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USS Constitution gets a new commander

Incoming skipper has lifelong fascination with fabled ship

Commander Sean D. Kearns (left) and the USS Constitution’s outgoing commanding officer, Matthew J. Bonner, saluted attendees after Kearns officially took over as the ship’s new leader.

JOSH REYNOLDS FOR THE GLOBE

Commander Sean D. Kearns (left) and the USS Constitution’s outgoing commanding officer, Matthew J. Bonner, saluted attendees after Kearns officially took over as the ship’s new leader.

Since he was a child visiting relatives in Braintree, Sean D. Kearns has always been drawn to the USS Constitution and its storied legacy.

He collected models and posters and studied the ship’s legendary commanders. It was on the deck of Old Ironsides where the Hampden, Maine, native became a Navy officer in 1994.

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On Friday morning, under overcast skies and light rain, the 44-year-old stood in Charlestown Navy Yard, clad in the classic 1813 commanding officer’s uniform, and was sworn in as the latest skipper of the 215-year-old warship.

During an emotional ceremony, Kearns approached Matthew J. Bonner, the ship’s 72d commander, and presented him with his orders. The two tucked their bicorn hats under their arms as more than 150 friends, family, former commanders, and the ship’s crew looked on.

“Sir,” Kearns announced, “I relieve you.”

“I stand relieved,” Bonner said.

With that, Kearns became the ship’s 73d commander, joining the ranks of such naval legends as Captain Isaac Hull, the Constitution’s commander when it laid waste to the British frigate HMS Guerriere in the War of 1812.

‘I told [Kearns] to trust his heart, trust his judgment and, when in doubt, take a walk on the ship.’

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It was during that battle that the ship earned its nickname Old Ironsides, when British cannonballs appeared to bounce off the ship’s thick wooden hull.

“It is very humbling list,” he said after the ceremony. “It is an honor.”

Kearns boasts a long history in Boston, having earned a mechanical engineering degree from Boston University and two master’s degrees from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Commanders serve two-year stints on the oldest commissioned warship in the world still afloat, one that racked up a 33-0 record in battle.

Down from its 1797 peak of 500 crew members, the ship now has a crew of around 70 who promote its history to the general public.

Before relinquishing his command, Bonner was presented with the Meritorious Service Medal by Vice Admiral Richard W. Hunt for his two eventful years as commander.

In 2012, Bonner oversaw the Constitution’s second unassisted sail in 131 years when the crew celebrated the 200th anniversary of the ship’s victory over the Guerriere.

“Young naval officers often dream of having a command of their own, to be the captain. And I don’t think I was any different,” Bonner said, pausing to fight back tears during his last speech as commander. “Command of the Constitution has been the greatest job I have ever had in the Navy.”

Bonner, a Meredith, N.H., native who will now work at the Pentagon, thanked the crew as well as the artisans who keep the ship in working order.

Few people can understand the significance of taking command of such a historic ship, said Robert L. Gillen, a Charlestown native who served as the Constitution’s 59th skipper, from 1978-1980.

Watching the change of command Friday reminded him of when he took — and relinquished — his command. “It was so emotional each time,” he said.

Bonner said he told Kearns to listen and to look to the ship and its history for guidance.

“People always kind of think that’s funny when you say the ship speaks to you, but she does,” Bonner said after the ceremony. “I told [Kearns] to trust his heart, trust his judgment and, when in doubt, take a walk on the ship and it will all become clear.”

Javier Panzar can be reached at javier.panzar@globe.com Follow him on Twitter @jpanzar.
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