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Historic Coast Guard cutter Eagle stops in Portsmouth

Historic Coast Guard cutter Eagle stops in Portsmouth

By Katherine Hafner
The Virginian-Pilot
© August 19, 2015
PORTSMOUTH

The ship masts and intertwined rig ropes of the cutter Eagle cut a fine figure against the blue and white sky as it glided on the Elizabeth River Wednesday, blue-green water lapping at its sides.

Coast Guard crew members climbed up the ropes and turned large wooden wheels as friends and family members strode about the decks for a glimpse into the ship’s history.

On Wednesday, the cutter Eagle came to rest on the Elizabeth River behind the Portsmouth City Hall, where the public may come to view it for tours Thursday.

The ship came down from New London, Connecticut, where it dropped off the most recent group of Coast Guard cadets from a training cruise.

Capt. Matt Meilstrup has been with the Coast Guard for 23 years, and took over as the ship’s captain two months ago.

“This is the job I’ve been looking forward to for a long time,” Meilstrup said. “This ship’s mission is just atypical, it’s different.”

That mission: training the next wave of Coast Guard Academy students.

The Eagle is used almost exclusively as a training ship, in addition to stopping in domestic and international ports for tours. Cadets go on week-long cruises and upperclassmen may go on longer trips of around five weeks, all during summer.

The Eagle, built in Hamburg, Germany in 1936, was taken by the U.S. as a war reparation after World War II. It was then commissioned by the Coast Guard in 1946, and to this day is the only tall ship to be commissioned.

The 295-foot-long ship, a gold eagle stretched across the outside bow, still boasts the original admiral’s cabin with German tables and chairs. The sink even reads “Auf,” German for “up.” A crew of 56 professional members keeps the ship afloat.

Mark Litton, 22, of Norfolk, has been on board the Eagle for more than two years as a machinery technician. He said he likes the travel — his favorite ports are Bermuda and St. John’s, Newfoundland — and that there’s always work to be done with the trainees.

“We don’t stop, you’re always teaching someone something,” Litton said.

Eagle can sail at a speed of up to 17 knots, said the Coast Guard’s Rachel Kent. It was designed to be able to traverse the rough waters of the North Sea.

Force Readiness Commander Dave Throop said he sailed the ship in the mid-1980s, at which time the ship still had a U-Boat engine that’s since been replaced.

The Germans surrendered the ship, then named Horst Wessel, to the Allies at the end of the war. Adolf Hitler had attended the ship’s initial launch the decade before.

“If this ship could tell stories,” Meilstrup said with a laugh. “Let America see ‘the tall ship.'”

Members of the public can take tours of the Eagle Thursday from 10 a.m to 4 p.m. at no cost, before it moves on to Baltimore with a group of Coast Guard officer candidates.

U.S. Postal Service officials will also have new Coast Guard Forever stamps available and offer a special cancellation on the pier from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

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