Drumm (In the Slick of the Cricket, 1997) knows just what a treat it is to sail on the square-rigged barque Eagle, the Coast Guard’s great training cutter, and he conveys that thrill here, lacing the experience with episodes from the ship’s unforgettable past.
It takes the 300-foot Eagle about two weeks to make the voyage from New London, Connecticut, to Panama on a training run to Oregon, and East Hampton Star journalist Drumm is allowed to join the crew. Trim at 39 feet abeam, the Eagle is capable of putting up more than 21,000 square feet of sail to catch the wind that, as Drumm reflects, “boiled down to the earth’s turning, the spinning of todays into tomorrows. Wind is time passing.” And time weighs heavily on the Eagle, for it was commissioned the Horst Wessel—the name of a Nazi Party martyr—as a training vessel for officers of the Third Reich. The ship was discovered in Bremerhaven in 1946 with a half-dead crew who taught the Coast Guard its ways as they redubbed it Eagle and put it into service training American sailors. Drumm is able to generate some of the flavor of that time through the ship’s log. Any “memory of well-oiled evil” that lurks among the spars has been eclipsed by the Eagle’s role as public-relations tool and by the spirit of the men and women now sailing her. Though the age of skylarking through the upper yards and crosstrees is gone, there is an electric joyousness about the ship “surrounded by canvas and sculpted air,” a thrum of barely contained energy. The strange story of boatswain Karl Dillmann, whose belief in being possessed both of a dead German sailor’s soul and a spiritual affinity to the Eagle, is hard to dismiss.
Tall ships cast spells, and Drumm catches the witchery of the Eagle’s overpowering presence. (b&w photographs throughout)