Here at the Coast Guard Academy, it’s advertised that your summers are going to be much more than the average three-month poolside summer. After my first summer and “real Coast Guard” experience, I’m happy to report that that is not false advertising.
A bit of background: for third class cadets, half of our 11-week summer experience will be spent aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Eagle, the only tall ship still actively serving in the United States military. The other half is spent at an active duty Coast Guard unit, either a small boat station or a cutter carrying out the missions of the USCG. So as school came to a close, my classmates and I received our summer assignments to units across the globe and subsequently reported in following the conclusion of exams, with half going to the Eagle and the other half (myself included) headed to our summer posts. And without further explanation, here is a rundown of my exciting 3/c summer.
First Half: Five Weeks, USCG Station Chatham
While half of my classmates sailed on the USCGC Eagle from New London to Dublin and on to London, I spent the first part of my summer at Coast Guard Station Chatham in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. If you’ve seen or heard of the new Disney movie The Finest Hours (if you haven’t, I highly recommend it), then you’ve heard of Station Chatham.
My first impressions of Chatham were overwhelmingly positive and not only reflective of the station’s focus and dedication to the Coast Guard’s missions but also to the preparedness and readiness of the Coast Guard as a whole. The long history of Station Chatham, dating back to the original lighthouse keepers of the early nineteenth century, is not lost on those currently stationed there, and they do their best daily to continue the storied legacy.
And during my five weeks at the station, I learned a lot about how small boat stations operate. I watched and worked alongside the permanent crew as we handled search and rescue cases; controlled the radios in the communications room while talking with boats in distress; and communicated with the overseeing Sector Southeast New England about effective strategies to ensure boater safety. I also had the incredibly unique opportunity to ride on the three special self-righting surf motor life boats that the station uses in its operations. I participated in search pattern patrols, watched as crew teams boarded recreational vessels, drove the boat at high speeds, and even participated in drops and hoists with helicopters from Joint Air Base Cape Cod.
One of the most valuable tasks I did at the station was the everyday dirty work with the crew. Working alongside the crew daily to clean boats, scrape glue, paint, sand, cut grass, weed, and do other seemingly menial tasks not only allowed me to bond with them and foster a culture of respect and appreciation but also gave me valuable insight into how hard the Coast Guard truly does work on a daily basis.
Second Half: Six Weeks, USCGC Eagle
I learned a lot during my first five weeks at Station Chatham. But even with that experience under my belt, I was still very nervous flying to London to meet Eagle. After group of my classmates on first phase took her from New London to London, the other half of the great Class of 2019 boarded in London to bring her back stateside.
Being a part of a transatlantic crossing on a three-masted sailing ship was an experience I will never forget. From London, we set sail for Funchal, Madeira, a Portuguese territory off the coast of Africa. It took us nine days to reach the island from London, and that first leg of the journey was a blur. Memorizing all of the 200+ pinrails and lines on Eagle and beginning the process of helm and lookout qualification made every day a busy one. By the time we pulled into Madeira, it seemed like no time had passed at all.
The island was beautiful. It’s hard to describe the sight of a mountainous island spiraling up out of the sea as it appears over the horizon, and as we got closer on our approach to port, we could see just how beautiful it truly was. The entire island was culture overload, with everything from food to soccer to fireworks. The three and a half days we had in port seemed to go by way too fast, and as quickly as we had arrived, we set sail for Hamilton, Bermuda.
The longest leg of our journey was the middle one, from Madeira to Bermuda. Spending 18 days at sea without any sight of land is a life-changing experience. If I tried to write down all the memories from the voyage, I would run out of room on my computer. We saw all kinds of aquatic wildlife; got to swing off the ship into the crystal clear water on a rope swing; go on auxiliary space and engine room rounds; stand helm and lookout watches as qualified watchstanders; and participate in sail and line handling evolutions that changed the direction of the sails (and the ship) if the wind direction and speed necessitated it.
Eighteen days at sea seemed like both the longest and shortest 18 days of my life. But when we pulled into port and the water changed to the clear turquoise color that Bermuda is famous for, I realized I had never been more relieved to be on land than at that moment that we disembarked. We had four days to rest and relax on the Bermudan beaches, and after a cliff-jumping, pastry-eating, fun-filled vacation, we boarded Eagle to bring her back stateside.
It was a quick five day journey and we pulled into Coast Guard Base Portsmouth for the night before docking her in Norfolk, Virginia the following day. I had long dreamed of the day I stepped off of Eagle, but when the time came, I felt a little sad that I was bidding her goodbye. It’s strange, but I (and I believe a lot of my classmates) had forged a bond with the 70-year old sailing ship that brought us safely across the mighty Atlantic.
And after a few weeks of restful vacation at home, I’m back here at the Academy for 3/c year. I’m excited to see what the upcoming semester and year have in store. As always, if you have any questions, feel free to contact me at Colin.D.Fenster@uscga.edu.
Semper P and Go Bears,
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