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Square-riggers match race off San Diego

Jan 1, 2003

"Ready about!" shouts Melissa Curran, a 20-year-old cadet second class (junior) of the U. S. Coast Guard Academy, signaling to her shipmates that the 1,800-ton barque Eagle is about to begin a tack. "Helm's alee!" she calls as the rudder is put over to bring the ship's head through the wind. A flurry of activity breaks out on deck as the 140 trainees and 70 professional sailors set to the complex task of putting a square-rigger about.

Just a few hundred yards to windward, Capt. Rich Goben, the seasoned master of the barque Star of India, issues a similar sequence of commands. Star's more than 50 volunteers mirror the Eagle crew's actions as they work the hundreds of lines in the precise sequence necessary to tack a tall ship. More or less in unison the two ships come gracefully up into the gentle breeze, yards are braced around, and the ships fall off somewhat ponderously on to the new tack. Lines are made up, sails are trimmed and before long the two majestic vessels are once again sailing "full and by," on the wind and in close formation (for some it might seem a little too close).

From a distance it could have easily been a scene from the 19th century, except for the helicopters orbiting overhead. Instead it was August 1999 just offshore from San Diego harbor. The magnificently restored 1863 barque Star of India was engaged in a tacking duel with the Coast Guard's Eagle. The rare opportunity for these two historic vessels to sail in company occurred because Eagle was making her once-per-decade West Coast training cruise. By the good graces of William Dysart and Ray Ashley, president and executive director of the San Diego Maritime Museum, an extra day of sailing had been added to Star's annual schedule specifically for the two square-riggers to sail together and do a partial crew exchange.

When they proposed the idea to me, Eagle's new skipper, I jumped at the chance. It would be very interesting to see how the sailing characteristics of the two ships compared. It would also be a great chance to highlight our nation's rich maritime heritage by drawing attention to our only active tall ship in national service (Eagle) and the world's oldest active tall ship (Star). But most exciting to me would be the chance to challenge my young cadets to demonstrate their newfound sailing skills under the experienced gaze of the Star of India sailors, a group I held in very high regard.

Several weeks earlier I'd had the pleasure of sailing in Star for a day as Capt. Goben's guest. I was amazed at how proficiently his crew of volunteers handled the ship. Given only a handful of days underway each year, I was expecting to see at least some missteps and confusion. Much to the contrary, the extensive pierside training Star's sailors had gone through was very evident as they expertly went through their paces in handling the ship and its sails. No wasted motion, no lost time, just every hand doing his or her part as if they had been doing it all their lives. Many of the Star volunteers had, in fact, been working, training and sailing her for many years. Although they didn't get much time at sea, they were by no means inexperienced!

At day's end, I complimented them by saying I'd be very proud of a similar performance by my own crew and that they were the most professional crew I'd seen. "But we're not professionals, we're all volunteers!" they corrected. "Well then," I recovered, "you are the most professional amateur crew in the world." An oxymoron, but one that fit!

My challenge was clear. The majority of my cadets, the incoming class of freshmen at the academy, would have been on board Eagle for less than a week when we met Star. We'd have to give my new trainees a crash course in square-rigger sailing in just a couple of days. When comparing notes with some of the Star volunteers, they suggested that Eagle should certainly outsail them. "You've got 200 people and most of them are young and energetic." I said yes, exactly. That's my problem. Two hundred people and most of them are young and energetic! But as I've come to expect from the superb young men and women we're getting in the Coast Guard these days, I knew they would rise to the challenge.For those unfamiliar with the ships, they are roughly the same size overall, and both Eagle and Star of India are barque rigged. Being barques, they are square-rigged on the fore and main masts, and fore 'n aft rigged on the mizzen. Star of India was launched as the full-rigged "Cape Horner" Euterpe at the Isle of Man just five days before Abraham Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address in 1863. She was derigged to a barque just after the turn of the century, as the profitability of sailing cargo ships declined. Eagle was constructed as a barque in 1936 and originally christened into the German Navy as the sail-training vessel Horst Wessel.

Star survived 21 trips around Cape Horn and numerous other tribulations prior to finding her current home in San Diego. Horst Wessel survived Allied air attacks and postwar neglect before being claimed as a war prize and commissioned as the U. S. Coast Guard's flagship and primary afloat training platform Eagle in 1946.

The ships are of remarkably similar rig despite their vastly different backgrounds. Both can be said to represent the pinnacle of evolution of square-rigged sailing ships and are representative of the last generation of great windjammers to earn their keep under sail. The two dozen or so members of each ship's company who traded places for the day found all the braces, clews, and buntlines in familiar places and had no problem pitching in to help sail the others' ship.

Similar in rig but different in operation, Eagle is a fully functional modern vessel while Star is a working museum piece, true in almost every detail to its heritage of working sail. While Eagle sails on a full schedule of training cruises every year, with a mix of professional crew and trainees, Star is almost completely a volunteer operation and, in recognition of its status as a priceless national treasure, only sails a few days a year.

You may be wondering who won the tacking duel? We both won, of course! Sailing alongside each other was a thrill of a lifetime for all involved, and there were no losers in the bunch. My neophyte shipmates had "learned the ropes" in remarkably quick order and distinguished themselves as very capable deckhands. We all learned a lot from the experience, including a lasting respect for the other's program and crew. All the way home to Connecticut I kept hearing "Well, on Star of India, they do it this way "

That said, I did note that Star of India was noticeably quicker coming through the wind, while Eagle had a slight speed edge close-hauled with the wind above 10 knots or so. In really light airs, Star pulled away slightly. There are a number of factors that contribute to the performance differences, not the least of which is the Star crew's experience and superb state of training. Eagle, being an auxiliary sail vessel, also trails a propeller, while Star does not, adding drag as well as possibly reducing rudder efficiency (tacking ability) due to the cutout in the cross-section of the hull form for the prop. Star's yards are also significantly easier than Eagle's to brace around from one tack to the other. I suspect that this is intentional. Star was designed to work for a living, making reduced crew demands an important design criterion. Eagle was designed for training. I have always suspected that Eagle's German designers built in a healthy amount of friction, the better to challenge the young cadets. And challenge them it still does!

All in all, it was a spectacular occasion. In addition to being loads of fun, we all came away with a greater awareness of the strong maritime heritage of our great nation. Ships like these and, more importantly, the sailors who sailed them, built this land and made it free. It is an honor to be a part of keeping the art and not just the artifacts of the age of sail alive!