It’s a long way from those futuristic, high-tech assignments the Navy celebrates in its recruiting advertisements on television, bristling with lasers, sonar, and mammoth battleships. The 214-year-old USS Constitution, Old Ironsides, is wind-powered. Its cannons haven’t fired a wartime shot in nearly two centuries. The wooden ship no longer ventures outside Boston’s outer harbor.
Yet when Constitution, a hero of the War of 1812, ventures out into Boston Harbor on the Fourth of July, as a featured star of the Operation Sail 2012 celebration, which opens to the public Saturday, more than 60 commissioned Navy men and women will navigate her through the festivities.
Odd as it may seem, in today’s Navy, a tour of duty on Constitution is a plum assignment. Navy personnel from all over the country — fresh recruits as well as experienced sailors — apply for scarce postings on the ship whenever they open. The appeal of serving on the oldest commissioned warship afloat in the world is an opportunity that trumps glitzier, global assignments.
Before she joined the Constitution crew two years ago, Marina Chavez, 30, was stationed in a series of global “choke points” like the Suez Canal, boarding ships, helping to protect them against modern-day pirates. It was “the rich history” of the USS Constitution that attracted her to the ship, she said. Like all crew members, Chavez’s has taken a 23-week intensive history course, and weekly winter sessions at the nearby USS Constitution Museum.
Her job on the ship, “master at arms,” was one of the original 13 positions in the US Navy. The position has always been “essentially a military police officer,” she said, although she added that the responsibilities have changed. In the 1800s, Constitution’s master at arms was expected to “assist with flogging.”
“No longer part of my job description,” Chavez said with a look of relief.
Chavez is also in charge of the ship’s gun crew. She will be supervising a team of four during a series of boisterous multi-gun salutes on July Fourth.
After one more year on the Constitution, Chavez will head off to another far-flung assignment in a global hot spot; she’s hoping it’s Bahrain.
Yet when she leaves, she said, it will be with a deeper appreciation of US naval history, and the USS Constitution’s role in it.
“Working on this ship and learning the Navy’s history — that will always be with me,” she said.
It will be easy to spot Anthony Costa, Constitution’s senior chief boatswains mate and sailing master, when the ship leaves the dock on July 4. He will be the one patrolling along the ship’s dockside rail barking instructions to the sailors casting off the lines.
That’s one of Costa’s responsibilities, along with supervising the ship’s many square-rigged sails. A native of Ludlow, Costa, 45, joined the Navy in his 20s, “to see the world.” He’s done that, spending most of his career stationed in African, European, and Middle Eastern ports. Then a few years ago, he saw an open position on Constitution.
“I jumped for it,” he said. “What better way is there to learn about our nation’s naval history? This is where it all began. The Constitution is one of the ships that said to the world that America wasn’t fooling around when it came to the Navy.”
In his 2½ years on board, Costa has gotten plenty of history. To learn how to handle Constitution’s sails, he spent considerable training time on other three-masted ships like the Friendship in Salem, and the US Coast Guard’s tall ship, Eagle.
Once a week Costa supervises the unfurling of one of Constitution’s sails, which involves sending sailors up at least one of the ships dizzyingly high masts — a rite of passage for many of the ship’s young crew members.
“You really can’t be afraid of heights on this ship,” Costa said with a wry grin.
To Jason Keith, “Constitution is the celebrity and I’m her agent.”
Officially, the 33-year-old is Constitution’s “special events coordinator.” But the ship’s high profile means Keith is constantly juggling requests, commitments, and the kind of logistical details that come with managing a 214-year-old military hero.
One of Constitution’s most complicated events is a turnaround, the short round trip the ship makes out to Castle Island and back, docking on its return faced in the opposite direction. The ship generally makes about a half-dozen turnarounds a year. Although the maneuver, aided by tugboats, is necessary to evenly expose the ship to prevailing tidal pressure, a turnaround is always an event. That was the case when the ship staged a turnaround voyage to honor the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Midway and members of the Wounded Warrior Project, which serves injured members of the US Armed Forces.
On that trip, Keith spent the entire time monitoring radio updates from crew members, hustling around the ship checking that sailors, visitors, and officers were properly positioned.
Before he joined the crew, Keith was a parachute rigger on the USS Nimitz, a super aircraft carrier and one of the largest warships in the world.
“My job was to be responsible for the pilot from the time he ejected from a plane to the time he’s picked up,” he said.
It was stressful, but, he said, “this job is just as stressful.”
Keith admitted, however, that the transition from Nimitz to Constitution was “an adjustment, I’m not going to kid you.”
Not only is Constitution’s crew nearly 100 times smaller than Nimitz’s (60 vs. the Nimitz’s 5,000), but the missions are diametrically opposed.
“With most modern-day naval commands the object is to keep people out, keep people away from something,” said Keith. “Here the goal is the opposite. You want to attract people to the ship. You want to welcome them. The culture shock can be dramatic.”
A public-facing job is not unusual on Constitution. With more than 500,000 visitors a year, every sailor on the ship is an ambassador. Yet Keith expects the July Fourth Tall Ships celebration, when Constitution will be the center of attention, and carry as many as 700 visitors and dignitaries, to be an all-consuming test of his organizational skills.
At the end of the summer, Keith is off to a new assignment, in Japan, where he will be working with a modern helicopter squadron. Although he will be surrounded by shiny, whirling equipment that is technologically up-to-the-minute, Keith doesn’t expect his new assignment to overshadow his tour on a 214-year-old three-masted wooden warship.
“Serving on the oldest commissioned warship afloat,” he said wistfully, “is not something I’m ever going to forget.”
D.C. Denison can be reached at email@example.com.