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Photo Essay: Onboard America’s Oldest Warship

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A sailor makes a quick phone call during a July 4, trip of USS Constitution in Boston Harbor. Glenn Moyer Photo

A sailor makes a quick phone call during a July 4, trip of USS Constitution in Boston Harbor. Glenn Moyer Photo

CLARIFICATION: USS Constitution is the oldest warship afloat, but not the oldest in commission. The U.K. Royal Navy’s HMS Victory is still in commission but has been in dry dock since 1922.

ONBOARD USS CONSTITUTION — Commissioned in 1798, USS Constitution is the world’s oldest commissioned warship afloat. Berthed in Boston, the ship was underway on July 4, in one of the last trips the ship will make before entering a maintenance availability that will keep the ship in the yard until 2018.

USS Constitution passes by downtown Boston during the ship's Independence Day underway. US Navy Photo

USS Constitution passes by downtown Boston during the ship’s Independence Day underway. US Navy Photo

The short trip took Constitution from its slip in Boston’s inner harbor to Castle Park.

Along the way, USNI News saw a centuries old sailing tradition with several reminders of the modern naval era.

USS Constitution was part of the six frigates the U.S. built to protect merchant vessels from piracy threats in the Mediterranean.

The ship was made famous in the War of 1812 following several engagements with the Royal Navy earning Constitution the nickname “Old Ironsides.” Since then the ship has remained in commission undergoing several renovations and crewed by about 50 active duty U.S. Navy sailors.

Heavy Ship

Markings showing the draft of USS Constitution. Glenn Moyer Photo

Markings showing the draft of USS Constitution. Glenn Moyer Photo

Though Constitution is made of wood, it’s a heavy ship — 2,286 tons. The ship drafts from 21 to 23 feet, slightly the same as U.S. Navy Oliver Hazard Perry frigate. In order to maintain the ship’s hull and masts, the Navy solicits donations of live oak and maintains the Constitution Grove, a naval timber reserve, at Naval Weapons Support Center Crane, Ind. Only about 10 to 15 percent of the original wood used for the ship remains, according to the USS Constitution museum.

USS Constitution

Armament:
32 “24-pounder” Long Guns Crew: 6-14
Range: 1200 yards Weight: 5,600 lbs.
~~~
20 “32-pounder” Carronades
Crew: 4-9 Range: 400 yards Weight: 2,200 lbs.
~~~
2 24-pound Bow Chasers
Ship’s Stats:
Speed: 13+ knots
Sail Area: 42,710 square ft. Foremast Height: 198 ft. Mainmast Height: 220 ft. Mizzenmast Height: 172 ft, 6 in. Displacement: 2,200 tons Length: 204 ft
Crew Composition:
(1812 era):
450-500, including:
55 Marines
30 Boys
20-30 officers & midshipmen
(Today):
50-80 active duty U.S Navy Sailors

Uniforms

Constitution sailors salute Ft. Independence during a July 4, 2014 underway for the ship. Glenn Moyer Photo

Constitution sailors salute Ft. Independence during a July 4, 2014 underway for the ship. Glenn Moyer Photo

The crew of Constitution wears a mix of standard naval uniforms and traditional naval gear from the time of the ship’s commissioning. The commander’s so-called “Cap’n Crunch” cocked-hat headgear and the top hats of the sailor’s senior enlisted were alongside the service’s current blueberry working uniform.

Glenn Moyer Photo

Glenn Moyer Photo

Crew Quarters

One of two mirror image cabins for the ship's captain or an embarked commodore. Glenn Moyer Photo

One of two mirror image cabins for the ship’s captain or an embarked commodore. Glenn Moyer Photo

The most opulent quarters onboard are two cabins to the aft of the ship reserved for the captain and a visiting commodore. The spaces mirror each other with large windows looking out to the sea which also contained the heads for the cabins.

The port cabin window with the seat that conceals the original captain's head. Glenn Moyer Photo

The port cabin window with the seat that conceals the original captain’s head. Glenn Moyer Photo

Enlisted sailors slept in hammocks suspended from the ceiling on the ship’s berthing deck. A major upgrade in the current version of Constitution is much more modern head facilities.
hammocks

The crew aboard Constitution enjoy a more modern head. Glenn Moyer Photo

The crew aboard Constitution enjoy a more modern head. Glenn Moyer Photo

Gun Deck

The ship's gun deck. Glenn Moyer Photo

The ship’s gun deck. Glenn Moyer Photo

The ship commissioned with 32 24-pounder long guns, 20 32 pounder carronades and 2 24 pounder bow chasers. Now only two of the guns are active to allow the ship’s crew to render ceremonial salutes while underway.

Glenn Moyer Photo

Glenn Moyer Photo

On the July 4 trip, the ship rendered a 21-gun salute to Ft. Independence on Castle Island at the mouth of Boston’s inner harbor. In another contemporary twist, instead of using the traditional long chant to keep the timing of the salute accurate, the ship’s crew used a timer on a modern smartphone.

Tug Powered

Tug boat that moved the ship through the harbor. Glenn Moyer Photo

Tug boat that moved the ship through the harbor. Glenn Moyer Photo

When it was commissioned, Constitution was among the world’s fastest warships. Under full sail, the ship could reach speeds of up to 13 knots. However, the ship rarely now travels by sail power. For the July 4 trip, Constitution moved through the harbor via tug.

