‘A tall ship and a star to steer her by’ more than a dream for Huntington County woman

Boatswain’s Mate Shelbie Smart stands at the top of the 147-foot-tall mast of the Coast Guard cutter Eagle, the deck of the ship and the ocean visible far beneath her. Smart just completed a three-year stint on board the tall ship, which started life as a Nazi training ship. It now serves the same purpose for the United States Coast Guard.
Boatswain’s Mate Shelbie Smart stands at the top of the 147-foot-tall mast of the Coast Guard cutter Eagle, the deck of the ship and the ocean visible far beneath her. Smart just completed a three-year stint on board the tall ship, which started life as a Nazi training ship. It now serves the same purpose for the United States Coast Guard. Photo provided.

Originally published Sept. 21, 2015.

For Shelbie Smart, “a tall ship and a star to steer her by” is more than a dream.

It’s the life she’s been living the last three years.

As a boatswain’s mate with the United States Coast Guard, the Huntington County woman just finished up a stint on the Coast Guard cutter Eagle — a tall ship that once belonged to the other side.

“It was built in 1936 in Germany and it was a training ship for the Nazis, for the German navy,” Smart explains. “After World War II, in 1942, the United States took it as a war prize. In 1946, the Coast Guard acquired it as a training ship.”

There have been some changes, obviously. The swastika originally on the front of the former Segelschulschiff Horst Wessel was quickly replaced by a gold eagle with outstretched wings, reflecting the ship’s new name.

Normal wear-and-tear and routine maintenance over the years have erased much of the ship’s past.

“There’s only one original piece to it,” Smart says. “A German sink faucet in one of the bathrooms.”

Smart’s three years aboard the Eagle ended Sept. 1, when the ship was taken to the Coast Guard Yard in Baltimore, MD, for a major overhaul before it sets sail again in the spring.

“They’re trying to fix it so it will last at least 40 more years,” Smart says.

Smart can reel off the ship’s statistics — it’s 295 feet long and 147 1/2 feet tall; it has 23,000 square feet of sail and six miles of running rigging. Its maximum speed is 10.5 knots under power and 17 knots under sail; it sleeps 236 people and has a crew of 47.

Smart was one of about a dozen women on the Eagle’s crew, a number mandated by the ship’s sleeping arrangements.

“There’s only so many sleeping spaces for females,” Smart says.

Smart entered the Coast Guard in August of 2009, just a couple of months after graduating from Huntington North High School. She’s found it to be a good fit.

“I didn’t want to go to college and I didn’t want to go overseas to combat,” she says. The Coast Guard mission does not include combat. “I was a life guard and I liked to travel.”

The benefits — a free education and good health benefits — were an added appeal, she says.

With six years already under her belt, she says she plans to make the Coast Guard a career and will have the option of retiring when she’s 39.

“I’ve been all over the world in the last two years,” she says.

Her job, she says, will always be that of a boatswain’s mate.

“We’re the ones who drive the boat,” she explains.

Smart was based in Muskegon, MI, her first three years, where the Coast Guard focuses on law enforcement and search and rescue. She’s headed next to Oswego, NY, to serve on Lake Ontario. Both of those assignments involve small boats; the Eagle is the only tall ship in the Coast Guard’s fleet.

“This is the only tall ship training ship in all of the military,” she says.

Coast Guard members have a choice of where they will serve — to a point.

“You get a list of things that are open, and you rate them one through 50,” she says. Higher-ups look at the list and take it into consideration when making assignments.

She spent about six months on board the Eagle this year, traveling from the Caribbean to Maine and back down the east coast. Previous trips have taken her, and the Eagle, to Canada.

Six months at sea is about the average, she says, and the ship will spend the remaining six months in the yard for maintenance.

The Eagle is used to train cadets who are coming straight out of high school.

“We train the future officers,” Smart says. “My job was more like sailing, fixing the sails.”

She’s filled a variety of positions, including mast captain.

A trip to the top of one of those 147-foot-tall masts was not unusual for Smart. Most of the time, she says, she made the climb “just for fun;” occasionally, she had to climb up to change out a tattered flag.

As line captain, she works on the eight lines that attach the ship to the pier. Each line is so heavy that it requires some 10 people to pull it in before the ship can set out to sea, she says. The heavy steering wheel can be turned only by the cooperative efforts of four to five people. It takes three to four hours to get from harbor to the open sea, a process that requires a pilot, two tugs and helmsmen keeping lookout so the ship doesn’t run aground.
Once at sea, the cadets’ training begins.

“We just stand watch,” Smart says. “There are 17 different watch positions. I’m qualified in all of them.”

Extra crew members come on board to teach the cadets the basics of seamanship and living at sea.

“We don’t teach them sailing,” she says. “We teach them how to live on a ship, how to be a leader.”

The Eagle is the only ship big enough to take on 160 cadets at a time, she notes.

During their five weeks on the Eagle, the cadets will learn to take two-minute showers — “That takes a little getting used to,” Smart says — and “not eat all the food,” she adds. The ship has to carry its own food and water, making the supplies last until it returns to harbor.

The cadets will also learn to navigate by the stars, without the aid of a GPS or any other equipment.

“That’s kind of cool,” Smart says.

The Eagle’s second mission, other than training, is public relations.

To that end, the crew keeps the ship looking good.

“Every port call, we’re painting the side,” Smart says.

“When we pull in to other countries, we have a reception and invite the governors, the mayors,” she says. “We have fancy food and fancy beers.”