Old Ironsides’ victory lap withstands Arthur

Foul weather canceled, delayed, or cut short other major Fourth of July traditions around Boston this year, but the USS Constitution refused to bow to Hurricane Arthur.

“Old Ironsides” has seen far worse in her 216 years. Plus, she had a special mission this year.


The annual Independence Day cruise the Constitution completed Friday was the last July Fourth journey she’ll make for a while.

The oldest commissioned warship afloat in the world is scheduled to be dry docked until 2018 so she can undergo repairs.

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The restoration, scheduled to start in March, will fix areas of the wooden ship’s stern, bow, hull, deck, masts, gun carriages, and copper sheathing, officials said.

The dry dock, located near the Constitution’s home in Charlestown Navy Yard, will be flooded and the ship will be floated in before the water is slowly let out so the ship can balance atop wooden blocks specially designed to fit its hull.

A civilian crew will remove the copper sheathing and an underlying layer of felt along the bottom of the ship before pulling some planks to inspect the frame for rot or other issues while using X-rays and other high-tech equipment to help identify problem areas without completely disassembling the large vessel.


The ship, a hero of the War of 1812, will make three more trips into the harbor — two in August and one on its birthday in October — but the general public will not go sailing on it again until the Constitution is shipshape. Officials hope to keep at least part of the vessel open to public tours.

“The restoration will be an important period of time for the ship, but not as much fun as this,” said Sean D. Kearns, the Constitution’s 73d commanding officer, surveying Boston Harbor as the ship, aided by a tugboat and escorted by Coast Guard and State Police vessels, chugged along.

The majestic three-mast ship ventured into the harbor under cloudy skies and fired two of its 44 cannons in a booming 21-gun salute off Fort Independence at Castle Island.

The ship was then turned around and fired a 17-gun salute off the US Coast Guard base, before returning to its prime parking spot off Charlestown, where passengers applauded before debarking amid steady rain.

Miguel Duncan, 64, and his wife Pat, 63, of Albuquerque, N.M., were among the 150 guests on board the Constitution on Friday, winners of a free online lottery that drew more than 5,000 entries.

When he was 14, Duncan built a model of the Constitution, but he had never seen the real thing until now.

“I always envisioned myself being able to crawl around the decks and see the ship,” he said while touring the gun deck.

Navy Master-at-Arms First Class Mary Morrison, of Oklahoma, said she and the ship’s several dozen other crew members will no longer be working on board by the time the ship returns to water in 2018.

She will particularly miss being with the Constitution’s visitors, she said.

“We definitely enjoy getting to work and interact with the public,” Morrison said. “Every day you’re coming through and people will say, ‘Thank you for serving.’ It’s beautiful.”

National Park Service volunteers Cat McGrath and Jackie Kumor, who wore bonnets, gloves, and dresses like those worn by women in 1812, said the restoration will be bittersweet.

“It’s sad she won’t be able to go out for three years, but we’re glad she’ll be able to see another century,” McGrath said.

The Constitution was one of the Navy’s six original frigates. It was built using design elements from both English and French war vessels, said Commander Paul Brawley, a Navy spokesman.

The ship’s construction, particularly its use of white oak and live oak throughout, makes it remarkably durable.

The Constitution was the largest structure in the city of Boston when it was built, Brawley said.

Its size and dense materials, along with its heavy armaments, were instrumental in helping it withstand the past two-plus centuries.

She conquered British battleships, defeated pirates, and repelled cannonballs.

But nowadays, her arch nemeses are melted snow and rainfall.

Fresh water causes the ship’s wood to weather. The salt water it sits in actually helps preserve its wooden frame.

The ship is pulled out of water periodically for maintenance and repairs. Its last dry docking was from 1992 to 1995.

Only between 10 and 15 percent of the ship is still made of its original wood, officials said.

After the upcoming restoration, officials hope the ship will be able to occasionally sail on its own again. It last did so in 2012 to mark the 200th anniversary of its victory over British battleship HMS Guerriere.

Before that, the Constitution had sailed in 1997 to celebrate its 200th birthday, its first unassisted journey in nearly 116 years.

Matt Bonner, the ship’s prior commander, oversaw its 2012 solo sail and said it’s important that the ship be available for the public to explore.

“All too often we want to put things in plastic cases,” said Bonner, who now works at the Pentagon. “But the reason this is living history is you get to come on board, walk around, and see what it looks like and feels like and smells like. It’s so special.”

Matt Rocheleau can be reached at matthew.rocheleau
. Follow him on Twitter @mrochele.
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