(Pensacola, Florida; June 9, 2022) – I possess the oddest collection of personal connections to ships I never served aboard.
Just as one example: despite numerous attempts, I never set foot aboard the carrier USS Enterprise (CVN 65)—even as a mere visitor. However, every ship I did sail aboard participated in an official formation photo-op with the Big E. This led to a joke that Enterprise’s decommissioning meant I was near retirement too…which is what actually happened! (https://sparks1524.com/2020/10/15/on-the-waterfront-a-tale-of-a-great-enterprise/)
Today we board the Coast Guard’s tall ship, USCGC Eagle (WIX 327). A steel-hulled barque built by Germany in 1936 as the cadet training ship Horst Wessel, she was taken by the U.S. as reparations following World War II. Commissioned into the Coast Guard as the Eagle in 1946,she continues to function as a training ship, but is also one of the Coast Guard’s most powerful public outreach tools.
Scene: Fort George G. Meade, Maryland. Date: October of 2002. I was attending the Intermediate Photojournalism Course at the Defense Information School (DINFOS) when one of the Coast Guardsmen in my class mentioned the Eagle was going to be drydocked at the Coast Guard Yard outside Baltimore. I contacted the Eagle’s public affairs officer, obtaining permission to come out and do a story. My willingness to climb the rigging was one reason the effort was so easy to accomplish because much of the work was being done was aloft in the rigging.
I then pitched the story to my instructors…strategically leaving out the part about climbing the rigging (more on that later). The story was authorized, so I headed out O-dark early on October 16, 2002. About an hour later (metro area traffic is never fun!), I arrived at the yard at sunup, but the October cloud cover was a solid, unending curtain of gray matching most Navy ships.
The drydock was level ground with the ships being hauled ashore on huge ‘carts’ with keel blocks. The Eagle is 295 feet long, and her hull, from keel to weather deck, is about 32 feet high. The main mast is 150 high. So, from keel to mast-top, the ship is nearly 185 feet high…and she was sitting on mobile keel blocks lifting her about eight feet off the dry dock floor (keep this in mind for later).
The chief standing watch had been briefed on my impending arrival, and he set me up with three young Coasties, one of whom would be slushing the lines—spreading a tarry slush over the lines to protect them from the weather. The young Coastie heading up to do the slushing that slightly misty morning was Seaman Apprentice Amy Klein. Following breakfast (I ate with them twice that day), Klein stepped into a Tyvek suit. Coast Guard BM3 Jeremy Snyder, Seaman Josh Whiting, and Seaman Bradley Hannover began taping her into it. The tape was necessary to ensure the seams remained closed because the sticky slush is nearly impossible to wash off the skin.
While taping Klein up, they explained why the Eagle is classified as a ‘barque.’ A barque is a three-masted ship with the sails on the forward two masts square-rigged, meaning they’re big squares sitting across the ship’s beam. The sails on the aft, or ‘mizzen,’ mast are fore-and-aft rigged, meaning they’re arranged in line with the ship’s centerline. Klein and her shipmates told me that barques were popular ‘back in the day’ because they could sail nearly as fast and carry nearly as much weight as a fully square-rigged ship, but needed a smaller crew.
Klein picked up the bucket of slush, clipping it to her belt before scrambling up the foremast’s rigging. Once in place, she clipped her safety harness to a line and went to work. I was helped into a safety harness by Seaman Josh Whiting. He gave me an extensive safety briefing while donning his own harness before we hooked onto a safety line at the main mast. With my camera swinging around my neck, I followed Whiting up the ratlines to the first top (the first platform halfway up the mast).
This is where things got tricky. Take a good look at a tall ship. You’ll notice the shrouds (vertical lines) affix to the mast under the tops, and then a small, nearly inverted section of rigging provides a means to climb (slightly upside down) onto the top itself.
Remember the ship’s height? Well, because Eagle was drydocked, the ground was over 25 feet farther down below me than the water would have been if she’d been floating. I realized this the moment I started going partially inverted to scramble onto the top…and suddenly discovered I was afraid of heights! I’d never climbed anything like the shrouds of a tall ship before, so this was an extremely inconvenient discovery to make right in the middle of doing it.
Whiting’s encouragement and my own determination enabled me to summit the top and start photographing Klein as she worked. That woman was fearless. She wasn’t being cavalier by any means, but she was scrambling over those lines like, well, a true seaman! She clambered around for a couple of hours slushing the foremast’s lines. Once her work was completed, it took another half an hour for them to cut her out of the Tyvek suit and clean up their tools before we went to the mess deck to eat while I finished interviewing her.
October 16th in 2002 was a Wednesday. The plan I’d worked out with the ship and my instructors was to shoot Wednesday, do my preliminary story layout on Thursday (and get the instructors’ critiques), then go back to the ship Friday for any needed reshoots. My instructors told me they were happy with my story and layout draft before proceeding to destroy me with unbridled editorial enthusiasm. I was still taking down their notes when one of them realized the angle from which the photos had been shot.
“Did you climb the masts to get these?” He asked, pale as death.
