The Eagle’s new eagle

The Day

By: John Ruddy

April 9, 2022

When an email from the Coast Guard landed in his inbox, Shane Kinman, a master woodcarver, was nursing a back injury and hesitant to take on new work.

But the service's proposal sounded intriguing. Kinman was asked to carve a figurehead for a square-rigged ship the California resident had never heard of: the barque Eagle.

"I hadn't done anything like this," he said. "I get a lot of bizarre jobs."

This job turned into a three-year odyssey that involved engineering challenges, an on-the-spot invention, an act of Congress and a disagreement over Nazi aesthetics.

The result was a 2,000-pound, 15-foot bald eagle in gleaming gold, its wings lifted on either side of the bow. The figurehead was installed without fanfare last fall.

Creating it involved stretches where Kinman worked 16- to 18-hour days, seven days a week.

"Hardest thing I've ever done," he said.

* * *

The Coast Guard invests significant resources to maintain its 86-year-old training ship. The most recent project was a four-year, $29 million overhaul at the Coast Guard Yard in Baltimore.

One goal was replacement of the figurehead, a wooden eagle that had deteriorated, said Arina Kotlyarskaya, a civilian assistant project manager. The service identified Kinman as a candidate to create a new one, she said.

Kinman, 44, still isn't sure how the Coast Guard got his name. At his business in Lake Arrowhead, Calif., a half hour from Los Angeles, he has made everything from guitars to fireplace mantels and done a lot of work for Disney.

In 2018, when he accepted the job, he faced two questions. First, what would the figurehead be made of? A sturdy wood like Honduras mahogany was his top choice, but good wood is growing scarce, he said. Because the Coast Guard wanted something durable, they settled on fiberglass.

Second, what would it look like? The existing figurehead was one possible model, but "nobody really liked the way it looks, artistically," Kinman said. The Coast Guard favored a return to the style of the ship's original eagle from Germany, but Kinman was reluctant. More on that later. Instead, he studied what bald eagles look like and submitted a drawing.

"It's more anatomically correct, but you bend the truth a little bit to tell a better story," he said.

The Coast Guard approved his design enthusiastically, but plenty of challenges were ahead.

In Baltimore, Kinman got his first look at the Eagle. He wanted the existing figurehead removed so he could measure the bow, but for some reason, the Coast Guard refused. So he had to find another way to determine its exact shape.

The answer was the back of the German eagle, now hanging in the Coast Guard Museum at the academy in New London. A 3D scan gave Kinman what he needed to create a bow model.

Engineers agreed fiberglass was the strongest material for the figurehead, able to withstand the ocean's punishing forces of wind, waves and extreme temperature.

"It's really the harshest environment on the planet in many ways," Kinman said.

But the dense urethane foam he first had to carve into the figurehead's full-size model, or "master," was difficult to work with.

Darren Schurig, the project's manufacturing engineer, said he used computer-aided design to assemble a dozen blocks of foam into a rough approximation of the final shape that left enough material to be carved away.

The blocks looked to Kinman like an eagle made of Legos. Getting from that to a finished sculpture was harder than he expected, even with help from a second sculptor, Alexandre Safonov, and tools ranging from gouges to chainsaws.

The project also had a few more curveballs to throw him.

* * *

When the Coast Guard claimed what was then called the Horst Wessel as a war prize from Nazi Germany, its new name had nothing to do with the carved bird on its prow, the first of the ship's five figureheads.

"I thought it a rare co-incidence that the future Eagle should have such a figurehead," Gordon McGowan, the ship's first American captain, wrote later.

The eagle clutched a wreath in its talons, and inside the wreath was a swastika, which was removed. The owner of a shipyard in Bremerhaven, where the ship was prepared for the U.S. in 1946, approached McGowan with a large, flat package. Inside was a gift: a piece of teak, hand-carved into the Coast Guard shield, to replace the Nazi symbol.

"This final touch made our figurehead complete," McGowan wrote.

But the original eagle didn't last long. Around 1953, Henry Guilloz, a woodcarver at Mystic Seaport, spotted a different eagle figurehead on a wall at the academy. It was from the Salmon P. Chase, a training ship of the Revenue Cutter Service, the Coast Guard's predecessor.

At Guilloz's suggestion, the older figurehead was installed on Eagle and the original sent to the Seaport for display. The decision soon looked like a mistake.

