After a two-year restoration at historic Dry Dock 1 at Charlestown Navy Yard, Boston National Historical Park, America’s oldest commissioned warship, the USS Constitution, was refloated July 23.
Since entering dry dock, May 18, 2015, ship restorers from the Naval History and Heritage Command Detachment Boston and teams of sailors have worked tirelessly side by side to bring Old Ironsides back to her glory.
Navy Capt. Robert S. Gerosa, Jr., the ship’s commander, said he was proud of the hard work and dedication of his sailors during the restoration.
“The significance of the water coming in the dry dock is the start of the evolution,” said Gerosa. “It’s the start of getting [the] Constitution back in the water. This is it, this is what we’ve been striving for the last 26 months. We are again in the water where ships need to be.”
The restoration saw the replacement of 100 hull planks and the required caulking, the rebuilding of the ship’s cutwater on the bow, and the ongoing preservation and repair of the ship’s rigging, upper masts and yards.
Richard Moore, director of Naval History and Heritage Command Detachment Boston, said he was extremely pleased with the undocking of the USS Constitution.
“All of the Detachment Boston employees take great pride in the work [they] accomplished,” Moore said. “The ship restorers, riggers and blacksmith are a group of skilled craftspeople who have put their talents to great use during [the] Constitution’s dry dock restoration. Tonight’s successful undocking is the culmination of the Detachment Boston’s hard work on Old Ironsides over the past 26 months.”
Restoring the ship in keeping with the tenets of her original design was an important objective, said Naval History and Heritage Command Director Sam Cox.
When the USS Constitution was built, it was among the best-designed ships in the world; the ship could outrun anything it couldn’t outgun and outgun anything it couldn’t outrun, he said.
“Expanding that advantage has been the objective of Navy shipbuilders since [the] Constitution’s keel was laid,” Cox continued. On July 22, the Navy commissioned the USS Gerald R. Ford, a technological marvel of today, he said. The Ford and its crew will make history in new and innovative ways, Cox said, and can trace their lineage back to USS Constitution and the sailors who first took the ship to sea in 1797.
One of the most highly anticipated tasks was the replacement of the USS Constitution’s copper sheathing below the waterline. Since the ship launched in 1797, copper sheathing has covered the lower hull as protection against ship worms.
This was one part of the restoration that saw the USS Constitution’s sailors get hands-on with preservation work on “America’s Ship of State.” Sailors helped the Naval History and Heritage Command Detachment Boston ship restorers replace 2200 sheets of copper and the felt that is installed behind it.
“It’s an incredible feeling to be a part of the team to work on Constitution,” said Seaman Hunter Sensign. “Every day I came to work and it really sinks in that I’m working on a ship that’s 219 years old.”
As the tide in Boston Harbor turned and began to rise, shipyard workers opened the valves in the caisson, the “floating gate” that has held back the harbor water and Dry Dock 1 flooded. It was the first time the sea had touched the Constitution’s hull in 26 months.
It was a long day for the Naval History and Heritage Command Detachment Boston, the sailors, and the staff from the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard as the dry dock flooded and a team of Portsmouth Shipyard divers checked the hull. The USS Constitution finally lifted from its keel blocks at about 9:45 p.m.
At 11:15 p.m., after checks were completed, the USS Constitution crossed the sill of the dry dock and into Boston Harbor.
The USS Constitution began service in the Navy, Oct. 21, 1797. It was one of the six original frigates that constituted the Navy’s first fleet, and construction was authorized by an act of Congress in 1794. It and its sister frigates were designed by shipbuilder Joshua Humphreys. As the Navy’s capital ships, they were larger and more heavily armed than frigates that had come before them, and the fleet became formidable opponents on the high seas.
The ship’s keel was laid in Edmund Hartt’s Shipyard in Boston. The USS Constitution was built from the resilient Southern live oak from Georgia and its three masts were made from the strong white pine of Maine. Humphreys designed the hull to be 22 inches thick at the waterline.
Undefeated in battle, the ship fought on the high seas, during the Quasi War with France to the Barbary Wars, and, most notably, the War of 1812 against Great Britain. The USS Constitution’s defining and most historic battle was with the British frigate HMS Guerriere during the War of 1812, during which one of the American sailors noticed that some of the enemy’s cannon shot appeared to bounce harmlessly off the ship’s hull. “Huzza! Her sides are made of iron!” the sailor purportedly shouted — thus the ship earned the nickname Old Ironsides.
The USS Constitution remains in service to the nation today, sharing the history and heritage of America’s Navy. The ship is expected to continue post-docking restoration work before reopening to the public in early September.