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updated: 8/17/2012 7:16 PM

World's oldest commissioned warship to sail again

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  • The Blue Angels fly in formation over the USS Constitution as she free sails off the coast of Marblehead, Mass., in celebration of her 200th birthday in 1997.

      The Blue Angels fly in formation over the USS Constitution as she free sails off the coast of Marblehead, Mass., in celebration of her 200th birthday in 1997.
    Associated Press/July 21, 1997

 
Associated Press

BOSTON -- The world'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.

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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."

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