Two hundred and two years ago, the Washington, D.C. newspaper the National Intelligencer called for the preservation of USS Constitution, “Old Ironsides”:
“Let us keep ‘Old Ironsides’ at home. She has…become a Nation’s ship, and should be preserved… [National Intelligencer, May 23, 1815]
Since Constitution‘s 100th anniversary in 1897, with few exceptions, the United States Navy has taken up the 1815 call for the preservation of “Old Ironsides”. Numerous 20th century restorations have taken place and the most recent 21st century restoration is coming to a close.
In the years after Constitution‘s first restoration of 1906-1907, the ship was berthed at or close to Pier One in the Charlestown Navy Yard. More often than not, she was bow-in, presenting her best face forward to the visiting public. But during the long years of World War II, the ship was moved up and down the Charlestown Navy Yard waterfront as the war demands on the Yard and its facilities necessitated.
To weather evenly on both sides of its hull, a wooden vessel must shift its position at least once a year. Regardless of how well maintained it is at its dock, the vessel will soon disintegrate if it no longer actively gets underway (either by sail, engine, or tug).
“To Wind a Ship – is to change her position, by bringing the stern to lie in the situation of the head; or directly opposite to its former position.” [Falconer’s New Universal Dictionary of the Marine, 1815]
“Winding a ship” was the 19th century term that USS Constitution has come to call “turnaround cruises”. According to CDR Tyrone G. Martin’s history, A Most Fortunate Ship, “The turnaround cruise [likely] evolved from very modest beginnings when, in the 1950s, the ship randomly was turned around at her berth to evenly weather her wooden hull.” 
The gallery of photos below shows USS Constitution in that “modest beginnings” period, circa 1955, executing an early “turnaround” cruise. In the photos we see the ship, which had been bow out, pulled away from the pier via tug power, turned in the mouth of the Charles River, and brought back bow in. The Navy tugs Chegodega (YTB 542) and Wawasee (YTB 367) can be identified by their hull numbers. The U.S. Navy garbage lighter YG 54 is berthed at Pier One when Constitution is pulled away and out into the stream. YSD 34 is the seaplane wrecking derrick, with a lifting capacity of 10 tons, in the final photo installing “Old Ironsides'” starboard gangway.
[Photographs of USS Constitution‘s c.1955 “turnaround cruise” courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]
- USS Constitution about to be tugged away from Pier 1, Charlestown Navy Yard, c. 1955
- USS Constitution being tugged to the mouth of the Charles River, c. 1955
- USS Constitution is turned in the mouth of the Charles River, c. 1955
- The turn is complete & USS Constitution heads back to her berth, c. 1955
- Bow in, USS Constitution with two tugs, maneuvering her back to her berth, c. 1955
- With little space port & starboard, USS Constitution is eased into her berth, bow in, c. 1955
- The end of a successful turnaround, USS Constitution is berthed & her gangway is swung aboard, c. 1955
USS Constitution is the oldest commissioned warship afloat in the world. There is a Boston-area myth which says that in order for Constitution to remain a commissioned vessel in the United States Navy, she must get underway in Boston Harbor at least once every year. This is a myth – “Old Ironsides” would remain in commission whether or not she undertook a yearly harbor cruise. HMS Victory is a perfect example of a commissioned warship that is permanently dry docked, incapable of floating or getting underway.
Martin’s A Most Fortunate Ship continues the turnaround cruise history:
“Sometimes [Constitution] was turned once a year, sometimes twice, and sometimes not at all — and never with passengers until…1959. The commandant of the First Naval District, Rear Adm. Carl F. Espe, was the official host for the hardy few males who came…A note…has been found that recommended, ‘for the record,’ that if guests were to be invited again, a better season of the year be chose for the cruise.” [A Most Fortunate Ship, 361-362]
The Boston Globe covered that 1959 turnaround cruise, although the paper used the jaunty term “swing-around” for the movement of the stately “Old Ironsides”:
Although the turnaround was important to the health of Constitution, the local newspapers appear not to have thought it newsworthy enough to remark on the yearly cruise. The next time the Globe mentions the cruise is in a tiny, bottom-of-the page story, “Old Ironsides Sails Friday” (see below). Of course the term “sail” in this context is inaccurate, but for a vessel that spent nearly 364 of 365 days of the year pier side, one can forgive the newspaper writer’s hyperbole.
The turnaround cruises were male-only events. Constitution‘s officers and crew were men, the guests were men, and the invited reporters were men. The 1971 turnaround cruise would change all that. The Globe, with the double-entendre headline, “Stern view saves Ironsides’ purity”, revealed that Peabody Times reporter, Ruby Litinsky, disguised as a man, had attempted to ride the ship and break the male bastion of the turnaround cruises.
