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USS Constitution leaves the water for regular renewal

Commander Sean Kearns of the USS Constitution (left) and Vice Admiral William, Commander, Naval Sea Systems Command, inspected the hull of the ship after water levels came down in the drydock.David L Ryan/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

After months of planning and a short trip Monday night, the USS Constitution safely entered Dry Dock 1 at the Charlestown Navy Yard to begin a three-year restoration project, officials said.

The main focus of the restoration will be replacing 3,400 sheets of copper that protect the ship’s hull below the waterline, Navy Commander Paul J. Brawley said. The thick copper hull prevents wood-boring worms and other sea life from attaching to the bottom, he explained. Removing the copper sheeting will also allow for inspection of the wooden planks underneath.

The new copper sheets are being housed at the USS Constitution Museum, where visitors can sign them in Sharpie marker all summer before they are installed on the ship. With 3,400 sheets, there is room for a lot of signatures, Brawley said. The same process occurred the last time the ship was dry-docked in 1992.

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The restoration process will also involve replacing deck beams and maintaining the ship’s masts.

“There’s plenty to be done,” Brawley said.

The total cost of the project is estimated at $12 million to $15 million, which will be paid by the Navy.

The dry-docking process began at 7 p.m. Monday after divers checked the ship and declared it ready to move.

The Constitution, which is the sole survivor of the Navy’s original six frigates, pulled away from the pier at 10:12 p.m. Monday and was positioned in the dry dock by 11:30 p.m., Brawley said. Water was pumped out of the dry dock at a rate of a foot every 20 minutes.

“Everything went smoothly,” Brawley said. “It’s all a very carefully orchestrated process. We’ll probably see work on it begin within a week.”

The dry-docking process takes place every 15 to 20 years, Brawley said.

Dry Dock 1 is the second-oldest dry dock in operation in the country, and the Constitution was the first warship to enter it, on June 24, 1833.

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This year’s dry-docking was originally scheduled for March 20, but had to be delayed due to the severe winter. The dry dock needed a new caisson door, which ships pass through to get into the work area. The new door faced many delays on its way from New York, Brawley said. Starting June 9, the upper deck of Old Ironsides (the ship’s nickname) will be open to visitors, free of charge, every day expect Mondays. Crew members will be available to discuss the restoration and the ship’s history. No restoration work will be done during visiting hours, Brawley said.

The Constitution operated from 1798 to 1854. It captured 33 vessels during that time and is best remembered for three victories against British Navy ships in the War of 1812.

The purpose of the restoration is not to make the ship new, but rather to preserve its history for many years to come, Brawley said.

The ship was last dry-docked in 1992.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Aneri Pattani can be reached at aneri.pattani@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @apattani95.