By Commander Tyrone G. Martin, U. S. Navy (Retired)
The launching of a ship is like the birth of a child: it is a time of tension and anticipation. The builder worries about the transfer of his large, weighty creation from the unyielding land to the buoyant water. And the ship’s owner looks forward to possessing his new asset, be she merchantman or man-of-war. The “birth” of Constitution generated both emotions.
The big frigate was built on a slip laid for the purpose in Edmund Hartt’s shipyard in the North End of Boston. While neither Hartt nor the Constructor, George Claghorn, has left us a description of it, its features were common to all builders of large vessels. On the sloping shore, an area of compacted rubble was “paved” with compacted gravel. Set into this “floor” at intervals of five or six feet, parallel to the shore and centered on a line perpendicular to it, were large pieces of timber secured by stakes. These were the foundation for large blocks of oak, more than a foot thick and two or three feet wide, which, in turn, were topped by the “splitting blocks” of clear-grained timber. The splitting blocks would bear the weight of the growing ship until shortly before her launch.
A ship, when ready to launch, is not a finished product -nor were they in 1797. The hull was complete, caulked, and coppered, and the figurehead and other decorations in place. But not all of her internal bulkheads, and certainly not all her equipage and furnishings were aboard. No masts had been stepped nor rigging rigged. Even so, the 1500 or so trees used in bringing the embryonic frigate to her present state had contributed more than 1200 tons to her hefty bulk.
The first step in the countdown was to install the bilge ways or launching ways. These consisted of two stout wooden rails laid on the slip bed parallel to the ship’s centerline and about ten feet out on either side of it. Each was about two-and-a-half feet broad, securely spiked to the groundway. Additionally, each was braced all along its length to prevent spreading when the ship’s weight came on it.
Crucial to the laying of the bilge ways was their slope, or declivity. If it was too little, the ship might not move at all or move so slowly that it would be damaged as the stern came afloat and the forefoot was subjected to excessive strain against the building way. Too great a slope, and the ship might enter the water too fast and out of control, perhaps grounding or colliding with something. According to the experts of the day, a slope of 5/8-inch per foot of bilge way was about right.
After laying the bilge ways, the Constructor then set about erecting the cradles, fore and aft. Thick planks of fir were laid atop the bilge ways, which had been liberally coated with a mixture of soap and tallow.
Large, curved pieces called “spurs,” exactly fitting the outside shape of the hull, then were fixed in place on these planks and forelocked through the hull with three bolts. Typically, there would have been four spurs cradling the bow on either side and five near the stern, like two pairs of hands, each pair together at the wrists with upward pointing fingers apart and spread. Braces were fitted between the base planks of the cradles and the ship’s keel to increase the structure’s rigidity.
To prevent the ship from launching itself prematurely, long baulks of timber, each hinged at their after ends, were affixed to the outer sides of the launch ways below the forward cradle. The forward ends were seated against blocks of wood attached to the forward part of the cradle and held in place by wedges with rope handles attached. When the “big moment” came, the wedges would be drawn and the hinged portions drop, clearing the ways for the ship to begin her shortest, perhaps most dangerous, journey.
Beneath the bow and between the bilgeways was installed the driver screw, a simple if over-large jack with one of its sides against a transverse member of the ground way and the other against the ship’s stem. Two screws connected the sides and kept them apart with just sufficient pressure to hold its position. In addition, powerful tackles were rigged from the forward part of the cradle on each side to bollards (posts) set in the ground alongside the ship near the stern and the water’s edge. Both jack and tackles were available should the ship not move when the wedges came out.
When the launch ways were all in place, it was time to fit the final member on the ship’s hull: the false keel, a sort of bumper to protect the keel from grounding damage. Consisting of a number of pieces of six- to eight-inch thick timber, it was inserted in stages under the keel as the splitting blocks were removed from the bow aft. Each piece in its turn was stapled to the keel and connected to its predecessor by an interlocking scarph. When the false keel was complete, the ship no longer rested on the building way, but was supported by the fore and aft cradles of the launching way. By this time, the invitations should have been set out, the speakers set, the newspapers notified, and party arranged.
The year 1797, with the launching of three frigates, marked the beginning of the United States Navy. United States had been launched in May and Constellation in early September. For months, the growing bulk of the Boston frigate had dominated that town’s waterfront. The citizenry had evinced considerable pride in her from the earliest days, and now that the other two had been launched, they were most anxious for “their” frigate to be waterborne. George Claghorn set 20 September as the launch date and President John Adams, a Massachusetts man, said he would attend.
