Tramp, Woody, Wingding and Doc are standing with a handful of other enlisted men on Eagle's deck. The rain hits their yellow hoods and echoes in their ears. Sky and sea are thick and gray, like wool, and blasts from the fog horn come in groups of three.
It could be just before dawn or just after dusk, but it is 4:30 in the afternoon, about the hour the crews on many pleasure craft would be mixing their first martinis. But there is no liquor aboard Coast Guard sailing ship Eagle, so this is simply the hour before dinner, when the pace slows and the smell of fried chicken hovers over the deck, and Tramp and Woody and Wingding and Doc can only talk about having martinis.
Three hundred miles at sea, nine days since the last drink and five days to the next, Wingding and Tramp agree they'd prefer their martinis with olives, while Doc says he'd like his with an onion. Woody, from Willaford, Ark., says he'd rather have beer.
The cadets around the enlisted crewmen are untempted by such fantasies, preferring instead to wind down from their 16- or 20-hour work days with push-ups and sit-ups and jump rope. They wear stretchy athletic shorts that sag with the weight of rain.
Petty Officer Sam Meyer, 25, is walking across the deck when he's smacked in the head by a plastic-coated jump rope. He rubs his hand on the spot, checks for blood. Seeing none, he says nothing and joins his friends. He has a thick beard that starts just below his eyes and ends at his chest, and his accent pegs him to Savannah, Ga. He went to sea rather than work in Ben Portman's Music Center, which his grandfather built from a pawnshop into a chain of music stores.
Meyer looks back toward the cadet who ambushed him and shakes his head. Her name is Cathy Kurzy, a third class cadet with pierced ears but no earrings, long eyelashes and dirty fingernails. She is 19 and can do 135 push-ups. She chose the Coast Guard Academy over West Point because West Point "looked like a dungeon" while the Coast Guard Academy "looked like a real college campus," and because the Coast Guard has blue uniforms while the Army has green. She had worn a green uniform at Lumen Christi Catholic School in Jackson, Mich., and was sick of the color.
"Jesus," Petty Officer Second Class Meyer says, rain dripping from the end of his nose. "They're getting dangerous. We gotta find them more work so they'll get tired."
The other men laugh with him. They are close to the cadets in age, but they are a spicier lot, onion rolls compared to white bread. On board, they are called by their nicknames. The cadets are addressed by last names, always preceeded by Mr. or Miss, like the officers.
The enlisted crew stays with Eagle all year. They take her to dry dock in Baltimore's Curtis Bay Shipyard and spend the winter tearing her apart and putting her back together, mending the sails and repairing the rigging and sanding the decks. When the work allows, they sleep on her as well in their berthing compartment heated by steam.
They do all these things all winter so that each spring they can sail Eagle to the academy in New London and turn her over to the cadets and their officers for the summer. The officers are academy instructors, men who went to the academy and were once cadets themselves.
When Eagle sails into port, to hundreds or thousands of landlubbers screaming and waving and clapping, it is the cadets who go up in the rigging and wave back. The enlisted men must stay on deck. There is little glory for the enlisted. The Coast Guard calls what they do advising. The enlisted men call it babysitting.
Now there is yet another new crop of jumping, pumping cadets to contend with. The enlisted men know all the faces; the names don't matter much. They know the types sure as bass know minnows. There are third class cadets like Erin Dorrian, 19, from York, Maine, whose father commands a Coast Guard cutter, and 19-year-old Joe Re of Fairfax, whose father is retired Navy, and Jeanne Schiller, 18, a lawyer's daughter raised on a 25-acre farm in Sunbury, Ohio, who "wanted the structure and discipline of the military," and Cameron Lewis, 19, who comes from six generations of Rhode Island fishermen and yachtsmen.
First Class Cadet Sharon Kiel, 20, came to the academy from Middletown, N.J., for the free education, and because "I was afraid if I went to a regular college I would party too much." Her classmate, 21-year-old Barney Moreland of Pensacola, Fla., accepted his appointment because, "I was feeling pretty high on myself, thinking I could join this organization and be the hottest hot shot." He based this view on his "well roundedness," something he picked up in high school when he worked summer days as a longshoreman and summer nights as a flutist in a band.
On the other hand, Seaman James Ahl enlisted because he used to hang out on street corners in Oakland, Calif., dressing in a style he calls "tennis-shoe pimp," and heading on "a slow shuffle to nowhere." Tramp's first name is Chris. He is 20 years old and wanted to join the Coast Guard since he was 12 and saw a TV ad that showed a 44-foot Coast Guard rescue boat that could swamp and then right itself like a kayak. The catalyst, however, was six months of trying to find a job after high school. "What it came down to was the unemployment rate in Michigan," says Tramp, a native of Jackson, Mich.
Wingding is 22 and his real name is Jeff Weigand. He had finished three years in chemical engineering at his hometown University of Akron in Ohio, when his scholarship ended. He chose the Coast Guard over the Navy because he was getting married. "I wanted to be out on the water, but I didn't want to be out there for eternity at a time."
Cadets and enlisted men have a special bond, a mixture of the affection of a master for his apprentice and the resentment of an agent for his star. At sea, an enlisted man frequently will ask an inexperienced cadet to get him a length of shore line, a mooring rope that is always left behind on the dock when the ship sails. He might ask a cadet to get him a quart of prop wash, the wake the propeller makes behind the boat, or to get him the key to the main engine. There is no key.
Yet, when a cadet asks an enlisted man to get him an Eagle Crew T-shirt, something the cadets aren't allowed to buy, the man almost certainly does so, maybe taking a Coast Guard academy T-shirt in trade. Petty Officer Meyer will spend an hour teaching a cadet how to blow his silver bowswain's pipe, just because the cadet would like to know. And when Ahl goes up in the rigging with the cadets to furl a sail, he keeps up a constant chatter: "Everyone all right? . . . Watch your step here, it's slippery . . . . You're doing a fine job, that's it."
On the last port of liberty in Washington, Seaman Pete Marcucci took it upon himself to introduce some cadets to the 14th Street strip. Cuch, as he's known, is only 25, but he's the elder cool guy on the deck force, like Fonzie with a Newport, R.I., accent and a pair of mirror shades and so much knowlege about sailing that people say he could sail Eagle by himself. He joined the Coast Guard because he didn't know what else to do after backpacking for six months in Alaska.
He has a square knot tatooed on his forearm, a sailor's symbol of having sailed to the four corners of the world, and standing around with his arms folded, he looks like salt personified. He says he took the cadets to a strip joint, then to a "model and escort service."
"I told them they could go in and look, but that they shouldn't buy anything or touch anything," Marcucci says. "I mean, these kids have to learn about things, you know; they'll be going to a lot of ports later on. I just didn't want them to get hurt or anything. They're only cadets, you know."