I mentioned a few months ago that I grew up with a father who loves naval history and tall ships; some of that has clearly come down to me. I couldn’t imagine visiting Boston this past week without a trip to see the USS Constitution. “Old Ironsides” as she is also known is the world’s oldest commissioned warship still afloat. (While the HMS Victory is an older warship by a little over 32 years, she is more of a museum piece at this point and is dry-docked.) Simply stepping aboard her deck is an amazing experience–look up at the rigging, stare down the bow and just take it all in. The Constitution was commissioned on 21 October 1797 and as I noted above it’s still a working naval vessel. To that end, active-duty Navy personnel dressed in War of 1812-era uniforms run tours of the ship while additional seamen and women are on-site and on-ship in modern uniforms.
The Constitution was one of six frigates authorized by the Naval Armament Act of 1794 which created the young United States’ Navy. The Constitution saw action in the Barbary War but it was her role in the War of 1812 that earned her lasting fame and her nickname. The Second War of American Independence saw the United States at war with Great Britain again. British ships had been harassing American trade with Europe (and more specifically with France) as well as impressing American sailors. The Royal Navy reigned supreme. When the USS Constitution encountered the HMS Guerriere, a British 38-gun frigate, she was about to upend the established order of things. While I don’t want to spoil the entire story for our guide, suffice is to say that not only did the Constitution win the engagement in only 35 minutes but the sight of cannon balls bouncing off her wooden sides (making them appear like iron) inspired both the ship’s sailors and the United States as a whole. The Constitution has never been defeated and boasts a 33-0 record. Today, instead of a crew of 450-500 men she hosts 70 proud sailors ready to welcome you aboard.
Admission is free, however, be prepared to show photo ID and go through security before approaching the ship itself. According to our guide, between 5,000-6,000 people visit the ship every day in July and August. You can choose to visit the Constitution’s spar deck (top deck) without a tour. I would recommend waiting for a tour as it’s the only way to see the lower decks. The Navy has set up a tent to wait under while queuing and even benches for those waiting for the next available tour. I appreciated this bit of courtesy. Tours are available every 30 minutes and last as long. While tours are supposed to cover both the gun and berth decks, we were only able to see the gun deck due to time constraints. The tour is aimed at a general audience. It is family friendly and accessible to all. (Kudos to our sailor for getting across so much enthusiasm.)
If you’re interested in a more detailed/technical look at the ship though, it can be a little frustrating–perhaps a more detailed tour offered once or twice a day could fill this void in the future. Don’t let this criticism make you skip touring the ship, however, as you would be missing a chance to touch a living legend.
Even better, if you are in Boston on 19 August you will be in for a treat. The Constitution will leave her dock and head out into Boston Harbor where she plans to set sail for the first time since 1997! Unfortunately, I won’t be there but I can start dreaming about my Dad’s next project–his very own USS Constitution!