Navy's oldest commissioned warship to sail again
BOSTON (AP) — The U.S. Navy's oldest commissioned warship will sail under its own power for just the second time in more than a century to commemorate the battle that won it the nickname "Old Ironsides."
The USS Constitution, which was first launched in 1797, will be tugged from its berth in Boston Harbor on Sunday to the main deepwater pathway into the harbor. It will then set out to open seas for a 10-minute cruise.
The short trip marks the day two centuries ago when the Constitution bested the British frigate HMS Guerriere in a fierce battle during the War of 1812. It follows a three-year restoration project and is the first time the Constitution has been to sea on its own since its 200th birthday in 1997.
Before that, it hadn't sailed under its own power since 1881. The Constitution is periodically tugged into the harbor for historical display.
Chief Petty Officer Frank Neely, a Constitution spokesman and crew member, said the crew wants to honor and preserve the Constitution with Sunday's sail.
"This ship is a national icon to us. ... She's very special to us. We think she's very special to the United States," he said.
The Constitution was under the command of Capt. Issac Hull when it engaged the Guerriere off Nova Scotia on Aug. 19, 1812. The young war was not going well for America, which had surrendered Detroit to the British with basically no resistance a week earlier.
But the Guerriere proved no match for the Constitution, which was heavier and longer. The vessels blasted away at each other at close range, even colliding at one point, during the 35-minute battle. The Constitution's 24-pound cannonballs felled the Guerriere's mast, while the British vessels' 18-pound cannonballs had trouble penetrating the Constitution's two-foot thick live oak hull, said Matthew Brenckle, a historian at the USS Constitution Museum.
Brenckle said a sailor's memoirs recorded how one cannonball seemed to slightly penetrate the ship, before dropping into the sea. The sailor then called out the quote that would give the Constitution its nickname, "Huzzah, her sides are made of iron! See where the shot fell out!"
It wasn't the first naval win in what would be a divisive, expensive war, but it set off celebrations around the country, Brenckle said.
"Strategically, it really did nothing to change the course of the war," he said. "But the morale boost that that provided for the American cause, I think was quite important."
During Sunday's sail, the Constitution's crew of about 65, accompanied by 150 sailors selected to be part of event, will unfurl four of its 36 sails, Neely said. The tugs will stand by as a precaution when the Constitution sails on its own. And the trip can't happen unless the weather conditions are right.
The ship won't move in winds less than five mph and anything over about 15 mph would put too much stress on the vessel, Neely said. But the forecast looks favorable.
The lengthy work in preparation for Sunday's sail was largely on the Constitution's aesthetics, though the masts were restored, Neely said. The crew also underwent extensive training on how to handle a vessel that's unlike any other in the U.S. Navy.
"A lot of hours of work went into this one day right here," Neely said. "I wouldn't be surprised if I broke a couple of tears after this."
The USS Constitution is the world’s oldest commissioned warship still sailing the seas. Nicknamed “Old Ironsides” due to its success in the War of 1812, it is 222 years old and has a record of 33 victories.
The crew of 80 sailed the historic ship to Fort Independence on Castle Island in order to fire a 21-gun salute in honor of its anniversary and the 244th anniversary of the US Navy.
The USS Constitution launched on October 21, 1797, after being built in a shipyard that is now Coast Guard Sector Boston. She fired another salute as she passed there on her way back to her dock at the Charleston Navy Yard.
Construction began in 1794 at Edmund Hartt’s Shipyard in the North End of Boston. It took three years to complete the construction.
Not even a month after the US declared war on Britain in June of 1812, Captain Isaac Hull and crew were surrounded by five British ships, the HMS Africa, the HMS Belvidera, the HMS Aeolus, the HMS Shannon, and the HMS Guerrierre.
The USS Constitution had been ordered to go to New York as quickly as possible in order to join up with Commodore John Rodgers’ squadron. What Hull didn’t realize was that Rodgers had already set sail to search for British merchant ships crossing the Atlantic.
After passing the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, Hull spotted sails on the horizon. Assuming them to be Rodgers’ squadron, he sailed toward them.
To Hull’s surprise, the ship he reached was not one of Rodgers’ ships but the 38-gun frigate HMS Gurriere.