Old Ironsides Sails Again
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, July 22, 1997 The stately sailing ships of old are long gone from the seven seas, but July 21, people in Massachusetts had a chance once again to see their full-blown glory.
The USS Constitution, the Navy's three-masted, 44-gun frigate known as "Old Ironsides," went to sea for her first unassisted voyage under sail since 1881. It is the Navy's oldest commissioned warship afloat.
With winds at about 14 knots, the ship that fought Barbary pirates and took U.S. Marines to the shores of Tripoli came back to life. Six sails -- one the size of a modern-day basketball court -- ruffled and billowed, thrusting the 25-inch-thick oak hull through the waves.
About 25,000 people on shore and at sea watched as the world's oldest commissioned warship afloat was towed July 20 from Boston's Charlestown Navy Yard, where it's maintained by the U.S. Navy as a museum, to Marblehead, Mass., 17 miles north of Boston. Another 100,000 or so came out July 21 to watch the 204-foot ship return to the sea.
They'd come to see the ship whose victories over the British during the War of 1812 presaged the United States as a global sea power. The Constitution won every battle it fought and earned its nickname in August 1812 when cannonballs fired by the British frigate Guerriere bounced off its sides.
At noon July 21, tow lines were cast off and Old Ironsides' six sails unfurled for Operation Sail 200. With about 450 visitors, press and crew aboard, it sailed in Massachusetts Bay for about an hour. Two modern warships, the guided missile destroyer USS Ramage and the guided missile frigate USS Halyburton, sailed nearby. The Navy's Blue Angels' F/A-18 Hornet fighter aircraft flew overhead.
Getting Old Ironsides ready for the historic voyage required a four-year-long overhaul that cost about $12 million. The overhaul restored the ship's original hull strength. Structural tests and a lengthy training program readied the ship and crew for the hour-long sail.
School-aged children from all 50 states contributed pennies to buy new sails and eight miles of rigging, Navy officials said. The USS Constitution Museum, a private, nonprofit educational institution dedicated to saving the ship's heritage, coordinated the fund-raising campaign.
Old Ironsides, built in Boston in 1797, was one of the first six warships authorized by Congress. It was about to be condemned in 1830, but was saved when Oliver Wendell Holmes' poem "Old Ironsides" raised public concern. Later, when the Navy wanted to use it for target practice, it was again saved by the public. At that time, school children contributed pennies and raised $194,000.