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Constitution Sails Again—and Again?

By Tyrone G. Martin

As the project progressed, its principal movers decided to outfit the ship with six sails: the three topsails, two jibs, and the spanker—essentially, what was once referred to as "fighting sail," minus the topgallants.

Sailing the ship would be the 65 members of her regular crew augmented by about 35 civilians from the Naval Historical Detachment, Boston, and about 40 selected Naval Reservists and Naval Academy and NROTC midshipmen—about a third of the complement that sailed her in the old days. Their training, begun in May 1996, took place on board the USCGC Eagle , the recreated HMS Bounty , at the Courageous Sail Center in Boston's Charlestown Navy Yard, and in the ship herself.

As New England warmed to spring, 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. Word was that if you were lower than flag rank you had no hope of being present. The pot really began to boil when rumors spread that the President and First Lady would be there. By the first week in June, stories came from Marblehead of Secret Service not-so-secret "sweeping" activities, preparing for the presidential presence. These tales competed with another that said the First Couple wasn't coming at all.

The main event was divided into three phases over two days to accommodate guest lists from Washington. On Sunday, 20 July, the Constitution was towed from her mooring and taken to sea. Following her out, and taking up stations on either quarter were the USS Ramage (DDG-61) and the USS Halyburton (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 200 guests stood on the gratings over the main hatch for the hour or so involved with sail handling.

On Monday, 21 July, 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 CNN. Then came "Good Morning America," while a couple of local radio personalities perched themselves aft on the taffrail. Launches from several yacht clubs delivered a gaggle of U.S. Senators, the Secretary of the Navy, the Chief and Vice Chief of Naval Operations, an armada of admirals, and a sentimental favorite, Walter Cronkite. By 0900 or so, the last of the A-list were on board and the ship was under way, being towed clear of the small harbor with an uncharacteristically northerly wind.

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. On deck once more, the crew manned halyards 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 largest of the frigate's sails—more than 3,500 square feet—filled with the breeze; tears were flowing, 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 south southwest, 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 ensure 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 onsite 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 did anyone have cause for alarm.

At 1230, small dots over Marblehead soon evolved into the Navy's Blue Angels precision flight team, closing in at 300 feet. It seemed as though 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 into the lowering northern sky.

The ship's return to Marblehead was under tow with the sails furled. There, launches disembarked the guests and brought on those invited for the final phase, the return to Boston. 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.

Under way a final time late in the afternoon, somewhat behind schedule, the tow back to Boston went faster than before. Yet the crew took time to have the sails set one more time. Intermittent showers rendered the evolution a bit more difficult for the tiring crew, but everything went smoothly and safely.

The Constitution ended these eventful two days at her regular berth about 2100 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 U.S. and Navy Department flags from the tall booms of two mobile cranes parked pier-side. Walking down the lighted brow into another wet twilight somehow was a proper conclusion to this unique event.

The 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 Humphreys's 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 the Constitution sail again? Yes—in winds of less than 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 200year-old keel, 200-year-old floor timbers, and 200-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 does not ready her for roller blades. We must remember that she is the sole surviving member of the U.S. Navy to have been a part of the organization since before the department existed, and it behooves us to do all we can to respect and to preserve her. We must resist any temptations to require her to perform merely for the thrill of it. That's abusive. For my brother past captains and myself, it is one thing to be known as a former captain. It would be quite unthinkable to have to live with the title "last captain."

Commander Martin was the Constitution ’s 58th captain and served as historical commentator for the event he describes here.


Commander Martin is the author of six books on naval history, including the highly acclaimed A Most Fortunate Ship: A Narrative History of "Old Ironsides" (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, rev. ed., 1997). He has been a contributor to the U.S. Naval Institute's Proceedings for nearly 40 years, and to Naval History for more than a decade. His popular column"Salty Talk" has appeared in Naval History since 1993. He lives in North Carolina.

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