Sometimes April showers bring May flowers, but not always. Twenty years ago, on April 1, 1997, Mother Nature delivered an April Fool’s Day blizzard. The destructive nor’easter had 70 mph winds and dropped 25.4 inches of snow on Boston.
The day before the storm hit, the temperatures were in the 60s and USS Constitution was in the final stages of being re-rigged after her four-year dry docking and restoration. Two of her new Oceanus sails were bent to her top yards in anticipation of her 200th anniversary sail scheduled for July. The ship, with her towering masts, bore the full brunt of the powerful storm. The high winds set up a vibration in Constitution‘s upper rigging and a thumb cleat on the fore topgallant/royal cross trees broke off, thereby loosening a topgallant/royal stay. With the slackened stay, the fore topgallant/royal mast snapped off at the cross trees (see photo below).
The Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston (then known as the Naval Historical Center Detachment Boston) arrived to find the fore topgallant/royal mast dangling from USS Constitution. Before tending to the broken mast, the first order of business was to shovel away more than two feet of snow.
Afterwards ship restorers and riggers went aloft to assess the damage. Fortunately, the mast didn’t fall to the deck and no one was exposed to any danger. Within days the broken topgallant/royal mast was removed and the Detachment Boston began to re-build the upper fore mast so that sail training could continue for the July anniversary sail.
Fast-forward 20 years to 2017, and another dry docking and restoration of “Old Ironsides” is drawing to a close. Balmy, 50-degree weather in mid-March brought the Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston riggers outside to paint the bowsprit.
In preparation for the July 23, 2017 re-floating of the ship, select spars and rigging are being installed while the ship is still in Dry Dock 1. Behind the scenes, the Detachment Boston riggers are creating new standing rigging for Constitution.
Installing the Bobstays
Bobstays are part of the standing rigging and are used:
“…to draw down the bowsprit, and keep it steady; and to counteract the force of the stays of the fore-mast which draw [the bowsprit] upwards…the fore-mast and the upper part of the main-mast are stayed and greatly supported by the bowsprit.” [Falconer’s New Universal Dictionary of the Marine, 1815 edition]
Bobstays are integral to the stability and strength of a ship’s rigging.
Constitution‘s three bobstays that lead from under the bowsprit to the cutwater on the bow were made from natural fiber hemp in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries.
It appears, from photographic evidence, that the bobstays were made of “wire rope” when the 1949 replacement of the bowsprit necessitated the re-rigging of the bow in 1950 (see photo below).
For the 2015 -2017 restoration, the heavy wire bobstays have been replaced with Kevlar®, which is not only as strong as wire rope, but weighs significantly less, an important factor for the aging Constitution. For example, here are the weight differences between the wire bobstays and the new Kevlar® ones:
Inner bobstay: 280 lbs (wire) vs 160 lbs (Kevlar®)
Middle bobstay: 320 lbs (wire) vs 180 lbs (Kevlar®)
Cap bobstay: 390 lbs (wire) vs 220 lbs (Kevlar®)
Thereby eliminating 430 pounds from hanging below the bowsprit.
The Kevlar® line is first spliced to make the endless loop that becomes a bobstay.
Each new bobstay is then “wormed” (a 3/8 inch polyester line is wrapped between the lays of the Kevlar® strands) and “parcelled” (sticky cotton friction tape is wrapped over the wormed Kevlar® line) and finally “served” with 1/4 inch polyester line as the outer covering. Each of the three layers–the worming, parcelling, and serving–stiffens and protects the Kevlar® line of the bobstay. Both natural and synthetic standing rigging are protected in just this way. The video below shows NHHC Detachment Boston riggers Ryan Whitehead and José Hernandez-Juviel worming, parcelling, and serving a new bobstay in the Detachment Boston’s rigging loft in the Charlestown Navy Yard. Ryan performs the worming and parcelling, and José performs the serving.
Ryan and José came to NHHC Detachment Boston with previous traditional rigging experience. They both take great pride in their work and marvel at the enormous scale of Constitution‘s rig.
“When I got to the USS Constitution in April 2014, I was the only individual with in depth practical experience with traditional sailing vessels. Just a few months prior to being hired at the Navy Yard I [had] spent 3 years on the U.S. Brig Niagara as Bo’sun.”
– Ryan Whitehead, Rigger
“I enjoy making new rigging components from scratch. I am still amazed and inspired by the ingenuity of the traditional rigging techniques. Methods that allow one to create exceedingly complex apparatuses from simple components that will take you around the world…I am in constant awe of the massive scale of the ship and its components. The greatest challenge is creating and manipulating such large components. Any ship that I rig after this will be ‘cute.'”
– José Hernandez-Juviel, Rigger
On April 12, 2017, which was a summery 79-degree day in Boston, the Detachment Boston riggers installed the new bobstays on Constitution. The inner and middle bobstays were rigged under the bowsprit with polyester lanyards passing through the lignum vitae deadeyes. The bobstays were not tightened up; that will happen once the rest of the spars and rigging are placed on board Constitution after she is re-floated out of dry dock in July.
The activity that is the subject of this blog article has been financed in part with Federal funds from the National Maritime Heritage Grant program, administered by the National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, through the Massachusetts Historical Commission, Secretary of the Commonwealth William Francis Galvin, Chairman. However, the contents and opinions do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Department of the Interior, or the Massachusetts Historical Commission, nor does the mention of trade names or commercial products constitute endorsement or recommendation by the Department of the Interior, or the Massachusetts Historical Commission.
Margherita M. Desy
Historian, Naval History & Heritage Command
Margherita M. Desy is the Historian for USS Constitution at Naval History and Heritage Command Detachment Boston.
Content Developer, USS Constitution Museum
Phaedra Scott was the Content Developer at the USS Constitution Museum from 2016 to 2017.