“Yep,” I said. Remember me strategically not telling my instructors I’d be climbing the masts? This was why. I knew some weak-kneed milquetoast in the department’s admin would clutch their pearls because of the risk. I deliberately avoided the argument and got the story by doing the ‘ask forgiveness, not permission’ thing (not that I ever pulled that stunt in my career again…).
I jetted off before dawn on Friday the 18th to do the reshoots. Sadly, as soon as I reported to the ship, I learned Klein had been in a near-fatal car wreck late the previous night. She was alive, but in critical condition. I recovered my wits fast enough to suggest the PAO call DINFOS and make a formal request for the school to publicly release everything so I could get some copies back to the ship. Morale would certainly be helped by it in light of Klein’s condition.
The Eagle’s PAO submitted the formal request before I even got back to DINFOS, and my work was released once I turned in the final layout for grading. I did get formally ‘advised’ that DINFOS doesn’t think climbing masts ‘just’ to get a story is a good idea, but the story was good. My instructors then laughed, congratulating me on how strategically I’d played the whole thing! I personally delivered copies of the layout and photos to the ship the next week, and then the Eagle faded into my rear-view mirror, a nearly forgotten episode in my wildly colorful career.
Twenty years later I’m settled here in Pensacola when I see on the news the Eagle will be making a port call as part of her summer training cruise. I contacted the ship’s current PAO to offer them a copy of my first three novels for the ship’s library, and to shoot them the photos and story I did twenty years ago. The ship’s public affairs chief, Chief Rob Simpson, was more than happy for the donation to the library. He was doubly amused by my odd connection to his ship.
I headed downtown to the waterfront on Friday, June 3. The Eagle was sitting pretty and pristine in the azure blue waters by the pier, her white hull gleaming in the sunlight. As I neared her, one singularly silly thought sailed through my head: Damn, that ship is small!
I had to laugh at myself. The only time I’d seen the Eagle, she was towering over me on keel blocks as I craned my head up to look at her. This time she floated placidly in the water with me looking at her.
Chief Simpson escorted me aboard. We spent about half an hour swapping stories before he excused himself to attend to other commitments. I spent another hour talking to the Coasties who permanently crew the ship and the cadets training aboard her. I have to admit it’s a great place to be in life when you’re the ‘grizzled old vet’ who has the young ‘uns of tomorrow gathered around them for their sea stories…especially when one of those sea stories involves a Navy sailor climbing Coast Guard rigging!
Although she’s been the Eagle since 1946, there are few places where her original name can still be seen. The easiest place to spot is the aft wheel. The Eagle has rather long Quarterdeck with a ‘main’ set of wheels on the forward end of that deck, and a smaller set aft. That aft wheel still bears a brass plaque proclaiming Horst Wessel. Seeing that plaque really brought back memories. I could suddenly feel the chilly air as Klein and her shipmates got her suited up to go aloft. Recalling that dark, damp day in Maryland while sweating my aft off under the imperious sun in Florida was really something!
I have no idea what became of SA Amy Klein. My knowledge of her begins and ends in October of 2002. I hope she made a full recovery. The enthusiasm, professionalism, and cooperation she, Whiting, and the other Coasties exhibited helped me get a great story and do something very few sailors do in the modern world—climb the ratlines of a tall ship. I’ve only done it once—and in dry dock—but I’ve done it, and I got to do it aboard a unique ship with an amazing history.
The Eagle departed Pensacola Sunday. She is again in the deep waters, training the next generation of Coast Guard officers. I don’t know when I’ll run into her again, but I have no room for complaint. The coincidence of a port call recalled a nearly-forgotten moment of my own past back into the light, reminding me of some incredible people who provided me a unique connection to the experience of sailors of old. Looking back, I also realized this episode marked the first time I ever consciously played a situation strategically to get a story while avoiding ridiculous administrative obstacles, but those photojournalistic triumphs are stories for another day on the waterfront.
Check out my video about this at the link below. Underneath that, you can find my original 2002 story, Coast Guardsman Rises to New Heights, reprinted. It’s a neat story, at once a glance into the evolution of my own skills as a writer and a chance to meet a remarkable young woman serving her country. There is only one change I made to the original story. Back in 2002, an old (and, thankfully, no longer used) DoD style directive required the use of ‘sailor’ for members of the Navy and Coast Guard. Happily, DoD got a clue in the intervening years, and now directs writers to use the proper terms: ‘Coast Guardsman’ or ‘Coast Guardsmen.’ Thus, I’ve updated the text to reflect that change out of respect for the amazing men and women in the United States Coast Guard.
Navy or Coast Guard—in either sea service a creative soul can always find a way to soar on eagle’s wings!
Check out my video on this topic at: https://youtu.be/cCAN0Mmm4HM
You can visit the Eagle’s website at: https://www.uscga.edu/eagle/
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COAST GUARDSMAN RISES TO NEW HEIGHTS
Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Nathanael Miller, U.S. Navy (RELEASED)
BALTIMORE (Oct. 16, 2002) – Sand blasting echoes around the shipyard, and welder’s torches glint among the hulls. Hard hats are a requirement as gigantic cranes rumble back and forth on their tracks under a cloudy, rainy sky. Workers in the Baltimore Coast Guard Shipyard are painting a sleek, 270-foot cutter and refitting a smaller patrol vessel that bristles with modern radars. On board the assorted vessels, the Coast Guard crews are refurbishing spaces. It is a typical dry dock scene, except for one vessel that looks like it has dropped in from the 19th century.
