Passing the CG torch, one boat at a time

For cadets between their second and third years at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut, June is a special month. Classes are over, the grass on their hillside campus overlooking the Thames River is green again, and afternoon southwesterlies – warm, and full of promise – have chased away the winter northerlies.

June is also the month when the Coast Guard’s Coastal Sail Training Program (CSTP) begins. The program is a two-week journey aboard one of eight Coast Guard Leadership 44s that were purpose-built by Morris Yachts of Northeast Harbor, Maine. Manned by groups of six or seven cadets and a single Officer in Charge (OiC), the boats head for a handful of classic southern New England cruising destinations – among them Block Island, Newport and Cuttyhunk. The program runs all summer.

The purpose?

“The Coastal Sail Training Program uses sailing as a vehicle for cadets to practice the skills they’ve learned [in the classroom] through experiential learning,” said Coastal Sail Training Coordinator, Hart Kelley. “Sailing is a neutral ground for them as most have virtually no prior sailing experience. They must build a team, with a leader and followers, to successfully arrive at their destination. These are high-striving, goal-oriented individuals who came to a service academy seeking the opportunity for leadership, adventure and responsibility. The CSTP gives that to them.”

Along the way, Kelley said, the cadets have to build trust and talk honestly with one another about how to improve their own abilities. Cadets receive life skills and mentoring from the OiC, on a roughly 1:6 ratio, about how to be better officers in the fleet. “All the while they’re cementing relationships that will endure well beyond the 12 days of CSTP,” Kelley said.

Cadets assume different responsibilities during the cruise, from provisioning and navigating to being the engineer or social coordinator. No hat aboard goes unworn. It’s cruising yacht as a mobile classroom, the destinations being end points to each day’s lessons.

Two summers ago I was fortunate enough to accompany the crew of one of the Leadership 44s, Shearwater, and its OiC, Commander Russ Bowman, on an afternoon of boat-handling drills and sail-training prior to their CSTP departure. It was a bluebird day in New England, warm with only the occasional fluffy cloud, and a gentle southwest breeze that built to 12 knots.

Something I learned early in the day: As a Coast Guard cadet you have little downtime. When we were delayed by an issue aboard one of the other boats, instead of eating the lunch we’d just bought at the commissary, we practiced docking “evolutions” – evolution being Coast Guard-speak for any procedure aboard a vessel. When Commander Bowman asked if there were any volunteers, half the crew raised their hands, and eventually three of them, in separate evolutions, guided the 26,000 lb. Shearwater away from the dock, out into the Thames, and then back again, the rest manning spring lines and fenders. It was parallel parking between extremely expensive “cars,” with little room for error. All three cadets performed the task flawlessly. It was impressive.

As were the cadets. They were as polite and smart as you’d expect, and ever-inquisitive. Though only two of the crew were sailors in a prior life, they worked as a unit to figure things out, and we enjoyed a nice sail out to the mouth of the Thames and back, hoisting an asymmetrical spinnaker on the return leg. Commander Bowman, leaning against the stern rail, was mostly silent as his young crew worked and discussed among themselves what came next. “They’re in charge,” Commander Bowman said at one point, smiling. “It’s my job to disappear.”

It occurred to me that more than one cadet probably returns from these sorties with a new passion – that of cruising aboard a well-found boat.

My time with the cadets was too short, but what an impression they made. Surely the competency and professionalism of this service, upon which boaters of all stripes rely so heavily, is being passed down to the next generation – one boat at a time.