Happy Anniversary, “Old Ironsides”!

July is a multiple-anniversary month for USS Constitution:

  • The 44-gun frigate began her first cruise the evening of July 22, 1798, under ideal sailing conditions:

Steady Breezes fine & Pleasant Weather. At 8 P.M. Took my departure from Boston Light. [Samuel Nicholson, first captain of USS Constitution, as quoted in A Most Fortunate Ship, Tyrone G. Martin]

  • Between July 16th and 19th, 1812, Constitution made her great escape from a squadron of five British warships in the opening days of the War of 1812.
    USS Constitution Escaping from the British, July 1812, by J. O. Davidson, 1884. [USS Constitution Museum Collection]

The daring escape by Captain Isaac Hull and his crew garnered not only the respect of their fellow U.S. Navy officers and sailors, but that of the Royal Navy as well. Lieutenant Oliver Hazard Perry noted to Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton later in July:

“It affords me the greatest pleasure to communicate to you Sir, the testimony all bear who witnessed Capt Hull’s conduct when chased by the English Squadron[;] to use the language of the Masters who were onboard of the different English ships at the time – ‘it was elegant’ – they say also, that neither of British frigates dare approach [Hull and Constitution] seperately [sic].”  [Oliver Hazard Perry to Paul Hamilton, 26 July 1812, as reprinted in The Naval War of 1812, A Documentary History, Volume 1]

The “legend” of USS Constitution had begun.

  • Old Ironsides” made 20th century history on July 21, 1997, when she sailed, in honor of the 200th anniversary of her launch, for the first time in 116 years.

And, just one year ago, on July 23rd, America’s Ship of State returned to the waters of Boston Harbor when she was re-floated from Dry Dock 1.

This fish-eye lens view from the third floor of the USS Constitution Museum shows the visitors and Constitution just before the caisson was removed from the dry dock. [Courtesy National Park Service. Photo by Matt Teuten]

So we take this notable month in “Old Ironsides'” long history to bring to a close the unfolding story of Constitution‘s 2015 – 2017/18 restoration. If you have been a faithful reader of this blog, you will have followed the ship’s entry into the Charlestown Navy Yard’s historic Dry Dock 1 on May 18, 2015, the different restoration projects including the cutwater, waterways, hull planking, quarter galleries, and copper sheathing, and the re-float on July 23, 2017. “Old Ironsides'” first 21st century dry docking was a success.

Now, we will finish the restoration with the stories of the last big projects that make Constitution once again look like the War of 1812 icon that she is.

Did you ever wonder if the phrase, “the whole nine yards” was a nautical term? According to Fred Shapiro, editor of the Yale Book of Quotations, in an article he wrote for the Yale Alumni Magazinethe earliest variations of the quote can be traced to two articles in the Mount Vernon (Kentucky) Signal in May and June, 1912. Neither instance had anything to do with the maritime world. So, what do we mean when we say “the whole thirteen yards” when referencing USS Constitution? Actually, according to sailmaker Charles Ware’s 1817 sail plan of Constitution (see below), the ship could carry up to sixteen yards! However, thirteen was the more usual number of yards (horizontal spars) that were set up for the square sails and rigging on “Old Ironsides.”


“A Draft of the U.S. Frigate Constitution,” by Charles Ware, 1817, showing the maximum number of yards that could be rigged on the ship. [Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration, 19-4-43 Record Group 19.]

You will notice in the photograph of Constitution below, taken in mid-June, the ship is currently rigged with four yards on each of the three masts. On the fore and main masts, the yards are (bottom to top): fore/main course or yard, fore/main top yard, fore/main topgallant yard, and fore/main royal yard. On the mizzen (aftermost) mast, the yards have slightly different names and uses than on the fore and main masts. On the mizzen, the spars are (bottom to top): cross-jack yard (commonly pronounced “crojack” and neither “mizzen” nor “yard” are used as denominators as there is no other crojack on the vessel), mizzen top yard, mizzen topgallant yard, and mizzen royal yard. On the bowsprit (the multi-sectioned spar that is set at an angle from the bow), the spritsail yard is suspended. Of the thirteen yards on Constitution, neither the spritsail yard nor the crojack ever carried sails in the ship’s career.


A view of USS Constitution at Pier One, late June of this year, with the four yards on each of the masts. Note the sailors aloft on the mizzen top yard. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]

The new spritsail yard on USS Constitution’s bowsprit. During the ship’s sailing career, the spritsail yard was used to carry rigging for the bowsprit, jibboom, and flying jibboom; the yard did not, in fact, carry a sail. [Courtesy Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]
By the late 18th century, when Constitution and the other five original frigates were built, rigged, and launched, a sail on the sprit yard was rendered obsolete by the multiple triangular staysails/jibs that could be set from the bowsprit stays. For “Old Ironsides”, the spritsail yard carries rigging for the jibboom and flying jibboom.

