Old-fashioned lessons on the high seas

Josh Pennell
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The USCG Barque Eagle visits St. John’s

It looks more like a ship seen in a picture from the archives than anything that dips in through The Narrows of St. John’s harbour these days. Its masts cut the skyline with a look that’s both historic and beautiful. The USCG Barque Eagle is America’s tallest ship and it is used to train people choosing a path between the waves, be it with the coast guard or navy.

First Class Emmanuel Benitez says there’s nothing automated on the ship. Everything is done manually.

“There’s 212 lines onboard and everyone is hauling around them,” he says. “We set the sails and that takes participation for almost 150 to 200 people to get it off smoothly.”

They do that out at sea every day and have been doing so with students since the 1940s. The vessel was actually captured during the Second World War by the Germans, who had it for the same purpose: to train.

Depending on what stage of their program they’re in, cadets get on for a week the first time, or a full five weeks the second. The vessel was in St. John’s as part of a five-week stint. The ship has been to Mexico and up the eastern seaboard this time. Sometimes it goes to Europe or to the west coast.

“We take on all kinds of various experience levels. We just have to make sure because there’s lots of things on a barque that can be dangerous,” says Benitez. “It’s real challenging because you have a lot of permanent crew aboard and they’re really well versed.”

The veteran sailors back up the people with little or no experience on the sea. The cadets who leave the ship are much different than the ones who first come onboard.

“They’re sailors,” says Benitez.

The ship has been out since May this trip and its Cadet Savannah Fordham’s second time on the Eagle.

“This has been awesome,” she says.

Out on the high seas, her favourite part has been climbing the rigging, which she describes as “terrifying but fun.” It puts salt on your shoulders, she adds.

“It’s been great,” Benitez says.  “One of the things that we do is navigate (by) the stars, so every night we call the cadets. They come with their sextants. We try and do things the old-school, traditional way. We did that from Cozumel to Miami.”

It isn’t just a lesson in navigation and sailing, though. The cadets research each port they visit and give presentations to the rest of the crew.

“So when we come over here we kinda know a little about the area. Just enough to get excited. And we go out into town and check things out,” says Benitez.

Whatever he’s checked out in St. John’s has obviously floated his boat. He says it’s been his favourite port yet on this trip and he has already told his family back home that he wants to come back. The USCG Barque Eagle will be leaving port as soon as the crew is sure there isn’t any danger from post-tropical storm Arthur.


Organizations: USCG

Geographic location: Mexico, Europe, Cozumel Miami

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Recent comments

  • Catherine Dempsey
    July 07, 2014 - 09:32

    Wouldn't it be wonderful if Captain Bob Bartlett's ship the Effie M Morrissey, now registered as the Ernestina, could be restored enough to sail to Newfoundland and Labrador for a visit once again? She is tied up in New Bedford, an hour south of Boston, slowly undergoing repairs to make her seaworthy once again. She is an original schooner with a real connection to our province's maritime history, and is mostly forgotten here.

  • Tom Friend
    July 07, 2014 - 08:41

    What a Beautiful Ship! Recently visited St. Johns and found the city, its people, the Harbor and all of its sites Beautiful! Am from a Navy Family and what a Wonderful way to learn about Sailing Tradition!