Back to the Yard

Glenn Moyer Photo

Glenn Moyer Photo

Next year the ship will enter dry-dock for a about a three year maintenance availability. This summer is the last time the ship can host visitors until its return sometime in 2018.

  • Nicholas Tracy

    The claim that USS Constitution is the “oldest” commissioned warship is fraudulent, as I pointed out to the sailor taking me around forty years ago. HMS Victory, launched in 1765 is the oldest, and not only is she commissioned, she is the flag-ship for the C-in-C Portsmouth..

    • Ctrot

      And the claim that HMS Victory is commissioned, given that she has been dry docked for almost 100 years, is fraudulent as well. More so I would claim.

      • Nicholas Tracy

        Time for you to define what you mean by “commissioned.” Have a good day!

    • Secundius

      @ Nicholas Tracy.

      You might re-read your facts, HMS. VICTORY was effectually decommissioned from the Ministry of Defense and transferred to the National Museum of the Royal Navy, in 6 March 2012 CE.

      Which means USS. CONSTITUTION, is now the World’s Oldest Active Warship as of that date.

      • Nicholas Tracy

        Thanks Secundus (whoever you are) for the up-date. 247 years in commission must be a record.
        Transfer to the museum will access lottery funds, and provide for the
        refit that is needed. Perhaps someday the RN will take her out of the museum for a lighting raid on somewhere, as the RAF did with the Vulcan bomber that missed the runway at Port Stanley! Meanwhile USS Constitution will be beating to quarters to give British visitors a good time.

        • Secundius

          @ Nicholas Tracy.

          Here’s a HOT one for you, The Royal Navy and The Royal Marine Corps. Are no longer referred too as either, the RN or RMC. As of 1 December 2013 CE., both former RN/RMC are NOW called simply the Naval Service.

          • Nicholas Tracy

            I think it is a question of plus la difference plus la meme chose.

            According to the Queen’s Regulations for the Royal Navy[1] the Naval Service consists of:

            The Royal Navy (Royal Naval Reserve) – including Queen Alexandra’s Royal Naval Nursing Service

            The Royal Marines (Royal Marines Reserve)

            Naval Careers Service

            The Naval Service is also supported by Marine Services (currently provided by Serco Marine Services under a private finance initiative) which operates a fleet of auxiliaries such as research vessels and ocean-going tugs in support of the Royal Navy. The Royal Fleet Auxiliary also provides support to the Naval Service, although it is considered part of the Ministry of Defence Civil Service.

  • Sam Riddle

    Now why didn’t the writer tell us where she’s getting refitted at?

    • Secundius

      @ Sam Riddle.

      I’m willing to suspect that Building and Maintaining Ship’s like the Constitution is lost and dying art. You have to remember that during the time of Constitution commissioning, Ship Builders and Shipwrights, was a specialized form of Carpentry. It’s like comparing Rocket Science with Plumbing. Ship’s Bottoms or Keels had too be clad in copper to prevent fouling (e.i. prevent Seabourne Parasites from making homes in the live wood planking). Their are very few Modern Boat and Yacht builders that skilled in this profession, just like Stone Masons, Coach Building or Colonial House Building come too mind. For example If you want too build a house to 17th & 18th-century standards, You’d probably have to go to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, too get the job done. We need to keep this Old School Craftsmanship alive, for future generations. Because once it’s gone, IT’S GONE.

      • Sam Riddle

        Agreed, that’s why I was curious as to where it’s being refitted… I’m a real history buff and I love naval architecture as well as the old buildings that were built before technology allowed them to rise above 20 stories and required elevators… It’s all cool stuff to me, just like the timbers for the main mast, you can’t just get that anywhere or that the live oak timber came from Crane Indiana, I’m from Southern Indiana and I never knew that!

        I’ve toured old ironside around 1991 in Boston and I enjoyed it immensely! How many people can say that?

        • Secundius

          @ Sam Riddle.

          The interesting thing about the USS, CONSTITUTION, is technically classification as a Frigate. But, Actually it’s a Super Frigate. The designers, drew-up plans for a Battleship of the Line, by British standards. But the Continental Congress didn’t have the funds to build one. So, the designers went back to the drawing-board, and modified the Ship’s Plans, as upscaled Frigate. And then somebody came up with the concept, and called it a Super Frigate. Which later came to a great shock to the British Royal Navy, when the CONSTITUTION could hold its own when paired with a British Battleship of the Line.

          One of my favorite books of the era, is called “The Chronicles of the Frigate Macedonian”.

        • Petty Officer 3

          I can, except my tour was during the late 1970’s.

    • Secundius

      I’m willing to suspect it have too do with the Contractor doing the the Refitting. They don’t want a lot of lookerons or gawkers their to get underfoot, getting-in-the-way. This is going to be Time Labor Intensive Laborious Job, and with a lot of people milling-about, an Insurance Nightmare! I, like you, would like to see the refitting take place up-close and personal. I wonder if they have a Cable Channel set up for the Refitting Job Process.

  • muzzleloader

    I visited the ship in the summer of 2008, and she was undergoing a major yard period then, her upper works mainly. All her topside cannon, her masts, and rigging had been removed, and there was a temporary work shelter on the main deck. The tours below decks were limited because of the work there also. A pity that the ship will be unavailable to the public again for so long, but a two century old wooden ship needs a lot of upkeep.

  • Ruckweiler

    Went aboard in 1976. A time warp, to be sure. Glad she’s still with us and 3 cheers for the folks who authorized her construction.