On board America's tall ship: How Coast Guard officers get back-to-basics in training

(CBS News) The Eagle is one of the most unique classrooms in America. The ship, which just wrapped up a summer of intense training for future officers in the Coast Guard, is now anchored in the Inner Harbor in Baltimore, Md.

The Eagle, the only active commissioned sailing ship in the U.S. fleet, is a true tall ship -- eye-catching to anyone on shore, and eye-opening to anyone who serves aboard.

When CBS News was aboard, sailors were raising sails by hauling lines, hand-over-hand. It was one more way the Eagle seemed to be pull everyone aboard into a bygone century when tall ships ruled the high seas.

But the Eagle, nearly a football field long, is really a classroom at full sail. Its three masts rise 15 stories high. The full-time crew of 57 teaches Coast Guard trainees the fundamentals of seamanship.

One example: navigation without GPS. They charted a course the old-fashioned way.

Wes Pulver, a 26-year-Coast Guard veteran, is the captain of the Eagle. On this tall ship, he is headmaster and commander. He said, "It's an opportunity to really take you back to the basics to how people navigated for hundred of years before we had satellites in the sky."

It's about as back-to-basics as it gets. And Pulver said that's on purpose: "We make a point that we want the folks out on deck. We want them cold, wet, and tired."

On the particular day CBS News was visiting the ship, the Eagle was 100 miles off the coast of Norfolk, Va. The ship pitched in 12-feet-high swells. Half the sailors got sick.

Lauren Hill, a hand on the ship said, "We're rolling around. The wind is crazy. You're not gonna get that in a classroom."

The Eagle was built as a training ship in 1936 for sailors in Hitler's Germany. After World War II ended, the U.S. seized it as a war reparation, and ever since, generations of Coast Guard trainees aboard have literally learned the ropes.

Matthew Marler spent the last two weeks aboard the Eagle. He is halfway through officer candidate school. He said, "It was definitely an eye-opening experience. And one we'll always take with us."

Asked if it was challenging, Marler replied, "I've never been so tired in my life."

Pulver added, "Whatever that fear is, whatever that challenge you might personally have (is), Eagle exposes it because you're out in the weather."

CBS News' Mark Strassmann remarked, "And in that baptism by storm, you probably have people that surprise you both good and bad?"

Pulver said, "Sure. Some people find out it's not a life meant for them or choose a different profession."

On Eagle, the teaching goes on 24 hours a day, seven days a week in continuous four-hour shifts, from navigating under the stars to firefighting.

Charron McCombs, who was learning to guide the ship out of port, said the experience was "a bit overwhelming." But as they got further out to sea, she said, "it was rewarding and I didn't want to stop. I wanted to keep going."

Now, she says, the experience makes her want to have command of her own ship. McCombs said, "I didn't realize how important it is to be a leader. Not only a leader, but also have the command because everyone is relying on you. Their lives are in your hands."

These days, the Eagle is known as "America's Tall Ship," and as a roving ambassador, has sailed to five continents and more than 40 countries. Pulver said, "We've had probably had individual trainees, probably 10,000 to 20,000 folks across these decks that have been trained. It's just an amazing amount of people. And then you start thinking of all the rescues that have been done by the U.S. Coast Guard, and to understand that a lot of the leaders and the future officers of the Coast Guard went through this vessel, there's a lot of pride here."

The Eagle averages five months a year at sea. It's about to head into a couple months of scheduled maintenance.

The trainees aboard will graduate and receive their commissions in December.

Watch Mark Strassmann's full report above.