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A Few Leadership Lessons from the Coast Guard’s Eagle

This Saturday I will have the privilege again to tour the Coast Guard’s Eagle here in Portsmouth. This is always special because my late father was among the first Coast Guard cadets to train on it during the summer of 1946 (see picture below).

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This Saturday I will have the privilege again to tour the Coast Guard’s Eagle here in Portsmouth.

This is always special because my late father was among the first Coast Guard cadets to train on it during the summer of 1946 (see picture below). Since I know that many of you are unfamiliar with the Eagle, its history, and how it is used as a team building and leadership training platform, here is a quick summary.

What is the Eagle and where did it come from? The Eagle is often considered America’s Tall Ship. It is 295 feet long and is the only active square-rigger in U.S. government service. Constructed in 1936 by the Germans and commissioned as the Horst Wessel by the German Navy, it was used by them as a sail and navigation training vessel. Later damaged during the war it was nearly abandoned in the harbor of Bremerhaven, Germany. But the U.S. Coast Guard, which had developed sailors’ sail and navigation skills on training vessels for 150 years, claimed the Horst Wessel as part of our country’s WWII reparations.

When and how we started using the Eagle

The story of how the Eagle was saved and actually brought to America is a cool story. If this interests you I recommend the book The Skipper and The Eagle by Captain Gordon McGowan, the Eagle’s first Coast Guard commander. Captain McGowan writes about how he learned the basics of sailing early in his career and how several German Horst Wessel veterans accompanied the U.S.C.G. sailors on the first trip across the Atlantic. He wrote about encountering a hurricane-like storm, which taught him and his crew valuable lessons that would serve future crews for years to come. The sails were torn to shreds and the Eagle had to anchor off New York until new sails and repairs could be made.

In the summer of 1946, the Eagle arrived at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, which has been her home port ever since. As soon as it arrived, Coast Guard Academy cadets, my father included, went aboard and began their training under Captain McGowan. In this photo from 1946 my Dad, who had just entered the Academy, is pictured pulling alongside his fellow crew mates – he is the third man pulling from the left. He would later graduate from the Academy in 1950 and have a distinguished career retiring as a Rear Admiral and First Coast Guard District Commander (Boston) in 1981.

Team and Leadership Lessons

All cadets during their three or four summers at the Academy train on the Eagle. It sails on trips up and down the eastern seaboard, into the Caribbean, and often overseas to Europe. The training not only exposes the cadets to the sea, but more importantly, it plays a key role in fostering the leadership and teamwork skills they will need as future officers in the Coast Guard. They receive instruction in navigation, deck seamanship, line handling, damage control, medical techniques, and other basic elements of life aboard Coast Guard cutters.

Among the leadership qualities cadets develop is courage, which is a critical leadership trait embraced by everyone in the Coast Guard. In this picture you can see cadets positioned high up getting ready to unfurl the sails. My Dad often commented about how thrilling it was to be working on the top most sail, called a “fore royal” when the sea is rough. I don’t remember the geometric equation, but visually you can that if the ship tilts just a foot at sea level, it tilts much more 120 feet up in the air. If you aren’t very confident when you head up, you are when you get down. This exercise and others helps build a leader’s courage and confidence.

Most of the activities aboard the Eagle require teamwork, so cadets also learn about how to lead teams and be good teammates.

If you ever have a chance to visit the Eagle, I hope you will. And, when you do, ask the cadets about some of what they are learning about teamwork and leadership – lessons that will stick with them, and you, for a lifetime.

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