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.

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.

In those days she had a crew of 450, including 55 marines. For the crew, life was mostly harsh and cruel, but full of high-seas adventure.

"I don't know how they managed because conditions were so bad," says Jason Smith, a crew member from Nashville, Tenn. "We have safety harnesses when we climb the rigging, and they had nothing, even in stormy seas."

Three sailors shared one canvas bag for all their belongings in those days. The daily ration was a piece of meat, hardtack, dried beans, water, and a watered-down pint of rum or whisky. The crew slept in hammocks. On cold days, a heated cannon ball placed in a hanging bucket provided the only warmth.

Crew members who manned the cannons below deck often lost their hearing because the roar was so deafening. Small boys sold by their parents to the ship for a year were known as "powder monkeys," and brought gun powder to the cannons.

"The archives of the ship indicate that a crack crew could sail in total silence," says Chief Wilson. "Because battles were fought in close quarters, they used hand signals because they didn't want the enemy to hear their commands."

On the historic sailing to Marblehead, today's crew will also use hand signals. "We're going to try to sail in total silence," says Wilson.

"Because of the training," says crew member Deana Driver from Raleigh, N.C., "we've become closer. Last week it was so cold, but the captain said that sailors from the 1800s couldn't wait for spring or summer to work. So we stayed on deck and had a greater appreciation for what the former crews had endured."

Navy Cmdr. Michael Beck, the Constitution's captain, wants the ship to serve as a catalyst for a national dialogue on citizenship. "We want the Constitution to act as a living reminder of the principles and ideals that ennoble this country," he says.

During the l997-98 academic year, the USS Constitution Museum will be distributing an interdisciplinary curriculum about the ship to schools and educators nationwide.

'Old Ironsides'

Aye, tear her tattered ensign down!

Long has it waved on high,

And many an eye has danced to see

That banner in the sky;

Beneath it rung the battle shout,

And burst the cannon's roar; -

The meteor of the ocean air

Shall sweep the clouds no more!

Her decks, once red with heroes blood,

Where knelt the vanquished foe,

When winds were hurrying o'er the flood,

And waves were white below,

No more shall feel the victor's tread

Or know the conquered knee; -

The harpies of the shore shall pluck

The eagle of the sea!

Oh, better that her shattered hulk

Should sink beneath the wave;

Her thunders shook the mighty deep,

And there should be her grave;

Nail to the mast her holy flag,

Set every threadbare sail,

And give her to the god of storms,

The lightning and the gale!

Oliver Wendell Holmes, 1830

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