“Old Ironsides took its annual (Men Only) ‘turnaround cruise’ in Boston Harbor yesterday after a female newspaper reporter, disguised as a man, was ordered to leave the ship….Miss Litinsky, who was denied a press pass to the ship last week because she is female, went to the Navy Yard in Charlestown yesterday wearing a man’s wig, men’s trousers, a man’s shirt, jacket and moccasins…’So I could get on board the ship and do the story,’ she said….But shortly afterward, Capt. [Jack] Reifschneider asked to see her. ‘He told me that what gave away my sex was my walking,’ she said. The Captain told her: ‘As soon as I saw you from the back, walking, I knew you were all girl.’ The captain laughed, and escorted Miss Litinsky to a Coast Guard boat ‘so I could do my job from a distance,’ Miss Litinsky said….After the cruise, Miss Litinsky called the office of the Chief of Naval Operations at the Pentagon. An assistant to Adm. Elmo Zumwalt said, ‘We will look into’ the Constitution regulation barring women from the ship when the vessel is at sea.” [The Boston Globe, June 24, 1971]
In 2015, reporter Phil Reisman of The Journal News set out to find Ruby Litinsky, who had begun her pioneering career at the same White Plains, New York newspaper. He found the 80-plus-year-old and got her take on the Constitution story.
“Ruby nimbly navigated her way through a two-fisted, male-dominated world of cops, mobsters, grifters and newshounds. She broke through barriers – like the time in 1971 when she equalized things on the USS Constitution, ‘Old Ironsides.’ At this point in her career, she was writing for the Peabody Times, a paper about 20 miles north of Boston. Every year, the historic ship was take out for a short, turnaround. It was an event open to reporters, but male reporters only. There were two reasons for this: a tradition that women aboard the 174-year-old ship were bad luck and the fact that the vessel was not equipped with appropriate toilet facilities. None of this stopped Ruby, who disguised herself as a man and snuck on board. ‘I think I was walking with a bunch of Boy Scouts, or something,’ she remembered. ‘It’s tough being short.’ She almost had them fooled. According to one newspaper account…, one of the navy guys caught her walking up the gangplank. He told her later that her walk ‘looked funny,’ adding, ‘From the back I could tell you were a girl.’ Ruby filed a complaint. ‘The next year they allowed women on,’ she said triumphantly. ‘I liberated the Constitution.'” [“Where have you gone Ruby Litinsky?”, Phil Reisman, The Journal News, April 20, 2015]
USS Constitution‘s 1972 turnaround cruise was the first to officially welcome women aboard. According to the Globe,
“With nary a creak, Old Ironsides thwarted Navy custom yesterday by accommodating a sexually-integrated ‘crew’ on her annual…cruise through Boston Harbor…Rear Adm. Joseph C. Wiley, commandant of the First Naval District, yesterday explained the policy change with nonchalance: ‘The Navy’s always modern…The Navy is always keeping up with the times.’ He insisted, though, that the women’s liberation movement had not influenced the decision.” [“Now women man Old Ironsides”, The Boston Globe, June 15, 1972]
By the mid-1970s, the most popular of the Constitution turnaround cruises took place on the July 4th holiday. Dressed in a rainbow hue of signal flags, the ship is annually tugged down to Fort Independence at Castle Island at the bottom of Boston’s Inner Harbor. And, after two of her replica 24-pound long guns were retro-fitted to fire blank shells, “Old Ironsides” has delivered a 21-gun salute to the Nation’s birthday.
Over the years visiting ships and special guests have accompanied USS Constitution on her turnaround cruises. In 1987, in honor of its namesake’s 100th birthday, the Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate Samuel Eliot Morison (FFG-13) joined “Old Ironsides” in Boston Harbor. RADM Morison, historian of the U.S. Navy in World War II, was born on July 9, 1887, and officially opened the USS Constitution Museum on April 8, 1976.
Vice President Dick Cheney and his family were the guests aboard USS Constitution for its July 4, 2008, harbor cruise.
During the annual July 4, 2012, underway cruise, USS Constitution and Boston commemorated the 200 years of peace that has existed between the United States and Great Britain and the United States and Canada since the close of the War of 1812. Accompanying “Old Ironsides” was the U.S. Coast Guard’s flagship Eagle and berthed on the South Boston waterfront was the amphibious assault vessel USS Wasp. A fly-over by the Blue Angels capped off a thrilling cruise for America’s Ship of State.
On Friday, October 20, 2017, USS Constitution will take her first underway cruise since October 14, 2014, after her 26-month dry docking and restoration project. The ship will come back to Pier One in the Charlestown Navy Yard bow-in as she was when the cruise began because of work on her bowsprit next spring. We invite you to join us this Saturday, October 21, in the Charlestown Navy Yard as we celebrate USS Constitution‘s 220th anniversary of her launch and the 242nd birthday of the American Navy with the officers and crew of “Old Ironsides’” and the National Parks of Boston. Tour USS Constitution and write her a birthday card, watch as “Old Ironsides’” crew performs gun and boarding pike drills, enjoy live music from the Navy Band Northeast‘s rock band, Rhode Island Sound, explore the WWII Fletcher-class destroyer USS Cassin Young with special tours below decks, hear the revving of motorcycles from Rolling Thunder, make a paracord bracelet for our deployed servicemen and women, feast on food truck fare, and so much more!
“Old Ironsides'” underway symbolizes 242 years of American naval heritage – from the Revolution, the War of 1812, through both World Wars, and to the present, the United States Navy has helped to keep the world’s sea lanes free.
-M. M. Desy
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.
USS Constitution Museum