Bundled in our parkas, hands in pockets, scratchy black wool caps pulled tight over our ears, we peered out over the ocean into the moonlight and wondered if anyone else was out there. That was our job: Lookout. Gazing out into the distance for other vessels on the water, or anyone in distress. Kirsten was peering through the small binoculars they let the cadets use, while the enlisted person on watch had the portable Big Eyes slung around his neck and propped up with one arm. Looking through those, he could spot a ship 12 nautical miles away on the horizon and radio its relative position to the Pilot House. With the small binoculars, Kirsten and I were lucky to have a clear field of vision just a few miles away.
When people asked how I’d be spending my summer, I told them, “Imagine a big pirate ship with sails, that’s basically where I’ll be. We’re sailing from the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn. to Newfoundland, Canada, and then we have another three weeks of travel straight across the North Sea to Germany, then over to Scotland.” The enlisted sailors onboard told us we were earning nautical star tattoos by sailing across the North Sea. Sailors had started getting inked with five-pointed stars a century ago as signs of good luck and guidance back when they used the celestial bodies to navigate. Not that I wanted a star tattoo at 18 years old, but it made me feel a bit like a salty motherfucker, as if I belonged with the sailors who came before me, tattooing all their travels on their bodies, with sparrows, nautical stars, banners, and sea creatures for each voyage.
We wouldn’t sail the whole way on the journey; the ship had a Caterpillar diesel engine for when the winds weren’t favorable. But at that moment, the seas were calm and the wind was heading straight up the east coast of the United States. My duty section had to adjust a couple sails during that watch, changing the angles on Mainmast Topgallant and Mainsail to give us a little boost in speed and stop them from luffing and flapping in the wind.
The Barque Eagle was on such a scale that I hardly knew the names of all the sails, let alone the names of all of the lines that we pulled and loosened to adjust them, making the 295-foot ship glide through the water. There were rows and rows of lines belayed on pins all along the railings of the ship, and all of the crew stationed onboard and upperclass cadet supervisors, called “cadre,” had to memorize them.
The Eagle was home to 17 officers, 45 enlisted members, 109 cadets on our sophomore summer cruise, 12 cadre senior cadets who had spent six weeks sailing on Eagle when they were younger cadets. Close to a third of the people on Eagle right then were women. The first Coast Guard Academy class to graduate any women at all was the class of 1980. The Coast Guard was the only military service at the time that had all positions open to women. Despite that, the size of the Eagle’s female population was unprecedented.
The ship also carried two civilians who were know-it-all tall ship museum snobs, and a ghost crew of who-knows-how-many spirits whose deaths spanned most of the 20th century. We heard scuttlebutt from the crew that an Academy cadet had fallen to his death from the rigging years ago, and that another had been swept overboard and drowned during a storm. No one was sure how many people had died onboard the ship, but rumors had it over a dozen.
The ship was built in 1936 by Blohm and Voss Shipyard in Hamburg, Germany and commissioned as the Segelschulschiff Horst Wessel. She was built by Nazi Germany to train cadets for the German Navy, but during World War II, the Horst Wessel was equipped with anti-aircraft guns and sent into battle. After the war, the U.S. took the tallship from the Nazis as reparations in 1946. She was renamed the Barque Eagle and commissioned as a U.S. Coast Guard vessel before sailing from Bremerhaven, Germany to her new homeport at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn. The crusty old head engineer onboard told me about the ship’s history, taking me down to a storage space to show me a swastika that was still visible on the metal hull.
Why the rest of the crew and cadre didn’t care about those stories I’d never understand. At that very moment, we were sailing the Eagle back to her original home port of Bremerhaven, Germany for the first time since she’d been captured by the Americans in WWII. Instead of sending restless cadets to do busywork like shining brass in the rain, I wished they’d spent some time teaching us the history of this beautiful and badass sailing ship.
On the bow as Lookout with the enlisted man and Kirsten, I tuned out their conversation about plans for the upcoming port call and looked up to the sails to imagine the Horst Wessel’s crew skittering up the rigging like monkeys to unfurl the sails. I pictured close to the minimum crew possible—65 people—to sail the vessel. Each one knows exactly where to be. The First Lieutenant barks out orders in German to the enlisted members holding lines on the waist and they heave, turning the direction of the sails so they’ll catch the wind. Once the sails are set, the crew on the line leans away from the block and takes the strain at the bitter end of the line. They bring the line to the pin to belay, faking out the slack in a figure eight pattern, keeping the line ready but tidy and out of the way of foot traffic. Once one job is done, they’re off to the next. I watch them zig and zag in an organized chaos that seems choreographed. Each person is crucial; no one can afford to be lazy. A momentary lapse in judgment could cause a line to take too much strain and snap in two, taking out limbs and lives in its way.
Kirsten tapped me on the shoulder interrupting my daydream and passed me her binoculars. “Your turn,” she said and leaned over the railing to stare down at the black water rushing by the ship’s bow. I spent a few minutes watching the horizon in the moonlight then leaned over the rail to face the water as well. We were far enough from the coast that we hadn’t seen land for a couple days. I thought about all the creatures below us. I envisioned families of hungry whales scooping up mouthful after huge mouthful of water filled with plankton, anglerfish with their little glowing lures lit and wriggling like bait on fishing line and their long sharp teeth ready to snap closed, giant squid with long tentacles propelling themselves through secret lives, and purple jellies brainlessly following the ocean currents and trapping their food in delicate tentacles.
As I watched the cold water stream by, the sea lit up like a liquid field of fireflies. The water that had been midnight dark only a moment ago, lit only by the faint light of the waning crescent moon, transformed into a sparkling electric green reaching a few feet from where the ship touched. The rippling waves spreading out from our bow were little bright islands moving away from the ship. Kirsten squealed and waved the watchstander over to look. “It’s bioluminescence,” the enlisted man explained. “There are microorganisms that live in the water, a type of plankton, and when they’re disturbed they react.”
We spent several minutes watching our bow wake light up as we cut through the water and recede as the ship sailed swiftly northward. There were small white caps all around us, flickering green with the beautiful plankton as the wind created chop. The female cadre member in charge in the Pilot House called us on the radio for an update.
I stared at the flickering green lights in the water and out across the vast unforgiving ocean. A large shape darted next to the ship and I saw a dorsal fin emblazoned in bioluminescence by the bow. SHARK! I thought, but then another two round shapes with dorsal fins torpedoed into the slipstream of the bow wake. Kirsten and I jumped up and down laughing and squealing “Dolphins! Dolphins!” as the enlisted man stared in awe and whispered, “Wow. I know that dolphins like sailing ships, but I’ve never seen this.” We all grinned at the sight of the bioluminescent outline of three dolphins frolicking in the slipstream of this former Nazi tall-ship.