USS Constitution Set to Sail
America's oldest commissioned ship is restored for 200th anniversary trip
On the foredeck of the USS Constitution, crew members gather to practice bowline knots. With thumbs and fingers disobeying their eyes, most hands fumble, except for those of bosun John Hutchinson. His quick twirl of rope and circular looping is double fast, the benefit of practice.Skip to next paragraph
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The others ask him to do it again and again.
Some 150 years ago, sailors stood exactly here, practicing the same knots before scampering up the rigging to hoist the big ship's sails and head for open sea.
Now, 116 years after the ship last sailed out of Boston Harbor, America's oldest commissioned ship, nicknamed Old Ironsides, will sail again this summer in a splendid echo of maritime history.
The sailing marks the 200th anniversary of the Constitution's launching on Oct. 21, 1797, in Boston Harbor.
The ship's 60 officers and crew, supplemented by civilians who have worked on the 204-foot-long frigate for years, will sail for an hour up the coast to Marblehead, Mass., on July 21. The return voyage will be under tugboat power.
The crew has been training for several months to become as proficient and knowledgeable as a crew from the 1800s.
"Every day I stand back and I look up and I say to myself, 'Wow!' " says Command Chief Joseph Wilson, standing on deck, "and then I say again, wow! This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
Coming off a $12 million restoration, the Constitution is now considered to be seaworthy for the first time in many years. Testing it with state-of-the-art technology, the US Navy gave the ship a thumbs up for a short sail.
While the ship was originally constructed of live oak, red cedar, and white pine, historians estimate that only about 10 percent of it is now original timber.
A nationwide Pennies Campaign is currently under way to raise money for the six custom-made sails to be used during the sail. Cmdr. Robert Gillen, (USN, ret.), the Constitution's 59th commanding officer, is the chairman of the fund-raising committee.
Down through the years, as ship design and technology advanced, the Constitution came close several times to being scuttled. In 1830 just before she was to be scrapped, Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote a rousing poem, "Old Ironsides," that helped appropriate money for restoration.
But little has been changed today in the design and configuration of this historical ship that gained her nickname because enemy cannonballs are said to have bounced off her 25-inch-thick siding.
Initially, the ship helped overthrow pirates from North Africa's Barbary Coast. In the war of 1812, the Constitution mounted a series of victories over allegedly invincible British ships, including HMS Guerriere.
The Constitution went on to cruise the Mediterranean, circle the globe in 1844-45, and, during the American Civil War, she served as a training ship.
At her launching, she was considered the most technologically advanced ship of the day. More than 42,000 square feet of sail could catch the wind, producing a top speed of a little faster than 13 knots. Her mainmast is 220 feet tall, and scattered around her decks are 52 cannons, some with a range of 1,000 yards.