She’s been trussed up and rejuvenated, and she’s ready for celebration. At 1200 on 21 July, the oldest commissioned warship in the world, the USS Constitution, will set sail in Massachusetts Bay and travel under wind power for the first time since 1881. Through the efforts of the U.S. Naval Historical Center Detachment Boston, private citizens, and school children nationwide, her sails are ready to be unfurled for what is expected to be one of the biggest events in the history of Boston Harbor.
This is only one of several activities being planned this year to honor the 200th anniversary of the ship, which was launched on 21 October 1797. Escorting “Old Ironsides” – a sobriquet she earned in the War of 1812, when cannon shot was seen bouncing off her sides – will be the Arleigh Burke (DDG-51)-class guided-missile destroyer Ramage (DDG-61) and the Oliver Hazard Perry (FFG-7)-class guided-missile frigate Halyburton (FFG-40). As the Constitution’s crew sets her sails the Navy’s precision flight demonstration team, the Blue Angels, is scheduled to fly in formation over the ship. Expected among the guests on board are President Bill Clinton and retired CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite. Also on board, serving as honorary captain, will be retired Navy Commander Tyrone Martin, the 58th skipper of the ship and the author of a special bicentennial tribute to “Old Ironsides” in the July-August issue of Naval History magazine (see page 16) and the Naval Institute Press book, A Most Fortunate Ship, recently re-released in a revised edition. Look for special coverage of the July Constitution events in the October 1997 issue of Proceedings.
A Mind of Her Own
By Charles F. Adams
In 1929, early in my father’s tenure as Secretary of the Navy, his attention was called to the plan for the USS Constitution, just completing major overhaul. As an experienced yachtsman, he became intrigued by the idea of getting her under way, under sail. When he raised the question with Admiral C.F. Hughes, the Chief of Naval Operations, the Admiral replied: “Mr. Secretary, if you want to man her adequately, you will have to decommission a squadron of destroyers. Beyond that, I don’t know who we could get to take command and train the crew.” Later, my father interviewed a couple of square-rigger captains, hoping that one might sign on as sailing master, under a Navy captain. But the reply was clear: “Not on your life, Mr. Adams. Sailing a ship like the Constitution is a lost art.” That ended that!
After he retired as Secretary, my father continued to keep in touch with the Constitution’s captain, Commander Louis J. Gulliver, a great source of sea stories. One of the best yarns concerned the old frigate’s resistance to being towed by the USS Grebe (AM-43), which served both as a tender and towing ship over the years. Once, in a strong head wind, the Constitution’s bluff bow and big rig, even with the sails furled, created so much windage that the Grebe found herself making sternway. Later, with a following wind and sea, the Grebe found herself being overtaken by the Constitution, sails still furled, clipping along at a snappy 14 knots! The Grebe had no choice but to cast off the towline, fall in astern, and try to keep up. I am confident that, with proper planning, such excitement can be avoided during this summer’s operations.