The announcement set off a flurry of activity. Nearby property owners and boatmen sought to make money on the occasion by erecting viewing platforms or hiring out their craft to paying customers. People even expected to gather on Noddle’s Island across the harbor to see the mighty frigate launched. In the town, preparations were made for dinners, dances, and dramatics to celebrate the occasion.
Constructor Claghorn took note of this growing enthusiasm and published a circular on 18 September advising everyone that, because of limited space within the yard, only the President, the Governor and Lieutenant Governor of the state, and the city selectmen would be permitted “inside the fence.” Furthermore, he warned those who thought of standing near the water’s edge outside the yard’s limits that they might be endangered by the swell raised when the large hull hit the water.
The 20th of September dawned cold but bright, an altogether pleasant day. Thousands thronged from Boston and the nearby countryside (there were only a population of about 7000 in the town then) to take every possible perch from which to watch the proceedings. At 11:20, the calculated moment of high tide, Claghorn gave the order to pull the wedges, and the crows hushed as it gathered itself to cheer the frigate’s first moment afloat. Soon, the blocks were gone — but the ship failed to move. The driver screw finally got her going, but only for twenty-seven feet. It was found that a portion of the launching way had settled a half inch, causing the cradle to seize up. The shores and wedges were replaced, and the crowds went home.
The next day, after taking careful measurements and laying his plans, the Constructor wedged the ship up two inches in a fifty minute operation, and set about correcting the defects in the ways as he knew them. By evening, all appeared in readiness for another attempt.
On 22 September, with no public announcement, the launch sequence was begun again. This time, the ship moved thirty-one feet before seizing up just short of the water. Another settled spot in the ways — five-eighths inch this time — had done them in. Claghorn would take his time and do a more careful job of surveying the ways before trying again. And, in any event, the next period of highest monthly high tides was four weeks away.
A cold, overcast day was 21 October 1797. An east wind swept across the Hartt yard and built up a nasty chop in the harbor. Early that morning, George Claghorn caused one of the frigate’s 24-pounder long guns to be fired as an announcement to anyone interested that he was ready to try again at high tide.
By noon “a very numerous and brilliant collection of citizens assembled at the spectacle.” Among those on board the ship for the occasion were Captain Samuel Nicholson, the ship’s prospective commanding officer; Captain James Sever, visiting from his post in Portsmouth, New Hampshire; and a couple of newspaper publishers and their guests, including a future king of France and other aristocrats from that country, displaced by their revolution.
A few moments later, Claghorn gave the order to knock out the wedges and shores, and this time the big frigate moved promptly and swiftly into the harbor waters. As she went, Captain Sever broke a bottle of Madeira wine on the heel of her bowsprit, declaring her to be named “Constitution.”
Once anchored, the yard was signaled and Constitution’s 24-pounders lining the shore “announced to the neighboring country that the CONSTITUTION WAS SECURE.” Reported the Boston Centinel: “Such was the regular obliquity of the ways, that she came to anchor within 200 yards of them, without the least strain or…the most trifling accident.” Even the usually derisive Boston Chronicle waxed romantic, reporting that “…she moved with a most graceful dignity into the embraces of the surrounding waters:…this child of the ocean was safely delivered in the cradle, to the protection of Neptune to be suckled at the breast of ‘fair Bellona.’”
For all the satisfaction he must have felt that day, Captain Nicholson was frustrated in the exercise of what he considered to be one of his prerogatives: the raising of the Stars and Stripes aboard the new ship. While he was attending a post-launch dinner, two shipyards workers long vexed by the Captain’s irascibility, slipped aboard and hoisted the flag to a jury-rigged pole. Nicholson, of course, was furious, but the flag remained, fluttering in the cold, damp air.
This is the first launching in the U. S. Navy of which we have a complete record. Despite sailors’ superstitions that a ship requiring more than one launch effort was jinxed, Constitution turned out to do rather better.
Dodds, James and Moore, James. Building The Wooden Fighting Ship. New York: Facts on File Publications, 1984.
Martin, Tyrone G. A Most Fortunate Ship. Revised edition. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1997.
—. Creating A Legend. Chapel Hill: Tryon Publishing Company, 1997.
Reilly, John C., Jr. Ships Of The United States Navy: Christening, Launching And Commissioning. 2nd ed. Washington, DC: GPO, 1976.
A TIMONIER Publication
1990, 1997, TGM