Constitution Sails Again…And Again?
By Commander Tyrone G. Martin, U. S. Navy (Retired)
On 21 July 1997, USS Constitution (“Old Ironsides”) sailed free for the first time in almost 116 years. The previous occasion had been on 15 October 1881, when the venerable frigate sailed from Newport, Rhode Island, and anchored a few hours later off Cuttyhunk Island. From there, she was towed back to Newport where, in November, she was visited by the Board of Inspection and Survey. Their finding was that the ship’s structure had so deteriorated that she should be removed from active service. And so it was that at the New York Navy Yard in the rainy evening twilight of 14 December 1881 her ensign and commissioning pennant were lowered and her remaining crew marched off to the receiving ship.
From 1992 to 1995, Constitution underwent the seventh major overhaul of her career. The most complex project of the program was the return of certain innovative structural elements, elements which, it turns out, had been removed in the 1870s and whose removal had contributed directly to her decommissioning in 1881. The return of the diagonal riders originated by Naval Constructor Joshua Humphreys in 1794, together with associated knees, stanchions, and “thick plank,” had been shown in model tests and computer simulations to result in a significant strengthening of the ship’s ability to resist hogging in a seaway.1
For all the apparently good results coming from the various indirect methods of testing, by the time Commander Michael C. Beck took command in July 1995 there was a growing feeling that the only certain way to assess the impact of Humphreys’ unique idea was to put a few sails on the ship and measure the reaction of the actual structure underway. Rather quickly, the proposal was put together to sail the venerable frigate under reduced canvas for a short period of time not far off the Massachusetts coast under very restricted wind and sea conditions. Approval was not long in coming, although in some cases it may have been based more on sailing enthusiasm than on the serious purpose underlying the idea.
It was proposed that whatever sails were to be used be funded by a campaign among America’s school children, reminiscent of the pennies campaign during the 1920s that provided some of the monies expended in the 1927 31 restoration of the ship. Commander Robert L. Gillen, the ship’s 59th skipper, volunteered to be national chairman of the effort. In the meantime, the Naval Historical Center Detachment, Boston, the organization responsible for all maintenance and restoration work, set about creating plans for the sails and running rigging so long absent from the ship. Captain Beck began planning sail training for his crew and ways in which it would be augmented to conduct the experiment. As the project progressed, it was decided that the ship would be outfitted with six sails: the three topsails, two jibs, and the spanker essentially, what was once encompassed by the term “fighting sail,” but less the topgallants. The topsails were produced by Nathaniel S. Wilson of East Boothbay, Maine, and the inner jib by James Brink of Brooklyn, New York. The Historical Center Detachment made the other two, in addition to the running rigging that had to be added to the ship to handle its new “power plant.”
Sailing the ship would be a company composed of the sixty five members of her regular crew augmented by about thirty five civilians from the Detachment, and about forty selected Naval Reservists and Naval Academy and NROTC midshipmen about a third of the number that sailed her in the old days. Their training, begun in May 1996, was done on board USCGCEagle, the recreated HMS Bounty, at the Courageous Sail Center in the Charlestown Navy Yard, and in the ship herself. The period selected for the sailing trial was the third week of July, a period when generally southerly or southwesterly breezes of under ten knots could be expected. On such an offshore zephyr, the trial could take place relatively close to shore to permit a greater number of people to witness the event. Northern terminus for it would be Marblehead, Massachusetts, a small harbor into which Constitution had escaped in 1814 when chased by two British frigates. The scheduled period also was that of her first sailing in 1798.
As New England warmed to the Spring of 1997, official Washington warmed to the coming experiment to such a degree that the serious purpose soon was lost in the scramble to participate in a media event. One “word” making the rounds was that if you were less than flag rank you had no hope of being present. The pot really began to boil when it was said that the President and First Lady would be there. By the first week in June, people in Boston were being excited by stories coming from Marblehead of the not so secret “sweeping” activities of the Secret Service in preparation for the presidential presence. They competed with another that said the First Couple wasn’t coming at all. 2
Already present in Boston were six yard patrol craft (“Yippies”) from the Naval Academy, there to house participating midshipmen.
A “sea trial” was conducted on 8 July, when the frigate was towed out into Massachusetts Bay and for thirty minutes set sail while still secured to a slackened tow line. In a ten to twelve knot breeze, about seven knots was recorded when all six sails were set.
The main event itself was divided into three phases over a period of two days in order to accommodate the press of guest lists from Washington. On Sunday, 20 July, Constitution was towed from her mooring at the former Charlestown Navy Yard and taken to sea. Following her out, and taking up stations on either quarter were USS Ramage (DDG 61) and USSHalyburton (FFG 40). Coast Guard patrol craft kept a swarm of spectator boats at a safe distance. Heading toward Marblehead, the tow again was slackened and sails set as a dress rehearsal for the following morning. Nearly two hundred guests were on board for the trip, and were limited to standing on the gratings over the main hatch for the hour or so involved with sail handling.