The Chase figurehead was only 5 feet long, a third the size of the original. It had been right for the smaller ship, but on the 295-foot Eagle it looked, by several accounts, "like a pigeon."

On Jan. 27, 1967, the pigeon escaped catastrophe. In fogbound Chesapeake Bay, Eagle collided with a freighter, smashing its bow. The impact should have destroyed the figurehead, but it had been removed for repairs.

The following year, the German eagle was returned by Mystic Seaport and a fiberglass replica cast from a mold. This third figurehead was installed in 1971 but almost immediately damaged by weather, and it lasted just a few years.

When Eagle entered New London Harbor on March 12, 1976, it was sporting a 13-foot mahogany eagle covered in gold leaf, finished in time for the nation's bicentennial. But the fourth figurehead (the one that was just replaced) got less attention than another change to the ship. For the first time, Coast Guard racing stripes slashed across the hull, prompting sustained outrage from nautical purists.

As figureheads have come and gone, a recurring issue has been the appearance of the original, carved by an unknown artist in 1936. Charles Lansing, a University of Connecticut history professor specializing in the Third Reich, said the original shows a mix of traditional and modern styles typical of Nazi art.

A Coast Guard librarian once speculated that the availability of the pigeon was a convenient excuse to get rid of its predecessor.

"It is evident that a certain feeling of hostility toward the figurehead once existed based on imagined Germanic characteristics," he wrote in 1969.

When the replica was created two years later, the project's sponsor, an admiral's widow, expressed reservations about its "Teutonic design."

On the other hand, a 1979 op-ed in The Day proposed restoring the swastika and displaying the German bird as a reminder of Nazi evil.

Kinman knew the Coast Guard's wish to again return to the original style was a bad idea.

"It's just got that Nazi feel to it," he said.

* * *

From the start, Kinman was curious about Eagle's history, but no one could tell him much. So an email just as he started carving contained an unwelcome surprise. The Coast Guard was nervous because someone had learned a long-ago accident may have changed the bow shape.

That brought work to a halt, as it was uncertain whether the figurehead could be precisely fitted to the ship. A direct scan of the bow was imperative, and the added expense required approval from Congress. Once it was done, minor alterations were made.

Other delays plagued the project, one caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and another by government furloughs, which left the work temporarily unfunded.

When the master was complete, it was disassembled and spray-on molds made from its 50 or so parts. These were filled with a fiberglass composite that formed the quarter-inch-thick skin of the final product.

The pieces were put together as a shell around an internal structure of supports, the rest of the space filled with an expanding foam.

Gold leaf was supposed to cover the exterior, but this was yet another obstacle. Kinman said the price of gold had risen, making the cost prohibitive.

That left gold paint, and he considered thousands of varieties, but none looked like gold leaf. So he did something most people wouldn't think of: He invented a paint after much experimenting turned up a key ingredient that yielded the right look.

"I've never seen anybody pull a fake gold leaf off, and we did it," he said.

* * *

The climax of the project was the installation in Baltimore in October. Kinman shipped the figurehead, then bundled his family into a motorhome for a cross-country trip so they could share the big moment.

But things went wrong immediately. The motorhome broke down, and amid the delay, the Coast Guard moved up the work by a week. Kinman turned around and got on a plane, but it was too late.

"I completely missed the installation," he said.

Chief Warrant Officer Melissa Polson, Eagle's sailmaster, said the figurehead was raised into position with a crane at least five times over several weeks as yard workers struggled to get the right position on the bow. They also had to create new mounts to hold it in place.

"It wasn't going to be just a plug-and-play replacement," she said.

Kinman arrived in time to do a last-minute touch-up on the mounted figurehead, but his specialized tools had missed a connecting flight. With Eagle ready to sail for New London, he anxiously awaited delivery from the airline, finishing the work on the last possible day.

Then, "the grand finale was we were supposed to get some drone footage" as Eagle left the dock on Nov. 8, Kinman said.

But the drone pilot backed out, nervous about operating over water. A replacement was found, but as he and Kinman set off in a boat, the drone rose a foot, caught on a railing, flipped over and sank.

Still, there was one perfect moment. No land or other boats were in sight, the light was ideal, and Kinman was able to simply admire the ship, "with my eagle just glowing on the bow."

"That was it," he said. "That was the moment. It was incredible."

Click here to view this article as it originally appeared on The Day website.