ABOARD THE USS CONSTITUTION — With one swift command, the world's oldest commissioned warship Monday shed its role as a museum moored in the Boston Harbor and returned to duty, sailing unassisted on the open sea for the first time in 116 years.
"Lay aloft!" called Command Chief Joe Wilson. A crew of 216, including civilians, U.S. Navy midshipmen, sailors and Marines, sprang into action, many scaling the rigging to set the sails.
The tow line which had pulled "Old Ironsides" out of Marblehead Harbor was dropped, a jib was set, and then another. Gradually, gracefully, Constitution began to move.
As the 203-foot-long vessel, the tallest of the tall ships anywhere, reached a speed of one knot, an exultant cheer swept a deck crowded with guests, including a score of admirals and generals, as well as a dozen members of Congress and the Senate.
"This is a dream, this is it, this is excellent," said Seaman Prentiss Hammons. "This ship is alive, and she is very, very well."
Eventually, six sails were unfurled, including a topsail the size of a basketball court. For an hour, the Constitution rode smooth seas, reaching a top speed of 4 knots, compared to a possible maximum of 13 knots if all 36 sails were set. But all hands agreed it was a splendid way to commemorate the ship's launch 200 years ago from Boston Harbor.
"Talk about teamwork," said Wilson, Constitution's 31-year-old captain of the deck. "There's no engine, no computer, no buttons to push. We do it all by hand. Everything happens because someone is working with someone else."
At 6-foot-5, Wilson presented an imposing sight in a uniform straight out of the early 19th century, when Constitution was winning every battle she embarked on. He wore a long gilded jacket and black boots, also adorned with golden braid. As each distinguished visitor boarded the ship, Wilson lifted his fore-and-aft hat.
But the venerable ship and the antique attire--even the timeless ritual of rigging the proud old sailing ship--were not signs of some kind of living anachronism, Wilson said.
"I'm the first black captain of the deck to sail the Constitution," he said. "We're tearing down barriers when we sail this ship. I think this ship is spiritual and that she brings us a very deep message: that when we pull together, look what we can do."
What Constitution could do, in her career as an active-duty warship, was to pound the pirates in the Bay of Tripoli who had terrorized the economic interests of a young nation by raiding and pillaging American ships on trading missions to Europe and North Africa. When the pirates seized an American merchant ship, the Polly, in 1793 and demanded a ransom of $1 million, President Washington urged Congress to build a Navy.
The Constitution was commissioned in 1794 and became the most advanced warship of her day. Philadelphia naval architect Joshua Humphreys specified the use of sturdy Georgia oak, producing such a resilient hull that admirers and enemies alike believed the Constitution to be made of metal.
In an 1812 battle that marked America's naval coming of age, the Constitution defeated the British frigate Guerriere. When a British cannonball bounced off the side of the Constitution, a seaman declared, "Huzzah! Her sides are made of iron!" and her nickname was born.
As Sen. Charles S. Robb (D-Va.), a Marine veteran, and his wife, Lynda, prepared to board Constitution Monday, she asked him, "Why exactly are we celebrating?" Robb began to sing a verse of The Marines' Hymn. "Remember the shores of Tripoli?" he said. "This is what Constitution is about. You really connect to your heritage. This is us, this is our forebears. It makes you tingle."
But even the ship's glorious history in battle--42 victories, not a single defeat--almost failed to protect her. Constitution was headed for the junk heap in Portsmouth, N.H., when a freshman congressman from Boston, John F. Fitzgerald, read that the ship, then being used as a training vessel, was about to be scrapped.
"The first thing my grandfather did when he got to Congress in 1896," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), "was to introduce the resolution that began the rehabilitation of the Constitution and brought it to back to Boston," where Constitution was built.
When the ship was renovated again in the 1920s, schoolchildren from around the country donated pennies to replace her sails. The "pennies campaign" was replicated in the most recent four-year, $12-million, restoration.
In recognition of that effort, Navy officials made a special point Monday to thank the faceless "American taxpayer" who helped to breathe life into the ship once again. At that very moment, however, the winds were less cooperative, threatening for a time to leave the sails limp.
Robb promptly suggested that the politicians aboard gather to supply the necessary wind. "Let me tell you a little something about me," he began.