The Navy's oldest commissioned warship, the USS Constitution, is coming up on her 217th birthday Tuesday. She's celebrating in dry dock with a restoration expected to take up to three years, but not before one last underway in Boston Harbor Friday.
Ship's bells announce the arrival of the Constitution's commanding officer, Commander Sean Kearns, on board, who settles onto the warship that has endured years of wear and tear.
On the wear and tear of a wooden warship:
Kearns: Well, like any other warship the Constitution is out in the elements 24/7. And just like any other wooden sailing ship, Mother Nature will have her way, and the wood deteriorates, and the lines and the rigging get wear and tear.
And so there's a constant process of upkeep and repair, and then when it gets to a certain point, replacement. We are able to take care of most of that work above the water line right here at the pier and still maintain our normal day-to-day operations open to the public.
On what's happening below the water line:
The fact is we don't know exactly what's going on. We have ability to do some amount of inspections internal to the ship — and also with divers external to the ship and using things like ultrasound and what not — we can do some assessments on the condition of the timbers.
The ship's hull from about a foot above the water line all the way down is covered in sheets of copper. So we can't really see the condition of the wood exterior that sits in the water until we get the ship into dry dock. And the first step of the restoration period once the ship's in dry dock is to pull off those copper sheets — and the Irish felt that lies between them — and the wood and then re-felt the caulking between the timbers and get a really good assessment of their condition.
We expect that for the most part the timbers are in good shape, but we also expect there will be a few that do need to be replaced. The maintenance detachment is getting ready with their supplies and materials to be able to do that.
On documenting restoration:
The original drawings, Joshua Humphreys' plan and the drawings that were used to construct not only Constitution but the other frigates, were lost throughout history. But the historians at Naval History and Heritage Command do a great job of piecing together what there is — which there is still a vast collection of documentation; although maybe not blueprints — a lot more letters and log books and journals and things like that.
The goal of this underway is really to do a thorough inspection of the ship and get a complete assessment of her condition; to repair anything that we find that needs repaired or replaced; and then to have a very good documented condition of the ship that we can use moving forward to help us plan any future restorations that we would want to do.
On his final 'underway' as commander of the USS Constitution:
Certainly, taking the ship underway ... I just can't describe the feeling, the chills that run up and down your spine. This ship was made to out run or out gun the enemy, and you can just tell when we set the sails that she still wants to go. The kind of thing for a sailor, a lifelong Navy man like myself, it just kind of brings a tear to your eye.
This segment aired on October 17, 2014.