The USS Constitution may be the oldest commissioned warship still afloat in the world, but even Old Ironsides needs a tune-up every so often. Earlier this month, officials from the Naval History and Heritage Command Detachment Boston traveled to Indiana to scout trees they will use for upcoming repairs to the 214-year-old warship.
The trees, specifically white oaks, are growing at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Crane, Ind., and will remain there until 2015, when the Constitution will be placed in dry dock and restoration crews are able to inspect the ship's hull.
"Every 20 years or so, the ship will go into drydock,'' Robert Murphy, production manager for the detachment, said in an interview Monday. "When it is in dry dock, we remove the copper sheathing around the hull and inspect the hull planking that is below the water line.''
Murphy said the group chose trees that are tall and straight, so they can get multiple planks out of each one. The group selected about 60 trees, which will be cut, harvested, and stored in Indiana until crews have a chance to assess what is needed to make the repairs.
Part of the detachment's mission is to repair and restore the Constitution to "as close to its 1812 configuration as possible,'' according to its mission statement. White oak trees were specifically selected to stay true to the ship's original material.
"White oak is great because it is rot-resistant, so it is great around water,'' Margherita Desy, historian for the detachment, said. "It used to be a readily available material for shipbuilding.''
The last time the Constitution was drydocked, between 1992 and 1995, some white oak trees from Indiana were used for the same purpose, but many were determined to be too young.
"In 1992, only a very few trees were harvested from the grove in Crane, Ind., as many were not yet fully matured,'' Desy said. "Trees that were examined this time and thought to be too young will be examined again in another 20 years, for the next restoration, and will likely be mature at that time.''
The Constitution, built in Boston and launched in 1797, earned the nickname "Old Ironsides'' for its seemingly impenetrable wooden hull. Cannonballs literally bounced off the ship. The Constitution won 33 engagements and never lost a battle. Now, the ship is a destination for tourists and local residents and will be open for tours during the restoration.
"There are other jobs that will be happening,'' Murphy said. "The ship will still be open to the public, though. People like to see it torn apart and put back together again.''
This summer, the Constitution will play a large role in ceremonies commemorating the bicentennial of the War of 1812, starting with Navy Week events beginning June 29.
Colin A. Young can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.