The exterior of a large ship with multiple white sails on deep blue sea under blue sky

U.S. Coast Guard sailing ship, USCGC Eagle (WIX-327), under full sail in the Caribbean. Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard.

The old saying about everything being bigger in Texas doesn’t hold up when it comes to the tall ships Elissa and Eagle. Majestic as it is, the Elissa, designated the Texas state tall ship in 2005, is definitely not bigger than the Eagle, a three-masted, steel-hulled barque that serves both as the U.S. Coast Guard’s flagship and “semester-at-sea” training school.

At 295-feet long, just shy of the length of a football playing field, the Eagle more than doubles the length of the Elissa and is the largest tall ship sailing in the Coast Guard. Seeing it cruise into Galveston at the head of a flotilla of smaller Coast Guard vessels on Friday promises to be downright hallucinatory.

This is only Eagle’s second trip to Galveston and its first in 50 years. Surprised as I was to even know it existed, here are 10 more facts about this ship that will moor at Pier 21 in Galveston and be open for tours June 10-13.

  1. Eagle was raised in a bad home. That would be in Hamburg, Germany, where it was built in 1936, early in the reign of Adolph Hitler, who attended the ship’s launch and once briefly rode aboard it on a pleasure tour.
  2. The ship bore the name of Horst Wessel, a Nazi street thug killed in 1930 by German communists. Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels pounced on the killing and made a martyr of Wessel, going so far as to adopt a folk song with new pro-Nazi lyrics composed by Wessel, a part-time musician, as the Nazi Party’s official anthem, known simply as “The Horst Wessel Song.”
  3. At war’s end, the ship was seized as spoils of war and the mixed crew of American “coasties” and the ship’s original German crew sailed Eagle from Germany to its new home port of New London, Connecticut, site of the Coast Guard Academy.
  4. Today, every single cadet must spend at least six weeks aboard Eagle in order to graduate from the Coast Guard Academy.
  5. Why does the Coast Guard stress this antiquated form of sailing? Wouldn’t this time be better spent on more computer training or something like that? Emphatically no, the Coast Guard replies on its website: “In this modern age of computers and global positioning satellites, it may look old-fashioned, but lessons learned sailing aboard a large square-rigger are invaluable. On the decks and in the rigging of Eagle, young cadets are tested and challenged, often to the limits of endurance. Everyone depends on the others to know their job and do it. The old saying, ‘We’re all in the same boat,’ comes from a ship like this. Because Eagle is so labor-intensive, it’s a demanding trainer. It’s an intense, humbling experience that instills teamwork, builds confidence and conquers fear—all traits as welcome on board ship as in a corporate boardroom.”
  6. Domestically, it serves as a recruiting tool; abroad, as an agent of American goodwill. Eagle has occasionally raced against foreign ships of similar size in hotly competitive contests.
  7. Did we mention it was labor-intensive? How does this sound: 6 miles of rigging and more than 22,000 square feet of sails.
  8. They get occasional “stowaways.” “This beautiful cattle egret joined us for a few days, wandering the decks,” was posted on the ship’s Facebook page. “Unfortunately for them, our galley wasn’t serving up their preferred faire [sic], and after a day or two, made off for the next adventure.” And yes, a bald eagle has dropped in to visit Eagle.
  9. Eagle’s permanent crew consists of eight officers and 50 enlisted coasties (a preferred term used for members of the Coast Guard). It is capable of training as many as 150 cadets at a time.
  10. Eagle does have an engine, used only in emergencies. The 1,200-horsepower Diesel engine is capable of prodding Eagle forward at a mere 10 knots, while at full sail with favorable winds, Eagle is capable of gliding along at 19 knots. (That’s 22 mph versus 12 mph for you landlubbers.)

Free public tours of the Eagle will be offered Friday (noon to 4 p.m.), Saturday (11 a.m. to 7 p.m.), and Sunday (11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.), June 10-12. Tours for military members and first responders (with valid ID) take place Saturday and Sunday from 10 to 11 a.m.


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