The Coast Guard barque Eagle is an unexpected sight. A closer look will reveal that its hull and masts are metal, but its tangle of rigging is clearly intended for power by wind, not steam. On the Eagle, some workers are re-rigging and overhauling the mizzenmast, the rear-most mast and the feature that classifies the Eagle as a “barque.” Forward on the ship, one young member of the Deck Division eagerly engages in other maintenance aloft; this sailor finds her experience on the Eagle to be the adventure of a lifetime.
Seaman Apprentice Amy Klein was easily recognizable. She was the one who was laughing as she had her gloves taped onto her white “Tyvek” protective overalls. Underneath her red, hockey-style safety helmet her gently arched eyebrows surmount a round, slightly broad nose. She hoisted on a yellow safety belt, taking a moment to ask her supervisor a question as she hooked the bucket of black slush to her belt. She is new, but she does not hesitate to seek advice from her senior shipmates.
This 19-year-old native of Columbia, Md., has only been aboard the Eagle since July, but quickly made herself a valued member of the Eagle’s Deck Division. Petty Officer 3rd Class Jeremy Snyder, one of Klein’s supervisors, could only praise her work ethic. “She has a lot of initiative—really wants to go up there and do a job,” Snyder said as Klein began climbing. While the Eagle is in dry dock, Snyder explained, a priority is “slushing the lines.” This involves climbing aloft with a bucket containing equal parts asphalt varnish, spar varnish, and line tar. This practice seals the lines running up the mast against the weather. It is a messy, dirty job, but Klein was happy to volunteer.
Seaman Bradley Hannover said Klein never had an aversion to work and loved her place in the ship’s mission. The Eagle, built by Nazi Germany in 1936, was taken by the United States as a war prize in 1946. The Coast Guard has used the vessel since the late 1940s as a training platform for cadets at the Coast Guard Academy. The future officers are taught the basic art of seamanship, from line handling to navigation by the stars.
Klein stopped her climb halfway up the forward mast, or “foremast,” and clipped her safety belt
the “ratlines”—the horizontal lines that formed the ladder rungs the sailors climb. All sailors wear a safety belt when going aloft to perform routine maintenance, and are required to clip themselves to the lines whenever they stop. Her belt doubled as a place to hang the bucket of slush. Once in place, about 50 feet above the deck, she stuck her gloved hand into the slush, and began smearing the slush onto the lines. She worked methodically, reaching above her head and working down to a point at about chest level. From there she would descend several ratlines, and start again. As the lines run down from the mast, they spread outward to provide a broad base of support to the mast. Klein had to begin moving back and forth, looking like a “Tyvek” suited, tar-covered typewriter head.
Klein believes she is lucky to have landed an assignment on the Eagle right out of basic training. The Eagle’s permanent crew is very small, consisting of only six officers and 29 enlisted sailors. She said that number swells to more than 200 when the cadet officers are on board, but that core crew of 35 servicemen and women are responsible for maintaining and sailing the ship during the non-training season. Seaman Hannover said Klein was undaunted by the numerous responsibilities she faced upon reporting aboard. Hannover explained that every officer and sailor must learn the name and function of every line, of which the Eagle has over five miles. The 22,000 square feet of sails are worked by hand, and Klein, according to Hannover, was “very open” to learning how to go aloft and work the canvas. “She fit right in,” he said of his junior shipmate.
After a stint aloft that extended over two hours, Klein finally put her feet back on the deck. Waiting for her shipmates to fetch a knife so they could begin cutting her out of her taped-up protective suit, she explained why she joined the Coast Guard.
“I didn’t like school so much, so I thought I’d do something different.” She enlisted in April, and is already leaning toward a career, “perhaps as a Coast Guard diver.” When she was offered a rare slot on the Eagle, she said she jumped at the chance. “You do a lot of seamanship stuff you don’t get to do on other boats,” she said as she held out her arms. Two of her fellow sailors began to cut through the tape that sealed her heavy cotton gloves to her sleeves.
The three sailors laughed during the operation, joking about the knife getting caught in the sticky tar coating Klein’s hands and arms. Underneath the tar-soaked gloves Klein had protected her skin with two pairs of latex surgical gloves on each hand. Peeling them off, she said she could not have hoped for a better crew. The Eagle, she explained, is manned by an all-volunteer force, so there was no one on board who does not want to be there. “People are cool,” she commented as she pulled the white “Tyvek” overalls off and discarded them.
Among the high-tech, sleek cutters around it, the Eagle is indeed an unusual sight. This sea-going naval science laboratory is a place for one young Coast Guardsman to find a job and a life that is indeed unique and different. For her, even something as simple as slushing the lines in dry dock is an exciting day’s work. It’s a life few, even in the sea services, will ever experience. Klein has fun with her job. For her, it certainly is the adventure of a lifetime.
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