Visitors to Charlestown Navy Yard caught a rare sight on Sunday, as the USS Constitution — the oldest commissioned warship afloat in the world — prepared to return to Boston Harbor after a 26-month restoration project.
The event was cause for celebration throughout the day and into the evening as crowds thronged the Navy Yard, where booths offered family-friendly activities such as knot tying, “sail mail,” and crafts. Children made miniature ships from corks and rubber bands, with small sheets of foam for sails.
The salty breeze off the water and the raised voices of a sea shanty band gave the scene an unmistakably maritime atmosphere.
Larry Reissman, 64, said he had done a bit of traveling to see “Old Ironsides” return to the water, after anticipating the event for months.
“It’s a gorgeous day,” Reissman said. “I live in Charlestown, although I have a place on the Cape, and I came back specifically for this event.”
Reissman said he made a day out of the event; after watching the ship for a bit, he planned to take a ferry downtown for dinner.
“It’s an impressive ship,” Reissman said. “That’s really the reason for being here, right?”
Mallory Walsh, 56, of East Greenwich, R.I., said it was a “fluke” that she was able to visit the ship on Sunday. Her cousin and young nephew were visiting, and Walsh said the Constitution was “just something that they have to see.”
“It’s just quintessential Boston and American,” Walsh said.
She added that her father and his brother both served in the US Navy, and all her family members have sailed their whole lives.
“It’s a historical event,” said Susie Howard, 60. “We love Old Ironsides. We live in Charlestown, and we try to support these types of events.”
About 300 people were gathered in a wide arc around the Constitution at 4:15 p.m., when workers began flooding the dry dock where the ship has been stored during restoration. The Constitution was set to be floated off its keel blocks just before 10 p.m. and into Boston Harbor about 11:30 p.m.
As water began to fill the dry dock on Sunday afternoon, naval officers in gray-blue camouflage walked around the ship and among visitors. Metal fences were set up about 40 feet from the water’s edge, with visitors from as far away as Texas, many with children and dogs, peering to get a glimpse of the historic event.
As night fell on the Navy Yard, dozens of floodlights flipped on to illuminate the Constitution and the waters of the harbor as they slowly filled the basin beneath the ship, the water level inching up the granite walls of the nation’s second-oldest dry dock.
The crowd diminished at dinnertime but swelled again to about 300 as the water rose, surrounded by a sea of faces turned toward the ship for the dramatic — but at first almost imperceptibly gradual — spectacle.
Just before 9:45 p.m., a sailor shouted, “The boat has floated!” The crowd responded with cheers. About 10:20 p.m., a sailor shouted, “The caisson is moving!” — meaning that the gate separating the harbor from the dry dock was opening. And at 11, the Constitution began moving toward the harbor.
Later in the evening, the proceedings paused briefly while officials tended to a minor medical emergency, a Navy official said. Boston Emergency Medical Services said the episode was not serious.
Paul Brawley, 62, is a retired Navy veteran who was commander of the Constitution when its restoration began. “This ship is the other woman in my life,” Brawley joked.
He said America’s heritage is “directly tied” to the Constitution, which he called an emblem of the nation’s values.
“It’s historical. We are preserving an icon,” Brawley said.
The ship defended sea lanes against global threats from 1798 to 1855, and is now used to educate more than half a million visitors each year about US history and military operations, according to the Navy.
It reportedly became known as “Old Ironsides” in 1812, when a British sailor yelled, “Huzza! Her sides are made of iron,” after 18-pound cannonballs bounced off the ship during a battle with the British warship Guerriere. The sides were actually made of dense hardwood.
The painstaking restorations included replacing most of the ship’s copper sheeting, repairing the outside wooden planks, and rebuilding 42 gun carriers throughout the ship. Refurbishment of the rigging and masts were also included.
Costs of the maintenance project were estimated to be at most $15 million; however the final price tag came in at $12 million.
It will remain closed to the public through August, as its restoration continues with the installation of its rig and its replica guns and carriages.
Among the onlookers late Sunday night was Alfred Prudhomme, 80, of Chelmsford, who said he served in the Navy as a radio technician on destroyers and frigates from 1956 to 1984.
Prudhomme said it was emotional for him to witness the historic ship’s return to the water.
“Anyone that loves the sea and ships, it’s an amazing thing to see a ship in dry dock and then returned to the sea,” he said. “Think of the places this ship has been. Think of the things it’s done. . . . It’s a symbol of a nation that would fight to defend itself.”