Fifty or so “VIPs” gathered at Coast Guard Base Boston on Friday, July 29, trickling into the parking area outside the North End of Boston facility from 5:30 a.m. onward, or, as the Coast Guard calls it, 0530. A simple tent and a single clipboard was all that was needed for check-in.
They came from around the Boston area, from non-profit organizations like the Harbor Keepers, from UMass-Boston, from the Federal Aviation Administration and the Coast Guard Foundation. Some were veterans of the service, others retired Navy sailors. They had all been invited by the Coast Guard for a special event – the arrival of the training ship Eagle, America’s Tall Ship.
But they wouldn’t just be waving at the grand old barque as it entered the inner harbor.
Around 7 a.m., they boarded Coast Guard vessels, two 45-foot RBMs (Response Boat-Medium) and the 87-foot Marine Protector Class cutter Sturgeon, for a short trip to the outer harbor. Traveling at 10 knots through the channel, it took some time to reach the waters beyond Logan Airport, off Deer Island. Along the way, the anachronistic nature of Boston Harbor was on full display. The old Customs House, once the tallest building on the city skyline by law, stood out as an icon, as it has for more than a century. It symbolizes the old sailing days of the harbor, when all shipmasters had to report to revenue agents therein, to pay whatever duty or other levy was in vogue at the time. Today it’s a Marriott hotel, swarmed under by the skyscrapers that stretch above its highest point.
Out by Logan, things with wings stole the spotlight, from a Great Blue Heron flying from the airport to Castle Island to jets taking off so closely that the VIPs felt they could reach out and touch them. A seaplane came in for a long, slow landing alongside the airport. One almost felt like Lucky Lindy himself could have stepped out of the cockpit.
Then, in the grays and browns of the early morning haze, it appeared in the distance. The 295-foot square-rigged barque Eagle, the ultimate anachronism on this day – a former German training ship acquired by the Coast Guard as part of World War II reparations – sat peacefully upon the water. There were the Deer Island “eggs;” there was Nix’s Mate. In the distance were Boston Light and Hull, past which the vessel had slipped the night before. Nearer by was Long Island and its relatively hidden lighthouse.
It was there, surrounded by Boston Harbor history, that those 50 or so souls boarded Eagle for a short ride they would never forget.
They joined 97 members of the Coast Guard Academy’s class of 2026 taking the annual cadet cruise, the Swab Summer, a tradition more than 60 years old. The crew, dressed in their work blues, followed the traditions of the sea, understanding and responding to bosun’s whistle commands and loudspeaker announcements alike. At 0827 the call went out, “Now, sail stations, sail stations, all hands to sail stations.” The VIPs stepped aside as the crew moved into positions. Ceremonially, the cadets raised one of the 23 sails, low on the mizzenmast. At 0841, with the sound of a single whistle blow, the cadets unfurled an oversized flag off the stern and the ship turned toward the inner harbor, under “auxiliary power.”
Within moments, at 0849, light sea spray pushed over the port and starboard rails, the gentle breeze generated by the barque’s movement temporarily counteracting, even hiding the fact that it was already in the 80s, on yet another day in the summer of 2022 creeping toward 90 degrees in eastern Massachusetts. The VIPs moved around the decks, chatting with each other – “What’s your connection to the Coast Guard?” – and the members of the crew themselves as cadets responded to rudder commands, turning the ship’s wheels to meet the captain’s chosen headings. The 45-foot RBMs acted as escorts, joined by the Boston Harbormaster and eventually a fireboat that took the lead, spraying water outward in several continual and artistic arcs. Without acknowledgment, the entourage slipped past the Nantucket Lightship, another icon of a bygone era in America’s maritime history, tied to a dock on the northern side of the harbor, its halcyon days long gone.
At 0916, the tugs Freedom and Liberty approached and pulled close to the hull. The VIPs, glancing to port, realized the trip was nearly over when they saw Base Boston, from which they’d departed two hours earlier. But Eagle had a destination just a bit deeper in the harbor. At 0951 the first line went ashore at the Charlestown Navy Yard, where Navy sailors helped tie USCGC Eagle up astern of USS Constitution. At 1019, the VIPs headed ashore.
For most, it was a first-time, possibly a once-in-a-lifetime, experience. For others, it was a return to youth, replete with memories of their own Swab Summers.
For all, it was over way too quickly.