Editor’s Note: Because the Austinot’s founder, Eric Highland, is a 20-year veteran of the United States Coast Guard, I was delighted when I first heard the following story. I’m grateful to Richard for sharing his story and aspirations with our community, and for the example he sets for his generation of young Austinites.
This guest blog post is by Richard Barr Dent.
What motivates a high school junior to compete for a ride on one of the last sailing tall ships in the United States fleet?
At four, it shocked me to leave Cincinnati. “Austin is hard,” I told my grandmother. No tree leaves changed colors in Autumn. No snow for sledding in the winter. Luckily, I realized we were only three hours away from the Texas coast. Trips to Galveston, tours of the Elissa, the tall ship that is the pride of Texas, and nights spent aboard the U.S.S. Lexington with my Cub Scout Pack 29 kindled my maritime interest. Before Austin, my only exposure to the sea was the movie Muppet Treasure Island.
I have other connections to the sea. The United States Coast Guard saves lives, and one of them was my grandfather’s, Luther L. Barr. The USCG gave him his education, money to send home to his widowed mother, and a life of travel and excitement. Now, at 84, he can still do anything.
I’ve heard his stories since I was three. He found a treasure chest once off the south Texas coast, surf fishing with two other buddies. They had no tools to dig it out of the sand, so they marked the spot and walked back to their boat on patrol in the Intracoastal Canal. They returned to the site of the chest only to find that their marker had drifted. They never could find it again.
My mom, Lori Barr, grew up playing in the Galveston surf. As an adult, she returned to Galveston to finish her medical education. There she met my father, Steven Dent. As a marine biologist, he had his own sea stories.
I began my own education. At Parkside Community School, we created multimedia sculptures and visited artists from blacksmiths to plant sculptors. Every student had a large sketchpad and pencils. I started sketching tall ships.
Macaroni Grill fostered my tall ship sketching. That’s the restaurant that encourages you to draw on butcher paper with crayons. My parents and I would play a game where one person would start a drawing and the next person would have to add to it. There was always a tall ship sailing around the olive oil.
One of the Last Tall Ships Still Sailing in the U.S. Fleet
At Austin High School, which I now attend, teachers and administrators make sure students have opportunities for self-expression and advancement that carry over into meaningful adult lives. Tara Miller, the College and Career Counselor, reminded me to visit the United States Coast Guard Academy (USCGA) and United States Naval Academy websites in January, since I want to go to one of these colleges. The USCGA site features the USCGC Eagle. She is a beautiful World War II prize with three masts. I already knew about her and dreamed of sailing aboard her.
On the Eagle‘s webpage, there was a link to OpSail 2012. I clicked the link and discovered there was a series of tall ship parades scheduled for the spring of 2012, celebrating the bicentennial of the War of 1812 and the penning of The Star Spangled Banner. There was an essay contest and an art contest for each port, and the prize was a sail aboard one of the tall ships. I looked at the list of ports and thought about my spring schedule. Golf tournaments, one-act play competitions, an orchestra trip to San Francisco and a Global Studies trip to New Orleans topped my list. I was writing tons of essays for AP U.S. History and English. The Spring Opsail 2012 contests were not an option.
Spring of the Eagles
Regardless, every single day this spring, I kept hearing about another Eagle, the NASA Lunar module. We performed Tom Dudzick’s King o’ the Moon in Texas UIL 5A One-Act Play competition this spring. The play is about the quirky Pazinski family from Buffalo, NY on July 18, 1969, the eve of the Lunar Landing. At every stage of the competition for the State Championship, we got to hear the audio recording of Neil Armstrong say, “The Eagle has landed.” As Georgie Pazinski, I followed right after with, “King o’ the Moon!” We won state and I looked ahead to summer.
Pencil Sketches in Military History
The day that school got out, I made my decision to enter the OpSail 2012 New London Art Contest. I wanted to ride on the USCGC Eagle. I knew about War of 1812 maritime battles and how important pencil sketches were to historical documentation of battles. Photography didn’t become popular for journalism until the 20th century.
