Shipshape in New London: Learning the ropes at the Coast Guard Academy
The Coast Guard Academy has been in New London since 1910, but it lacks the visibility it deserves.
The square-rigger Eagle
Cadets at attention
At night the signal‑two short flashes of light followed by one longer flash‑can be seen for miles in every direction. The beacon emanates from the spire of a chapel overlooking the 100‑acre campus of one of Connecticut's best‑kept secrets. In some ways this light ‑produced by a pierhead lantern of the type used to guide mariners on the Great Lakes‑ is far more visible than the institution for which it stands.
The U.S. Coast Guard Academy has been in New London since 1910 and at its present location, high on a bluff overlooking the Thames River, since 1932. But many state residents are only dimly aware of its presence or its stature as an educational facility.
The training here ranges from old‑fashioned hands‑on seamanship aboard the 295‑foot square‑rigger Eagle to sophisticated exercises in a $3.5 million ship‑bridge simulator with computer‑generated color graphics and a 182‑degree wraparound screen.
Probably the main reason for the academy's relative obscurity in comparison with the nation's other service academies has to do with the small size of the Coast Guard‑39,000 men and women and an annual budget of just under $2 billion. By contrast, there are about 779,000 soldiers in the Army alone, and the Navy spends nearly $2 billion for a single Trident submarine.
Some people know the academy only as "the place where Otto Graham was the coach." Graham, a former Cleveland Browns star quarterback, retired in 1985 after 21 years as football coach and athletic director. Others are familiar with the Coast Guard Band, a 44‑member aggregation that gives 10 concerts a year at the Academy's Leamy Hall.
The aforementioned Eagle is probably the biggest attention-getter, and with its 20 miles of rigging and 21,000 square feet of billowing sail, it's easy to see why. This July 4, the Eagle will take center stage when it leads the 'tall ships" into New York Harbor for a rousing celebration at the unveiling of the refurbished Statue of Liberty. "It will be the biggest thing since the Spanish Armada," says Captain Ernst Cummings, commanding officer of the vessel, who expects to have Walter Cronkite and a number of other celebrities on board.
Full steam ahead:
Morning begins with the flag-raising ceremony; the workload is such that "only the best and the brightest make it through"
Cadets snap to attention, exemplars of the Coast Guard motto, Semper paratus (Always ready)
Plebes wolf their meals in rigid posture, part of their first year indoctrination
A sculling class makes waves.
Though in peacetime it is an agency of the Department of Transportation, the Coast Guard is nevertheless a military service, and, student life at the academy is as stringent and demanding as it is at West Point or Annapolis. There are presently about 718 cadets in the school, and their days are filled with academics, physical training, and military regimentation from reveille to taps.
Even though we have eliminated hazing, it's harder to be a cadet today than ever before," observes Captain David Sandell, who is on permanent assignment here as dean of academics. 'The disparity in lifestyle between home and this campus has changed so dramatically in recent years. Older cadets grew up accustomed to authority and with less personal freedom than young people have today. Cadets coming to the academy now have to give up much more."
It's as difficult to gain admission here as it is to get into Yale, Wesleyan, or Connecticut College, the academy's across‑the-street neighbor. And its harder to graduate: as many as 50 percent of those accepted as cadets drop out or are asked to leave the Coast Guard Academy before obtaining their degrees.
'This place produces a case of homesickness that won't quit," notes Commander Edward R. Williams, associate director of admissions. "Only the brightest, the quickest to pick up on things, the most physically fit, the most persistent and strongly motivated young people make it through."
Not surprisingly, the school draws most of its applicants from areas familiar with waterways and boats‑principally the Eastern Seaboard and other coastal and Great Lakes states. More than 70 cadets in the present student body are from Connecticut‑but some of the natives arrived here more through happenstance than design.
"I didn't know anything about the Coast Guard," admits Joe Segalla, 23, son of a dairy farmer in North Canaan. The third-year cadet originally accepted an appointment to West Point following high school but dropped out in his first year when he realized the Army didn't provide the long‑term job satisfaction he was looking for.
"At that point I applied here, but as a 'dropout' I was looked upon as something of a risk," he remembers. "Finally, though, I got their attention by serving a year as a seaman in the regular Coast Guard down in Texas, and they decided to give me another chance." The gamble apparently paid off, as Segalla currently sports on his jacket pocket a bronze star for military excellence.
Tina Mancini, 19, now in her second year as a cadet, is a graduate of Bacon Academy, a small high school in Colchester. On a whim, she had attended a weeklong "introduction to the Coast Guard" program on the New London campus in the summer following her junior year at Bacon.
"I hated it," she recalls. "It involved lots of working out and physical training, and I'd never been very athletic. When I got home I wrote an article about it for our town paper in which I described in excruciating detail the agony I went through, and everybody thought it was quite funny."
In spite of all that, she later applied for admission to the academy and, when she was accepted, chose it over Yale, Williams, and Johns Hopkins. Her parents were somewhat divided about the choice. "My mother was all for it," Tina says. "My dad was lukewarm at best, but he figured I could always quit if I didn't like it."
As it turned out, not only has Tina excelled in the classroom here‑she wears a gold star on her jacket pocket, denoting academic excellence‑she's also discovered the joy of fitness. "I'm much more aware of my body," she says. 'This year I even tried out for gymnastics. I'm doing things I never dreamed of, like back handsprings"
Though the curriculum concentrates heavily on engineering and applied sciences, it also offers "soft" majors in management and government. Marine‑engineering majors design their own ships, build large‑scale models, and then test them in a 120‑foot‑long tow tank where typhoon conditions can be simulated in order to check out the soundness of the design. The core program of 25 required courses also covers topics, like oil spills and drug trafficking, that seem to come straight out of today's newspaper headlines and reflect the Coast Guard's vital role in environmental protection and law enforcement.