Constitution‘s crojack was the first yard installed on the ship as her up-rigging got underway in April 2018. Like the spritsail yard, it didn’t and doesn’t carry sail – instead, this horizontal spar is used as a spreader to which the foot (bottom) of the mizzen top sail is sheeted home and to carry running rigging from the main mast.


The mizzen crojack was the first horizontal yard installed on USS Constitution in April 2018. The angled spar, from which the American flag hangs, is the spanker gaff, for the sail that sets fore and aft from the mizzen mast. [Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]

The gallery of photographs that follows is a sequence taken on June 26, 2018, when Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston riggers and USS Constitution sailors bent on the sail to the mizzen top yard – the mizzen topsail. Even though the mizzen topsail is the smallest of the three topsails, it still took a dozen people to attach the sail to the yard. All of Constitution‘s modern sails are made from Oceanus, a Dacron fibre. The sail was prepped in the NHHC Detachment Boston rigging loft, so that when the sail was hoisted, it was oriented properly to the yard. Small lines, originally called “rope bands” (pronounced “robins” according to Falconer’s 1815 New Universal Dictionary of the Marine), known as “robands” today, are looped through brass grommets (reinforced holes) in the top edge or head of the sail; the robands are then tied around the “jack-stay”, an iron rod that is fastened to the top of yard. The sail’s robands are tied to the jack stay and the sailors can use the jack stay as a safety hold while aloft.  [All photos by Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]



New and different synthetic rope/line has been introduced to “Old Ironsides'” rigging in the 2015 restoration. For rigging the yards, the Detachment Boston riggers switched from steel cable and polyester to Dyneema®  for slings. The extra strength of the high performance Polyethylene line and lighter weight are great advantages for the miles of rigging needed on “Old Ironsides”.


The brilliant blue color of the Dyneema®  line will be concealed, once the rigging is parceled and served with black Polyester line. Note the intricacy of the woven line. [Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]

As part of Constitution‘s 2015 restoration, most of the standing rigging was removed for inspection, overhaul, and replacement. Several of the yard slings and lifts (supports) which were either steel cable or Polyester were replaced with Dyneema®. Along with replacing the line, metal “thimbles” which help to hold the hardware of the rigging needed to be completely replaced. The pressure of the rigging was so great on some of the thimbles that they were mis-shaped and needed to be completely replaced.


Steel rigging thimble, installed during USS Constitution’s 1992 restoration, whose shape became compromised by the pressure of the rigging. The rigging sling and thimble were completely replaced in the 2015 restoration. [Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]
The new rigging thimbles were forged by the Detachment Boston blacksmith Stephen Nichols from mild steel plates. The photo gallery below illustrates the various steps in creating one thimble. Once a steel plate is heated in the forge, the trough-like shape of the thimble is made using the force of the 100-ton hydraulic press; the trough-like steel plate, heated again, is then bent into a curve, to create the full circle of the thimble; the two ends of the thimble are arch-welded shut; and the finished thimble is fitted into the new Dyneema®  sling or lift for one of Constitution‘s yards. [All photos Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]





USS Constitution‘s running rigging has been a fibrillated polypropylene since the 1992 restoration. For the 2015 restoration up-rigging, P.O.S.H., a spun polyester, was being introduced for the braces for the yards. P.O.S.H. resembles real fibre line and has a great “hand”, or feel, of natural hemp rigging.

Running rigging on USS Constitution’s mizzen mast fife rail. The new P.O.S.H. braces for the yards on the main mast are the lighter colored lines; the mizzen topsail sheet is the older, darker colored line. [Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]


USS Constitution’s starboard clew, bunt, and leech lines (lines which help to set and furl the sail) belayed on their pin rail. [Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston]

As has been discussed in previous restoration blog posts, work to maintain and preserve USS Constitution never actually stops.  But, the larger tasks of 2015 restoration have been completed and “Old Ironsides” is back at Pier One, ready for another summer of welcoming visitors from all over the world. We hope you will have the opportunity to come to Boston and tour America’s Ship of State – soon!


USS Constitution in Boston Harbor, July 4, 2018, at the start of her annual 4th of July underway cruise. She is dressed with international signal flags for the occasion. Note that the ship’s flying jibboom, third and outer-most section to the bowsprit, has yet to be replace. [U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Casey Scoular/Released]

The Author(s)

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.