US Navy’s oldest commissioned warship undocks after two-year restoration

The U.S. Navy’s oldest commissioned warship, the USS Constitution, was refloated at historic Dry Dock 1 at Charlestown Navy Yard, Boston National Historical Park, on July 23

Since entering dry dock on May 18, 2015, ship restorers from the Naval History and Heritage Command Detachment Boston, and teams of Constitution sailors have worked side-by-side to bring Old Ironsides back to her glory.

The ship is expected to continue post-docking restoration work before re-opening to the public in early September.

Captain Robert S. Gerosa, Jr., commanding officer of Constitution, 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 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 re-building of the ship’s cutwater on the bow, and the on-going preservation and repair of the ship’s rigging, upper masts and yards.

One of the most highly anticipated tasks was the replacement of Constitution’s copper sheathing below the waterline. Copper sheathing has covered the lower hull since her launch in 1797, as protection against ship worms that could damage the wooden hull.

This was one part of the restoration that saw Constitution sailors get hands-on with preservation work to 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 Aviation Ordnanceman 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 has touched Constitution’s hull in 26 months.

As the dry dock flooded a team of Portsmouth Shipyard divers checked her hull. Constitution finally lifted from her keel blocks at about 9:45 p.m.

At 11:15 p.m., after checks were completed, Constitution crossed the sill of the dry dock and into Boston Harbor.

Constitution started her service in the U.S. Navy with her launch on Oct. 21, 1797. She was one of the six original frigates which began the new United States Navy and construction was authorized by an act of Congress in 1794. She and 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 her, Constitution and her sisters became formidable opponents on the high seas.

Her keel was laid in Edmund Hartt’s Shipyard in Boston. She was built from the resilient Southern live oak from Georgia and her three masts were made from the strong white pine of Maine. Humphreys designed her hull at 22 inches thick at the waterline and to protect the hull, copper sheathing was added.

Her defining and most historic battle was with the British frigate HMS Guerriere in August 1812, during which one of Constitution’s sailors noticed that some of the enemy’s cannon shot appeared to fall harmlessly off her hull. “Huzza! Her sides are made of iron!”, the sailor purportedly shouted – thus she earned her the nickname Old Ironsides.

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