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Skilled workers relish chance to restore USS Constitution

The USS Constitution, the oldest commissioned ship afloat in the Navy — it was launched in 1797 and earned its nickname “Old Ironsides” in the War of 1812 — is in the midst of a three-year restoration at Dry Dock 1 at the Charlestown Navy Yard. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Two months ago, the vessel was pulled from the water it has called home for the better part of three centuries, all with the hope of keeping it shipshape for several more.

“We want the Constitution floating forever,” said Margherita Desy , a historian for the Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston. “At least as long as we can.”

The ship now sits in Dry Dock 1 at the Charlestown Navy Yard, where 40 workers have undertaken a painstaking, three-year restoration of the country’s oldest commissioned warship afloat. The cost? Somewhere between $12 million and $15 million, paid for by the Navy.


Two groups of workers start the day at dawn: restorers who repair the ship’s deck areas, and riggers, who maintain the masts and sails. Their work is meticulous yet swift. They must finish before tourists arrive. (The ship is still open to the public from 2 to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends).

For some of the workers, the project lets them use skills from a trade passed down from family; for others, it’s the highlight of a long career.

And for all, it’s a chance to be at the center of a striking moment in history.

“I’m not putting a frame on a house. I’m rebuilding a ship,” said restorer Alex Briere. “And not just any ship.”

Robert Leiby applied the sander to the fighting top.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Robert Leiby, 24, is one of the ship’s younger restorers and has learned that there is one crucial attribute of any ship restorer: patience.

“Nothing here happens quickly,” said Leiby, who joined the project in September. “You have to take a little bit at a time. You can’t rush through any of it.”

Leiby was involved in construction and carpentry when he applied for the USS Constitution job. He did it on a whim, not expecting much. It’s a “privilege” to work on a piece of history that fascinates him, but he said he also enjoys the hands-on, intricate aspects of the restoration. One of his favorite tasks is sanding the fighting top — the flat board attached to a mast from which armed crewmen would fire upon the decks of enemy ships.


“There is not a lot of room for mistakes,” he said. “You can let your OCD come out for a little bit.”

Riggers William Rudek (left) and Ryan Whitehead painted the ship’s lower main mast. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

During William Rudek’s childhood, the men in his family, many of whom were Navy veterans, were obsessed with maritime war. World-traveling vessels had a special place in young Rudek’s heart. And the Constitution was a ship to dream about.

“If the wood were able to collect stories and memories, [the Constitution] would be an incredible treasure trove of people’s lives that have been touched by the ship,” said Rudek, 42. “Its like the pinnacle of the ship that you could work on.”

Now, Rudek is fulfilling that goal. As a rigger, he spends much of his day 100-something feet in the air: repairing the ship’s aloft woodwork, standing in a basket dangling from a crane, or climbing up a rope ladder. And yes, he’s afraid of heights, but he’s learned to compartmentalize it.

This is a career-making moment for Rudek. He came here for the ship, not the job itself.

“It wouldn’t have really mattered in what capacity we are working on the ship,” he said. “It’s just that we got to be a part of the Constitution.”


Anita Petricone pounded hemp between planks on the ship’s spar deck. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Anita Petricone has been in the boat restoration business for nearly half a decade, starting off as an apprentice to a boat builder in 1970.

“Some people like to fly planes. But that’s not my thing. This is my thing — working and doing whatever needs to be done to maintain a wooden boat,” the 62-year-old said while completing what’s known as the caulking procedure. That’s the process of pounding a long, thick strand of hemp in between planks on the upper deck, or the spar, and topping it with rubber.

Petricone learned the technique, which goes as far back as wooden ships do, during her work on the last restoration of the Constitution, in 1992.

Although she was using a putty knife for this task, her passion lies with the chisel.

“I have enough chisels to go on for a lifetime,” said Petricone, who often uses a chisel on “Old Ironsides” to carve the delicate wood that supports the rigging. “You’ve got corner chisels. You’ve got beater chisels. You’ve got slicks, paring chisels, butt chisels. I can go on and on.”

John Hinckley said he often can see the markings from past ship restorers.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

John Hinckley believes his job is more than just a ship restorer. He likens it to that of sculptor.

“It isn’t like you are in a factory and you have to make 60,000 planks,” Hinckley, a work leader on the project, said. “In order to do this type of work, you have to have a creative mind and you have to think out of the box.”


Hinckley, 58, may have something of a natural knack for this work. That’s because his great-great-grandfather worked at the same dry dock in 1865 — a fact Hinckley coincidentally discovered after he began working on this dock five years ago.

His time at the Constitution, he said, has taught him how to listen to what the ship has to say. Every time he pulls a plank, he doesn’t know what to expect: What kind of nails will he find? Will the wood be salvageable? He examines the old markings of the ship’s previous workers, gathering material about the Constitution’s construction history along the way.

“The ship itself, if you get going, will tell you how it’s put together or what you are looking for,” he said. “Eventually, this ship has a way of talking to you.”