Stood watch with Fly at helm/beautiful night/…cadet showed me how to find wind speed, true and relative/found contacts on radar/plotted contacts’ course…
The above notes are from a little pad I took with me at age fifteen during my “Three Days in the Coast Guard” aboard the 295-foot sailing ship Eagle in 1972. “Fly” McDermott was the cadet assigned to be my buddy and make sure I didn’t get into anything too dangerous or become a hindrance . Fly’s nickname was bestowed upon him by shipmates because of the way his big aviator sunglasses looked in proportion to his small frame and slender face. Like the huge eyes on a tiny fly.
I’m not sure how old Fly was – eighteen or nineteen, maybe, but I was a high school student with a consuming interest in anything nautical. When I learned that U.S. Coast Guard Academy cadets spend part of their training on an actual tall ship, I was ready to sign on and ship out. I sent off for the academy catalogue and pored over it as I dreamed of becoming “Captain Kerr of the Coast Guard.”
Three days before the mast
My family had moved from Jackson, Mississippi to Pascagoula on the Gulf Coast in 1970. In Jackson, my step-father, Bob Gordin, owned a marina and I fell in love with sailing on the Ross Barnett Reservoir. When we moved to the Coast and sailed the Mississippi Sound and the Gulf of Mexico itself, I thought I’d “died ‘n’ gone to heaven.”
Through Bob’s membership in the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, we learned that the Eagle would be in Gulf waters and a program for students interested in attending the Academy allowed them to take short trips on the ship when convenient. When my invitation from the commander of the New Orleans Coast Guard district came, my head was in the clouds – or at least as high as one of the Eagle’s masts. I joined the ship in Mobile, bound for New Orleans.
I boarded/got underway at 9:10/under power ‘til end of channel/cadets set sail/beautiful/stayed at helm most of time/
As the sails were set and the engines cut off, the sounds of orders being shouted and lines
being hauled eventually gave way to the moans and creeks of taught sails and steel hull gracefully moving through the Gulf waters.
Went aloft with Ron Nilsen/got cramp in arm halfway up/beautiful
Eventually, with Fly’s o.k., a cadet asked me if I wanted to go aloft. “Always keep three points on the rigging,” he said, “two hands and a foot or two feet and a hand.” As we climbed high above the deck, I did just fine, even looking down. Until the ratlines started going back at an angle just below the platform at the first yardarm. Climbing up while
leaning backward was a skill the cadets had mastered, but it was a surprise to me. I felt a small cramp in my arm and wrote it off to nerves. On and up I went, seeing 20,000 square feet of billowing sail at eye level. It was like being in a puffy white cloud bank that was somehow pushing 295 feet of floating steel through water.
7:00/woke up/go topside/lowered boats/tacked/hauled/worked in Bosun’s Hole/
I hauled lines, helped tack and spent night watches at the helm and in the radar room, watching the occasional green blip that signaled another vessel. I ate in the ship’s mess with the cadets, slept in the hammocks like they did and listened to them talk about learning seamanship the old fashioned way. I could get used to a life at sea, I was certain of it.
When I asked about life back on the New London, Connecticut academy campus, I had a rude awakening.
“You have to be good at arithmetic,” a sailor said. “And physics, engineering and science.” I kept waiting for him to mention something I was good at. No such luck. Next came accounts of strenuous physical training and almost drowning while learning how to prevent someone from drowning. In freezing water. It began to occur to me that I might not really be cut out for a cadet’s life after the sailing ship part.
But notes from my little ship’s log reflect that I was figuring out what I should do with my life. From the first day’s entry: “played a friend’s guitar.” From the third day’s entry: “played Mason’s guitar.”
The Eagle has landed
Because the trip was to end in New Orleans, my mom, step-father and grandfather decided to meet me there and spend a few days enjoying the French Quarter. I was to meet them at the Hotel Monteleone.
As the Eagle approached New Orleans, several cadets asked me about what they could do when they got there. By age fifteen, I had been to New Orleans enough to know about some good restaurants. The Eagle docked early so I decided to show the cadets around. We stopped by the Monteleone and my family hadn’t arrived yet so I left word for them that I would be at the Court of Two Sisters with my Coast Guard buddies.
When mom, Bob and Granddaddy walked into the courtyard of that fine old New Orleans restaurant, there I was drinking a Mint Julep with three cadets. They were amused by that scene and enjoyed meeting my pals in uniform. And for me, that Mint Julep at the Court of Two Sisters was the perfect way to end my Coast Guard career.
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Text and photos copyright 2012 by Les Kerr