But on Monday, the masts of "Old Ironsides" towered once again
above the New England waters it protected during the early 1800s, the first
time the ship sailed under its own power in 116 years.
"It's a beautiful sight," said Henry Borden, 76, of Danvers, Mass.
"I've seen some good celebrations but this beats everything in my life."
The Navy's oldest commissioned ship, made seaworthy after a 3 1/2-year renovation
project, celebrated its 200th anniversary with an hourlong voyage that had
100,000 people cheering and its crew members tearing up.
Normally docked at Boston's Charlestown Navy Yard, the ship was towed to
Marblehead, a former seafaring and shipbuilding town a few miles up the
coast, for its first unaided sail this century.
As tugboats let her loose, the 204-foot, three-masted frigate let the wind
fill her sails and then cut along the coast at 5 knots, about 4 mph, with
her deck tilted slightly starboard.
"Freedom!" said David Cashman, the ship's former skipper, who
charted her course as assistant navigator. "Beyond words."
"Under these conditions, she can sail forever," said Charles Deans,
director of the detachment that returned Old Ironsides to sailing strength.
"We can just keep going."
Launched on Oct. 21, 1797, as one of the Navy's first warships, Old Ironsides
was undefeated in 30 engagements. Its victory over the HMS Guerriere in
1812 signaled America's arrival as a naval power.
The Constitution originally carried 36 sails and could reach a top speed
of 13 knots, earning its nickname from sailors who swore British cannonballs
bounced off its oaken hull.
Horns tooted from hundreds of boats and a cheer went up on deck after two
of Old Ironsides' cannons signaled she had shed the last of her tugboats.
Her crew clambered up her masts to the yardarms. One by one, they loosed
her six huge sails, paid for by the donations of school children around
the country, then pulled them tight. The sails snapped full with the breeze.
Modern sailcloth and computers aided the crew, who worked in dress whites
as officers in period costume shouted orders from the deck.
"America's still a place where we can do hard things," said Cmdr.
Michael Beck, the ship's 64th commanding officer. "This is a living
Tens of thousands of people on shore strained to catch a glimpse of something
that hadn't been seen by anyone alive.
"It's the history of it and just what it means - freedom, pride, pride
in your country - and to give your children a little pride, that's why we're
here, basically," said Ken Karamanoogian, who brought his 10-year-old
daughter down from Bedford, N.H., for the day.
It was Old Ironsides' third visit to Marblehead, which supplied and outfitted
the first vessels for George Washington's navy in 1775.
In 1814, the Constitution sailed to Marblehead to escape two British warships
at her heels. The ship's crew had little trouble navigating the rocky narrows,
but the British, unfamiliar with the waters and fearing the guns at Fort
Sewall, did not follow.
This century, the frigate traditionally has ventured from its dock only
once a year on the Fourth of July, when it was turned around to make sure
it weathered evenly. It last sailed under its own power in 1881.
It made a tour of both coasts in the 1930s, and occasionally set some sails,
but it was always under tow.
After her sail, Old Ironsides fired a 21-gun salute as she reentered Marblehead
Harbor, then returned to Boston under tow.