Monday, 21 July, opened with a swarm of media boarding the ship at her buoys off the town. Reporters and their gear were everywhere from first light on. In the larboard waist, for example, CBS had set up shop, and immediately aft of them was the CNN crew. Then came Bill Ritter and the “Good Morning America” team, while aft on the taffrail perched a couple of local radio personalities. Most of these were required to complete their reporting and depart prior to the arrival of the principal guests for the second phase. With only a media pool aboard, launches from several yacht clubs shuttled like water bugs between the landing of the Corinthian Yacht Cub to deliver a gaggle of Senators, the Secretary of the Navy, the Chief and Vice Chief of Naval Operations, an armada of admirals, and a sentimental favorite, Mr. Walter Cronkite, as well as others totally nearly another two hundred. By nine or so, the last were aboard and the ship underway, being towed clear of the small harbor with an uncharacteristically northerly wind blowing at about knots.
As Chief Boatswain’s Mate Joseph Wilson, in the role of sailing master, ordered the crew aloft, the tow was cast off. Out on the yards, the topsails were loosed on each mast as the inner jib was set forward. “One knot” was reported; Constitutionwas sailing free under her own power for the first time this century. On deck once more, the crew manned halliards to haul up the main topsail yard, then sheeted the sail home and braced it ‘round to catch the wind. Gaping mouths were commonplace as the as the largest of the frigate’s sails at over 3500 square feet (and a thousand pounds) filled with the breeze; tears were to be seen, too. “Two knots.” The outer jib was set and the foretopsail. “Three knots.” Next came the mizzen topsail and finally, the spanker. “Four knots.” For an hour she sailed to the southsouthwest as hundreds of spectator boats milled around at a respectful distance and helicopters darted about with their cargoes of cameramen.
While spectators on and off the ship were awed by the appearance of an old form of propulsion, high technology was being employed elsewhere in the ship to insure her safety. Piloting throughout all phases of the event was done using the Global Positioning System, mainly under the charge of some of the ship’s former skippers. A modern, hand held anemometer also saw action in lieu of a dog vane mounted on a shroud or backstay. And deep in the bilges input from sensors and on site inspectors permitted a sophisticated computerized damage control program to assess any and every little shift in the ship’s structure as she pitched gently through the mild swells. Never was there cause for alarm. At 1230, people were alerted to look northward. Small dots over Marblehead soon evolved into the Blue Angels closing in at three hundred feet in one of their tight formations. It seemed they tickled the main truck as they passed overhead, and it was a sight that thrilled all viewers as both old and new contributed elements of grace and beauty to the combined picture. After several more passes, the “Blues” disappeared once more into the lowering northern sky.
The return to Marblehead was made under tow with the sails furled.3 There, the guests were disembarked by launches and then those invited for the final phase, the return to Boston, brought out to the ship. In the interim, anyone who chanced to visit the berth deck found a scene from the Old Navy: hammocks full of exhausted crew members sprawled in all attitudes of repose, dead to the world. Underway a final time late in the afternoon, somewhat behind schedule, the tow back to Boston was conducted faster than before. Yet, time was taken to slacken it for a while and have the sails set one more time for the latest group of guests. The evolution was rendered a bit more difficult for the tiring crew by the presence of intermittent rain showers, but everything went smoothly and safely.
Constitution ended this most eventful two day period at her regular berth about 9 Monday evening in a shower. But no one’s enthusiasm possibly could be dampened. The crew responded enthusiastically to the welcoming cheers of the waiting crowd on both sides of the slip, and all were thrilled by the unfurling of gigantic American and Navy Department flags from the tall booms of two mobile cranes parked pierside. Walking down the lighted brow into another wet twilight somehow was a proper conclusion to this unique event and contrasted sharply with the lack of public notice of the earlier moment.
Constitution came through the experiment with flying colors. Data collected during each phase confirmed the correctness of the computer and model tank findings. The return of Joshua Humphreys’ diagonal riders and associated structures to the ship had given her back the ability to resist hogging and related hull distortions that a second class “restoration” had denied her more than a century before.
Could Constitution sail again? Yes at least in winds of under ten knots, in seas of a foot or less, with a half dozen sails or so, for a brief period close to home. Should it be done? Not unless it relates directly and clearly to her continued well being. Diagonal riders notwithstanding, she is still a ship with a two hundred year old keel, two hundred year old floor timbers, and two hundred year old first futtocks. With the return of the riders, she is like one’s great great grandmother who has undergone hip replacement surgery. The operation has given her relief from pain and the ability to move about more easily; it did not ready her for roller blades. As the sole member of the U. S. Navy to have been a part of the organization since before the department existed, it behooves us to do all we can respect and to preserve her, and to resist any temptations to require her to perform merely for the thrill of it. That’s abusive. For me and my brother past captains, it is one thing to be known as a former captain, it would be quite unthinkable to have to live with the title “the last captain.”
Commander Martin was Constitution’s 58th captain (during the nation’s bicentennial) and participated in the memorable sailing event as historical commentator.
[Published in U. S. Naval Institute Proceedings, October 1997, pp. 2, 4.]
1 See the author’s “Joshua Humphreys’ Real Innovation,” in Naval History, March/April 1994, pp. 32 37, for a detailed description with accompanying drawings by John C. Roach.
2 This proved to be the case: the President attended commissioning ceremonies for USS Seawolf (SSN 21) at New London that weekend.
3 One spectator craft became the only casualty of the day on this return to Marblehead: through inattention, it ran up on a rock and holed itself. Other boats took off the unhurt crew and managed to get the craft safely in to port.