Monday, August 20, 2012

"Old Ironsides" Sets Sail Again!

On August 19, 2012 a historic event occurred that was in itself a commemoration of a historic event.  The USS Constitution, the oldest commissioned vessel in the US Navy, set sail in Boston harbor under her own power.  The 215-year-old ship is now a floating museum stationed in Charlestown Massachusetts, across the harbor from Boston.  This was the first time that she had left the pier under her own power since 1997.

She sailed only 1,110 yards to mark the 200th anniversary of her victory over the British ship, HMS Guerriere.  That close range, violent battle on August 19, 1812 earned the USS Constitution the nick name "Old Ironsides." 

The USS Constitution sailing during the 200th anniversery of her defeat of the HMS Guerriere

You can learn more about the USS Constitution here:

I've had the privilege of seeing historic ships from two other countries.  The first is a contemporary of Old Ironsides.  Although it was built a generation earlier than the Constitution, they plied the seas at the same time.

The HMS Victory is the flagship of Britain's most lauded sailor, Lord Nelson.  Nelson was killed aboard the Victory during the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.  Trafalgar is arguably Britain's and Nelson's most famous victory at sea.

The HMS Victory in its dry dock at the Historic Portsmouth Dock Yards

The Victory does not share the Constitutions distinction of being afloat.  She is birthed dry in a even older 17th Century dry dock in Historic Portsmouth Dock Yards in the south of England.   The ship is in amazing condition, but time and hundreds of thousands of visitors over the years have taken their toll.  The ships is scheduled for a multi-million dollar renovation in the coming years.

The timber decks can't take much weight, so heavy original guns are displayed outdoors and very convincing fiberglass replicas inhabit the crowded gun decks. Alas, they allowed no photos inside the ship.  Rest assured that every detail, down to the men's trenchers and spoons were replicated and displayed in their proper place.

You can learn more about the HMS Victory here:

Also at Portsmouth is the HMS Warrior.  This ship has the distinction of being Britain's first iron hulled ship.  She was launched in 1860 and was active in the anti-slaving patrols off the west coast of Africa.  In her day she was the fastest, most powerful ship afloat.  She ended her career as a stripped down fuel storage hulk.  Some far-seeing preservationist saved her from the scrap heap just after WWII and she went through an amazing restoration.  Like the HMS Victory, every detail is included above and below decks (where photos are allowed!)  I think I enjoyed the HMS Warrior more than the HMS Victory.  The Warrior is afloat at her dock, but she will never get underway again with her own power. 

The HMS Warrior at her dock

Main Gun Deck

Attention to detail.  lanyard, percussion firing device and rear sight on 42 pounder gun

Officers Quarters

You can read more about the HMS Warrior here:
The Mary Rose was Henry VIII's favorite flag ship.  She was caught in a freak wind and capsized and sank outside of Portsmouth in 1545.  Most of her crew went down with her. The wreck was lost for centuries, but was rediscovered in 1971 and finally raised in the 1980s.  About half of the ship's timbers survived in the silty bottom.  The artifacts recovered on the wreck are what make the discovery so important.  It is a time capsule of English Tudor history.  Cannon, personal items, long bows, arrows and human remain were preserved in the mud.  Thousands of artifacts, and the remains of the ship, are housed in a museum at the Portsmouth Historic Dock Yards.

Remains of the Mary Rose

Some of the remarkably preserved artifacts from the 1545 wreck of the Mary Rose

You can read more about the Mary Rose here:
The Vasa was Sweden's largest and most powerful war ship.  Much to every one's embarrassment, she sank on her first trial voyage in Stockholm harbor in 1628.  She lay forgotten for over 300 years.  Rediscovered, she was raised in 1961.  Since then she has endured an intensive preservation process to stabilize the wood and other artifacts.  Like the Mary Rose, mud and silt kept her oxygen free and slowed decay.  Wood, bone, cloth and other organic artifact have survived with the more durable iron and bronze items.  Over 29 million people have visited the Vasa since she was raised.  She was placed in her current museum in 1987.  I can fully understand why this remarkable ship and museum is Sweden's most popular tourist destination.

It is hard to describe the scale of this vessel. Over 200 feet long, all indoors with several circular galleries around it so it can be viewed from different levels

This was an extremely ornate ship, with extensive figural carvings

The remains of 25 people were found in the wreck. This is one of the facial reconstructions displayed in the museum

You can read more about the Vasa here:
Of all these historic ships we can be proud that the USS Constitution is the only one that can still pull away from the dock, unfurl her sails and move about gracefully under her own power.  She is 215 year old.  I hope she can sail again on the 300th anniversary of her defeat of the HMS Guerriere on August 19, 2112!

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