ABOARD FRIGATE USS CONSTITUTION – The oldest warship afloat looked skeletal moored in the Charlestown neighborhood of Boston with no sails.
A ship without sails is common for the modern Navy, but for USS Constitution, the sheets of advanced polyester designed to look like flax cloth are a crucial part of the 226-year-old frigate’s structure.
The reason for the bare look is Old Ironsides is going through a major repair, Constitution commander Cmdr. Billie June Farrell told USNI News. During the periodic review, the crew found rot in the masts, prompting the repairs, she said.
In order to complete fixes, the ship needed to be “downrigged” because the shrouds and rigging provide structural support to the frigate, Farrell said.
The ship normally has three masts, each with four spars jutting out horizontally, and a fighting top platform on each. Rigging, including climbing nets, hangs from the masts.
Constitution is undergoing repairs to its mainmast, as well as the fighting top on the mainmast, Avionics Technician 2nd Class Julian Hedden told USNI News during a visit to the ship. Repairs are also being done on the spars to the mizzenmast, mainmast and portmast.
To repair the fighting top, construction crews under the Navy’s Maintenance and Repair supervision had to remove half of the mainmast, Hedden said.
Currently, the front and rear masts are missing their spars, as well as some of their rigging, although nets are still attached. And the mainmast, which is missing half, looks like a bare tree struck by lightning. The mast appeared largely untouched when USNI News visited in August.
The ship instead has supportive stays to maintain its structure while the repairs are being done, Farrell said. Repairs are done by the Navy’s Maintenance and Repair division, through Naval History and Heritage Command Boston Detachment under the Naval Sea Systems Command.
Hedden arrived in February when repairs were getting underway, he said. In April, Maintenance and Repair crew members replaced Constitution’s helm, according to the Navy.
Downrigging began in May, according to a blog post from the USS Constitution Museum, which sits across the pier from the ship. Two dry docks separate the museum from the ship it memorializes. The Navy uses the dry docks to complete repairs on the ship, Farrell said, although the current repairs are being done pierside. Most repairs can be done while the ship is in water, but there are operations that require a dry dock, like between 2015 to 2017 when the copper hull was fixed.
For the current repairs, the main mast needed to be removed in order to get to the main topmast, the second part of the main mast, according to the museum blog. The topmast was made in 2009 from Douglas fir, while the new one will be made from southern yellow pine.
Due to Constitution’s age, special wood is required for repairs, Farrell said. The hull is made from different types of oak, harvested from Constitution Grove on Naval Support Activity Crane in Indiana. Constitution Grove was established during 1973 repairs on the ship, when the white oak required was difficult to secure, according to the service.
In 2012, 35 trees were selected to provide wood for the hull repairs in 2015 through 2017, according to the Navy.
The ship will likely be under repair until 2024 when rigging will be put back, according to the ship museum.
Constitution is still an active unit, despite its historical mission. Farrell and her crew will sail the ship out about six to seven times a year, including for July 4 celebrations in Boston. Since the crew required to operate the ship independently in its prime was larger than its modern complement, today it is moved by tugboat. That means it can still sail while repairs are ongoing.
“The reason that we still are an active commissioned ship is [that] we represent the Navy of the past and our heritage, but also the Navy of today,” Farrell said. “A lot of times, the American people haven’t necessarily talked to someone who has served in the Navy. And so we’re the people that they get to come interact with, to get not only the history of the ship but the stories of what we do in the Navy around the world today. Constitution was built for freedom to season open shipping lanes, still missions the Navy does in 2023.”
Farrell leads a crew of about 80 members that run the ship. While Farrell’s official uniform is based on 1812 naval uniforms, the crew often wears standard Navy working uniforms, that create a jarring contrast to the historical appearance of the ship.
The ship also serves as a museum for the public, and will continue to host tours and visits during the construction, Hedden said. While the ship was closed Monday when USNI News visited, crew members led a group of children on a private tour, describing life aboard the ship in the 1800s when it was state-of-the-art and actively used in combat, including in the War of 1812.
About 600,000 people visit the ship each year, Farrell said. Despite repairs, the crew performs active duties while aboard, Hedden said. They fire the guns in the morning and evenings – Hedden’s favorite activity – and practice lowering and raising the sails for when they are reattached.
“This ship is special because she’s 33-0, she’s still standing here … today from 1797,” Hedden said. “She’s a strong symbol of the perseverance that the American people have.”