The USS Constitution reopened to the public on Friday for the first time since closing its gates in November due to the pandemic, and to mark the occasion the ship went “underway” for the first time since October 2019.
The underway began at 10 a.m. Friday morning as the ship pulled away from the Charlestown Navy Yard for a trip around Boston Harbor, which featured a 21-gun salute as the Constitution passed Fort Independence on Castle Island.
Typically, the Constitution, the world’s oldest commissioned warship still afloat, will go underway seven times a year with the public on board to take in the sights in Boston Harbor. But, the COVID-19 pandemic halted underways in 2020 and for the first five months of 2021. The ship is still set to go underway six more times this year.
“Old Ironsides,” as the ship is affectionately known, was launched in 1797 and remained undefeated in battle — destroying or capturing 33 opponents, according to a statement from Elliot Fabrizio, the Consitution’s public affairs officer. It earned its nickname during the War of 1812 when British cannonballs could be seen bouncing off its wooden hull.
Friday morning’s affair was closed to the public but open to the press. Aboard the warship, sailors provided climbing demonstrations, ascending up ropes tens of feet off the ground. Later, the 15-star American flag was raised and sailors showed step-by-step how to fire a 19th-century 24-pound long gun.
The underway culminated with a 17-gun salute as the Constitution passed US Coast Guard Sector Boston, the site where Edmund Hartt’s shipyard — where the Constitution was built and later launched in October 1797 — used to be.
John Benda, the 76th commanding officer in the history of the USS Constitution — a title he dubbed “the coolest job in the Navy,” was at the helm of an underway for the first time on Friday. Benda took over command of the ship in February 2020 — just two weeks before the pandemic shut down most of American life.
“It’s been a long time coming to be able to say I was the captain who took the ship out, and I’m just really proud of the crew with the way that they did not give up throughout the year to training, to make this evolution happen,” he said in an interview aboard the ship. “And so far so good. It’s been flawless and we’ve just got to get her back to the pier safely in one piece.”
Benda said he was excited to welcome the public back aboard the ship so they could experience the majesty of the Constitution up close.
“Our mission is to be out in the public,” he said. “I am ready to see people and to tell the story, because really we tell the story of Constitution to everyone that comes here — it’s a great story. A lot of the people that come to visit us have never met a Navy sailor and got to actually see and talk to one, so that’s an important part of what we do as well, representing the 2021 sailor.”
Melanie Santos, who joined the Navy just eight months ago and has been aboard the Constitution for five, said it was “crazy” to be aboard the ship as it went underway.
“It’s very crazy because I’ve never even seen a ship move like this,” she said.
Santos, who works in the deck department making renovations and preserving parts of the ship, said it was “really cool” to be aboard a ship so significant to the history of the Navy.
“To be here in the beginning of my naval career ... that’s really cool,” she said.
Megan Kearns said she joined the Navy nearly a year ago and it was a “very exciting” prospect to welcome the public back aboard the warship.
“Now that we’re seeing them in person and being able to see their reactions to things, it’s gonna be a lot different and a lot more rewarding in a way,” Kearns said.
Also on Friday, the USS Constitution Museum announced it had been voted to USA Today’s 10Best Readers’ Choice travel awards, placing fifth in the Best History Museum category.
Ann Grimes Rand, the president and CEO of the museum, said the ranking was a “great recognition” of the experience provided by the museum.
“It’s a wonderful endorsement,” she said in an interview aboard the ship. “When we walk into the galleries and we see families having fun and kids swinging in hammocks we know we’re providing a great experience, but to get that vote from across the country is a real honor.”