For just the second time in 131 years the USS Constitution will sail under its own power Sunday — the anniversary of its most famous battle — on a voyage that is expected to be as brief as it is momentous.
The world’s oldest commissioned warship afloat, which sailed in spectacular fashion to Marblehead for its 200th birthday in 1997, will be towed to a point almost midway between Castle Island and Deer Island around 11:30 a.m., Navy officials said. Some 200 sailors will unfurl four sails, including its basketball-court sized main sail, before casting its tugboat tethers aside.
For about 10 minutes the Constitution will sail freely toward open water, just as she did off the coast of Nova Scotia on Aug. 19, 1812. That was the day Old Ironsides earned its famous nickname by withstanding an attack from the British frigate HMS Guerriere in one of the first major American naval victories of the War of 1812.
As cannonballs literally bounced off the Constitution’s triple-layered hull, a seaman inside was said to have exclaimed, “Huzza! Her sides are made of iron!” The name stuck instantly.
The brief sail is expected to be the main highlight of Boston’s bicentennial celebration of the young nation’s second war against the British.
On Friday, about 100 reenactors will set up a camp in the Charlestown Navy Yard, where they will stage demonstrations of military and civilian life in 1812 that will be open to the public all weekend. At 10 a.m. Saturday, the US Postal Service will officially unveil a “forever” stamp of the Constitution in a ceremony just steps from the ship and the USS Constitution Museum.
The Navy has deemed Sunday “Guerriere Day,” in honor of the battle. At 10 a.m., the Constitution is expected to be towed from its berth past Castle and Spectacle islands. Less than a mile before reaching the gap that separates Deer and Long islands, the ship’s sails will be dropped for its solo jaunt, only its second since 1881, according to Navy and museum officials. Tugboats, however, will remain by its side.
“She’s pretty old, so they don’t like to take any chances,” said Jodie McMenamin, of the museum.
The Constitution will then be retethered and pointed toward Fort Independence on Castle Island. Its crew will fire two cannons, and the fort will respond in kind, until a 21-gun salute is complete. (The Massachusetts Army National Guard’s 101st Field Artillery Regiment, one of the army’s oldest regiments, will handle Castle Island’s cannons.) With its sails still unfurled for all of Boston to see, the Constitution will be towed back home at approximately 1 p.m.
In a perfect world, the Guerriere would meet the Constitution for a reenacted rematch. But the Constitution battered the Guerriere so badly that the British frigate had to be burned and sunk on the spot.
“It was one of those battles, because of the victory and because it was so decisive, that was just a huge morale booster for the country, and united the country,” said Chief Petty Officer Frank Neely, public affairs officer for the Constitution. “The British couldn’t believe it. How could these colonists take down one of their frigates? We only had six, where the Royal Navy was the largest in the world.”
Rebecca Parmer, an archivist at the Constitution Museum, which is cohosting the bicentennial events with the Navy and Boston National Historical Park, said the Constitution’s victory over the Guerriere may not have been a defining moment for the country — its defeat of the frigate HMS Java in Dec. 1812 was far more significant for the outcome of the war — but it certainly was a defining moment for Old Ironsides.
“When she returned her crew were literally feted as heroes,” Parmer said. “They were given dinners and parties.”
The museum kicks off the festivities Friday at noon with a free lecture on the famed battle by retired Navy Commander Tyrone Martin, a former commanding officer of the Constitution.
The museum is also providing narrators for a luncheon cruise aboard a Boston Harbor Cruises tour boat that will trail behind Old Ironsides during its Sunday voyage.
Museum visitors will also be able to see artist Michele Felice Corné’s “Constitution,” the circa-1803 painting the Constitution stamp is based on. A schedule of events, and information about reserving a seat on the luncheon cruise, can be found on the museum’s website.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this story misstated the historical status of the ship. The Constituion is the oldest commissioned warship afloat.