as a symbol of German pride.

The ship survived World War II. At the end of the conflict, the United States claimed the 295-foot ship as a prize, sailed it across the Atlantic and turned it over to the Coast Guard.

"Now it's a symbol of our national pride," Cote said.

From the outside, nothing gives away the Eagle's origin. The ship is painted in the Coast Guard's brilliant white, with the service's distinctive red and blue slash angles across its front.

But below decks, past a kitchen where a chef prepared little ranks of pierogies as dubstep rumbled out of a speaker, Crowley led the way to artifacts from the ship's history.

A photograph shows the ship as it looked when an American crew took command, the bombed out skyline of the German port of Bremerhaven in the background. Crowley, the Eagle's operations officer, pointed to English translations scribbled on original German documents, kept in a case with a piece of the original thick canvas sails.


The ship, with enough sails to cover eight tennis courts and a bewildering array of lines to control them, is the only sailing vessel in active service in the U.S. military.

Crowley said working with sails lets instructors set cadets all kinds of fiendish problems, preparing them for the unpredictability of the tasks they'll face at sea.

"This is the best ropes course in the world," Crowley said.

To the careful eye, the rivets punctuating the hull are a hint at the Eagle's age, but Crowley said the years don't obviously weigh on the ship when it's out at sea. That makes it all the more important to stay on top of repairs.

It's up to Cote and his team to peer inside the structure of the ship and look for trouble. They will update electric components, and rip out beds — tiny bunks with just 18 inches of clearance between sleepers — in a hunt for lead paint.

They plan to use an ultrasound device to scan the masts, looking for spots where rust has weakened their steel. Over time, the steel thins; the scanner can measure by how much.

"We feel they are serviceable, but we'll know for sure," Cote said. "Nothing when it comes to safety is left to guess work."

The work has to be carried out to a strict timetable. By spring the Eagle has to be ready to sail again with a fresh class of cadets aboard.