In the "Maritime Law Enforcement" class, for instance, Lieut. Commander Malcolm Williams has the students analyze a fictitious case involving a Coast Guard cutter that encounters a suspicious fishing vessel off the coast of Haiti. The discussion focuses on search and seizure, and it turns out that it's okay to seize the submachine gun in the main cabin but not the $6,000 Rolex watch in a desk drawer.
It is estimated to cost $157,000 to feed, house, educate, and train each cadet for a four‑year period, so as a result the academy's high attrition rate has been criticized as wasteful. But academy officials maintain that the officers they produce stick around for the long haul.
"Over 85 percent of our ensigns elect to remain in the service beyond their five‑year commitment following graduation," states Sandell. "My own class of 1961 had 119 members. When we held our 20th reunion, 68 of us were still on active duty. But that's the nature of the Coast Guard. Our peacetime mission is constructive and humanitarian, so a career in the service tends to sell itself."
To get to the Academy, take I‑95 to the Frontage Road exit in New London and then follow the signs. For a complete listing of weekly events open to the public, call 442‑1092.
Dames at Sea
The first 10 years are the hardest, say two survivors of the Coast Guard Academy's first coed graduating class.
Lieuts. Linda Johansen (left) and Christine Quedens enjoy being pioneers but are weary of the wisecracks.
Ten years ago, women broke the sex barrier at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London. Today, to a woman, they are sick of talking about it. Nonetheless, several members of that original class are now back on campus as instructors and graciously agreed to review their pioneering days as well as their prospects for a future in the service.
Lieutenant Linda Johansen and Lieutenant Christine Quedens, both now 27 years old, were part of the historic 38‑member female contingent that arrived for swab summer in 1976. (Swab summer is the Coast Guard's equivalent of boot camp for new cadets.) Four years later, they received their commissions along with 15 other women "survivors."
Their admission was made possible by a 1973 federal law repealing a section of the military code that had denied women access to service academies. Passing legislation, however, is not the same thing as implementing it. When informed by an aide that the Coast Guard would be the first of the academies to enroll both sexes, the Academy's rear admiral is said to have growled, "Why can't we be the last?"
But all of that was a long time ago. Today Johansen, who originally hails from Massachusetts, has just returned from two tours of duty on large buoy tenders in the Atlantic. She began as a navigator and operations officer and was later promoted to executive officer. At the academy, she wears as part of her uniform a gold shoulder braid identifying her as an Admiral's Aide. This, for the militarily unenlightened, is a prestigious collateral duty that involves daily consultations with the present academy head and attendance at all official functions.
The Connecticut‑born Quedens slouches slightly in her chair, at least by military standards, and is a touch sardonic in her replies. A graduate of Berlin High School, she has been dogged by publicity not only throughout her cadet years but beyond. After a two‑year stretch as deck watch officer on a high‑endurance cutter out of Honolulu, she was given command of a 95‑foot cutter with a crew of 13 men. To this date, Quedens remains one of only seven women to have commanded a ship in the Coast Guard. Inevitably, she was reported in the press for such landmark feats at sea as being "the first woman to take a military vessel through the Panama Canal" and "the first female commanding officer to sail under the Golden Gate Bridge." 'There's something to be said for being a pioneer," she observes, "but you do get tired of hearing the same lines all the time."
What really made Quedens proud was the opportunity to make believers out of the people of Crescent City, a tradition‑bound "redneck" fishing village in northern California where her cutter was stationed. "When I first got there, fishermen and retired folk would come down and just sit on the pier, waiting for me to come out on board. As I gave orders they'd listen with reactions ranging from blank stares to scorn and disbelief."
In the next two years, Quedens and her men towed disabled vessels, performed medical evacuations, and successfully conducted numerous search‑and‑rescue operations up and down the coast. Somewhere along the line the funny looks, wolf whistles, and bad jokes stopped. When Quedens was finally reassigned, townspeople wrote letters urging the Coast Guard to keep her in Crescent City.
A decade ago, female newcomers to the academy endured sexist harassment ranging from wisecracks and vandalized rooms to what seemed like an unusually high number of inspections by upperclassmen. But in talking to these two survivors, one gets the impression that the real bane of their existence back then was the media spotlight.
"We were singled out horribly," Quedens recalls. "Even when women cadets dropped out, a big deal was made of it-'They Left for Love' was one local headline I still remember."
As for the lot of the 100 or so female cadets presently enrolled at the academy, Johansen observes, 'They don't have to have as good a sense of humor as we did."
When they accepted their commissions as ensigns, Johansen and Quedens also took on a commitment to serve in the Coast Guard for five years. That period has elapsed, but both have decided to remain in the service for the foreseeable future. As Johansen remarks, "I don't mean to sound cocky, but I have plans for the Coast Guard!"
One can only assume the Coast Guard also has plans for Johansen and her fellow officers and gentlewomen of the history‑making Class of 1980.
Laurence Sheehan is a freelance writer from Westport and a long‑time reporter on the Connecticut scene. His last feature for Connecticut's Finest was a profile of Yale's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library in the autumn issue. His work has also appeared in a wide variety of other publications, including The Atlantic and New England Monthly.