Sail stations sound on Eagle and suddenly 150 people are hustling across her deck.
First-Class Cadet Paul Ferguson, U.S. Coast Guard Academy, is on the bridge. He is lanky, and when he shouts commands, his Adam's apple bobs. His eyes are darting, but no one can see them behind the dark glasses on this sunny day. Behind him is the mizzenmast. In front of him, down a 10-foot ladder (there are no stairs on a ship) is the waist, Eagle's main open deck, from which the mainmast rises. Farther forward, up another ladder to the forecastle, is the foremast.
Mr. Ferguson has "the conn." He is the controlling officer. He wears the binoculars on this shift. Having the conn is an honor, having the conn is heady; having the conn is fun, yet it isn't fun. There is exhilaration, and also a sweat tide of responsibility.
Mr. Ferguson, age 21, is in command of the ship--almost. An officer has the deck, and the deck governs the conn. Mr. Ferguson's job is to call out the orders he gets from the officer of the deck, who gets them, in quieter tones, from the captain, or from the executive officer, who also gets his orders from the captain.
The captain is governed by rules, procedures, the book. That is how the military is run and that is how Eagle is sailed on this Mid-Atlantic training cruise, the only way. Even though Eagle looks like a pirate ship, it is a military vessel. Every member of her crew has signed away some portion of his or her life in exchange for the benefits of a steady job or a free education. They have agreed to do what other people tell them, and if they don't want to, or they think they know a better way, or even if they just don't like the guy, they still answer, "Yes, sir."
Eagle's book is "Eagle Seamanship." Everyone on board carries it. If it is lost, a new copy can be bought for $8.95 in the ship's exchange. The copies are kept on the rack with the Eagle mugs and the Eagle full-color photos.
The book allows Mr. Ferguson to give a few orders of his own. He can ask the helmsman, a younger, third-class cadet, to mark the ship's bearing by the gyrocompass. He can tell the helmsman to come left 15 degrees. He can order the phone talker, another third-classman, who wears a headset and communicates with other phone talkers around the ship, to ask the ship's information center about the range of, say, an oil tanker on the horizon.
Then the helmsman or the phone talker will call out the bearing or the range, and keep calling until Mr. Ferguson yells, "Very well" or "Aye." Among first-class cadets, yelling "Very well" or "Aye" is a practiced art. They swell their chests and throw it from the diaphragm, then clip it off at the lips.
Right now the wind is blowing 12 knots, swelling the ocean 300 miles off Cape Hatteras to eight feet, and Mr. Ferguson is not asking the helmsman or the phone talker any of these things. Right now 150 people are at sail stations, manned and ready on lines all over the ship, waiting for him to shout his commands.
Mr. Ferguson surveys the masts: fore, main and mizzen. He checks for other ships in the area and sees none. He swallows and his Adam's apple bobs, and then he grips his binoculars with his left hand and cups his right to his mouth: "On the main and on the fore, hold instructions and set and douse one of the main staysails and douse and furl the main t'gallant sail!"
On the main and on the fore, two other first-class cadets look puzzled. They are mast captains, and each, advised by enlisted men and officers, commands a force of third-class cadets. After a few seconds, one of the mast captains yells back: "Repeat, Mr. Ferguson."
Now the executive officer, Lt. Cmdr. William Hain, supersedes the deck. He steps forward: "What did you say, Mr. Ferguson?"
"I said, 'On the main and on the fore, hold instructions and set and douse one of the main staysails and douse and furl the main t'gallant sail,' sir."
"Say it again, Mr. Ferguson."
He says it again, louder.
"No, no, no, Mr. Ferguson. No! You're saying, 'Set and douse one of the main staysails.' Right now, all of the main staysails are set, so you have to douse them before you can set them again, don't you think, Mr. Ferguson? All we're going to do is take one down and put the same one back up again. We're going to douse and set, Mr. Ferguson, Douse and Set. Now, try again, Mr. Ferguson."
He does, and mast captains begin shouting and lines clutter the deck and cadets scurry around the ship in groups of three, four, eight, and they heave, hand over hand at first, then with their backs: "Heave, two, three, Heave, two, three," and though the rope digs into their palms and makes them raw, each cadet can feel the power generated by the group, feel as if it is his or hers alone.
And with this the main topgallant staysail runs down and up again. The second highest of four staysails that run between the mainmast and the foremast, it is attached with rings called hanks to a braided steel line called a stay. It looks like a giant shower curtain, and screeches the same way when it moves.
The main topgallant sail is doused with a great squealing of wood and metal pulleys. The second highest of five square sails on the mainmast, it hangs limp from the yardarm. Six cadets climb up rope and steel shrouds to furl it. They fan out across the yard, standing on two-inch-thick manropes that sway as the cadets shift their weight.
They clip themselves with safety belts, and lean their stomachs over the tube-shaped yards. They pause a moment and look below. The people on deck look Lilliputian. Then, working in unison like soldiers folding a flag, they haul in an arm's length of dacron sail at a time, folding and tucking as they go, until the sail lies flat. When certain there are no deadmen -- no parts of the sail drooping -- they lash the sail to the yard with gaskets, ties made of cloth and rope.
Within an hour they are back on deck and the mast captains are yelling, "That's well." It is done. In celebration, the foremast gang gives a cheer: "We're the fore, It's our mast: main and mizzen, up your -- " They stop here: taste and regulations.
Back on the bridge, Quartermaster Jessica Robinson, third-class cadet and keeper of the ship's log on this watch, approaches Mr. Ferguson.
"Sir, which sail did we just put up?"
Mr. Ferguson says nothing. He stares at her for 30 seconds.
"What sail did we what, Miss Robinson?"
"What sail did we just put up?"
"Say it again, Miss Robinson."
"What sail did we just put up, sir?"
"Miss Robinson, on Eagle we don't put up sails. We set sails."
"Yes sir," Miss Robinson says, and retreats, her question unanswered.
"You could say," Mr. Ferguson says as an aside, "the s--- flows downhill here."
That it does. "You do lose a certain amount of freedom," says First-Class Cadet Sharon Kiel. "But the Coast Guard is good because it puts you in your own little isolated bubble. You're responsible for yourself and your own actions, and sometimes for the actions of others, but they tell you when to get up, what to wear, when to eat, when to go to classes. They tell you almost everything. It's comfortable, I suppose."
First-Class Cadet Barney Moreland, a star on the sailing and windsailing teams at the academy, knows the book by heart. He likes to demonstrate his knowlege, ask tricky technical questions that the officers cannot answer, but he also knows how to take orders.
"You'd be suprised how little problem you have learning to take orders . . . . That's part of the attitude adjustment or whatever you want to call it, part of the way you become adjusted to the military," he explains. "You realize that a guy doesn't have to be smarter, better, more qualified. He's telling you to do things because he's been there longer, and you learn to respect him for it. After awhile you realize that maybe I'm not as smart as I thought.
"Everything is laid out in a pattern so that as little as possible is left to judgment. Judgment in a crisis situation can be really poor. You get used to thinking along prescribed patterns and it becomes a damned nice crutch, a damned nice crutch.
"It's true that you could tack this boat differently. You could do a lot of things differently around here. But then again, if you really had a pressing urge to do so, you probably wouldn't belong on Eagle anyway."