I sketched a sailor’s view of H.M.S. Macedonian from the deck of U.S.S. United States, just before the Americans fired the first shot on October 25, 1812. The Americans went on to win the battle. When the H.M.S. Macedonian entered New York Harbor, it was the first time a British warship had entered an American harbor as a war prize. It really boosted the peoples’ morale.
Family Connection to OpSail
On June 21, 2012, I was named the winner of the art contest. My prize was a ride on the Eagle herself and my sketch would join the maritime artwork collection of the U.S.S. Constitution Museum in Boston, MA. In 1964, my grandfather, Luther L. Barr, was Lieutenant Commander on the USCGC Coos Bay. The Coos Bay accompanied the Eagle in the very first OpSail parade in New York Harbor that year. My grandfather and I shared stories about the USCG, the Eagle, the Coos Bay, OpSail and New London when I saw him at our family farm in Florence, Alabama on July 4th.
When it came time for me to claim my prize, I flew into Hartford, CT, then drove along tree-lined country roads to the northern coast of Long Island Sound. Thousands of people lined the Hole-in-the-Wall Beach in Niantic, CT for the Opening Ceremony of OpSail 2012 CT. An LCAC [Landing Craft, Air Cushioned] launched from the bowels of the U.S.S. Carter Hall, muscled onto the beach and released U.S. Marines and Hummers.
OpSail 2012 New London Reminds All of Freedoms
Families topped the hill where Old Glory flew. Four Coast Guardsmen dressed in traditional woolen uniforms of the U. S. Revenue Cutter Service (predecessor of the USCG) were color guards. After we sang The Star-Spangled Banner, I led the Pledge of Allegiance. In Boy Scouts of America Troop 30, I have pledged and served as a color guard many times. This was so different.
On that very shore, the crews of the rechristened U.S.S. Macedonian and U.S.S. United States fought alongside local militiamen to preserve our freedom after the British blockaded them. Here I was, a Texas youth, reminding many individuals of the price that was paid for something we all take for granted far too often. It was the most humbling experience I have ever lived.
Aboard the Eagle
The next morning of my trip, I met USCG LT. Amy Miller at Fort Trumbull at 0630. I waited with the essay contest winner and his family, local dignitaries and the families of many of the crew who were also sailing on the Eagle and Carter Hall in the New London Parade. Once everyone arrived, we boarded two identical 45′ RB-M’s. These high-speed shallow-water boats get up to 42.5 knots [48.9 mph] due to water jet propulsion systems.
After we all put on orange life vests, the two captains drove the boats to the mouth of the Thames River and out of the no wake zone. We strolled about the open deck and took pictures of the coast. We were told to hold on. The captains raced through open water at top speeds, one to the Carter Hall and ours to the Eagle.
Captain Eric C. Jones welcomed us aboard. Cadets gave tours of all portions of the vessel. They spend a portion of the summer crewing the Eagle. Her sailors are ambassadors that remind people about freedoms we enjoy as United States citizens. The cadets work together to sail all over the world. One told how insignificant it feels to be out on the ropes when the sea is rough. Another said teaching people about the Eagle helps to build rapport. One invited me to heave ropes with the crew.
The Captain and crew lead the tall ships parade under full sail. The Eagle silently glided through the waters. The massive U.S.S. Carter Hall followed right behind us and the other tall ships sailed in the Carter Hall’s wake. Hundreds of small boats greeted us. A USCG CG-711 jet and a MH-60 helicopter gave our parade a fly-by. As we pulled into the Thames River, the crowds on short cheered. The boats on either side of us honked. Boaters waved. The cannons at Fort Trumbull fired.
“The Eagle has landed.”
As we approached the dock, I thought about Neil Armstrong’s words again. I hope that I will have another opportunity to sail on USCGC Eagle. She is a graceful dance partner. I know all aboard felt like champions when we landed.
Richard Barr Dent is a senior in the Academy for Global Studies at Stephen F. Austin High School. Email Richard if you want to assist with his Boy Scout Eagle Project in August that highlights the awards of the Red Dragon Players Theater Troupe, high school thespians entertaining the Austin community since 1908.