You’ll Sink Our Battleship!

Ex-commanders of the USS Constitution are pushing a plan to let the fabled ship sail to other cities. Fellow officers who oppose the scheme say there's just one problem: Old Ironsides might not survive the trip.

Retired U.S. Navy Captain Christopher Melhuish stands on the plank deck of the USS Constitution as a tug gently nudges the ship he commanded from 1997 to 1999 into Boston Harbor. Onboard with him are two other former commanders, as well as about 150 Navy chief petty officer candidates clad in blue overalls, hoisting thick lines to set the sails. The wind catches the sails, and the storied frigate–the oldest commissioned warship still afloat–comes to life. The sailors cheer.

A decade ago, the very idea of the Constitution under sail was enough to generate bulwark-to-bulwark news coverage. On this perfect August day, though, only a sparse crowd watches from Castle Island. True, it’s a Friday, and the outing was given little advance publicity.

But the nonchalance that now greets the Constitution‘s occasional forays into the harbor only fuels Melhuish’s view of the ship–that it’s become a “pier-side relic” taken for granted by Bostonians, who at the same time claim it as their exclusive property.

It’s also a view that puts Melhuish at odds with another former Constitution commander, Robert Gillen, who, as it happens, is standing just a few feet away near the mast. As a kid, the Charlestown native used to swim over to the ship and climb up its weathered oak sides. After helming the Constitution from 1978 to 1980, he ran the nationwide “Pennies Campaign” that raised $260,000 from schoolchildren and other donors to pay for the new sails the Constitution unfurled in 1997. He and Melhuish largely ignore each other throughout the journey, except when they’re ceremonially piped on- and off-board. To those familiar with the backstory, this is hardly a surprise: The two men have come to lead the opposing sides of a high-stakes battle over the future of the 210-year-old national treasure.

The debate centers on the Navy’s ongoing planning for the upcoming bicentennial of the War of 1812, in which the Constitution played a famously pivotal role. Melhuish–who’s convinced the Constitution is sound enough to safely withstand journeys much greater than its regular harbor tours–has a grand vision for the event: He wants to station the ship off Baltimore’s Fort McHenry, site of the British bombardment that inspired Francis Scott Key to write what became “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Such a display, he says, “would stop the country cold.” But in order for it to happen, the Navy would have to change long-standing rules that strictly confine the ship to Massachusetts Bay, and allow it to sail only under very favorable conditions. To loosen those constraints and permit open-ocean travel, says Gillen and his camp, is to put the ship in serious jeopardy, and could even lead to the unthinkable: sinking Old Ironsides. It’s a dire prediction, to be sure. But the way Gillen and company see it, there’s evidence to suggest that, going forward, the Navy should take extreme caution with the most irreplaceable part of its fleet.

The roots of the dispute over what the Constitution should and should not be allowed to do date back a decade, to the $12 million overhaul the ship underwent between 1992 and 1996. One of the big targets of those repairs was the ship’s severe “hog,” a 14-inch warp it had developed along the length of its keel that was destabilizing the vessel and pulling its boards out of flush. To correct the problem, the Naval Historical Center (NHC), the Navy department in charge of the ship’s maintenance, came up with a historically faithful fix by installing a series of long “diagonal riders,” wooden supports that run along the curve of the hull. Had the repair crew not been able to pull off that solution, “we would have had to take the ship out of water,” says Donald Turner, who was NHC production manager at the time.

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Thus rehabbed, the Constitution was considered fit to mark its 200th birthday in 1997 in grand style. On July 20 of that year, the ship left its berth in Charlestown and headed into the Atlantic, bound for Marblehead, escorted by a Navy frigate and destroyer and filmed by hovering choppers. For 40 minutes of the two-day journey, it sailed under its own power, the first time it had done so in 116 years. Otherwise it was towed, often with sails up, bathed in pomp and glory.

For the most part, the trip went smoothly. But on the way back to Boston, something happened. While former commanders disagree on the severity of the incident, it continues to stoke the debate over what the ship is capable of. What is known for certain is this: The Constitution was running late. Darkness was falling, and another photo op awaited in the harbor, so the order was given to speed up the tow. With the ship moving faster than the wind, the sails billowed toward the stern and backed up against the masts. The NHC’s Richard Wallace, who was serving as captain of the main mast and manager of the civilian crew, watched anxiously–sailing ships are built to go forward, and when their sails start pulling in reverse, it puts strain on the whole craft. “Once you loosen up the rigging, anything can happen to that ship,” says Wallace, who has since retired from the Navy. Standing nearby was Herman Sudholz, who had served as the Constitution‘s commanding officer from 1980 to 1985. “We both saw what was happening and just shook our heads,” Sudholz recalls. “The entire structure was being stressed, and it was all because we had to meet a schedule.” The situation was quickly corrected and no serious damage was done, but Wallace, and Sudholz, remain concerned. “Here it’s 10 years later,” Sudholz says, “and I’m worried about that same sort of thing happening again.”

Melhuish argues that it’s not unusual for a tall ship’s sails to back against its masts. In fact, the Constitution used a backing maneuver in its battle against the HMS Cyane, one of the five British warships it vanquished in the War of 1812. During the tow through the harbor this August, he pointed to the sails as they backed against the masts yet again, with no apparent ill effect.

In addition, Melhuish and his supporters, including Michael Beck, the commander during the Marblehead trip, say trials and tests before and after that 1997 voyage proved the ship’s capability to safely travel greater distances. Indeed, a Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) report on a May 20, 1998, tow trial through Boston Harbor conducted with an eye toward possible future trips stated the ship was “in a good state of repair and is capable of withstanding conditions”–namely, limited wind and waves, with good visibility.

The problem, say Melhuish’s critics, is that out in the open sea, there’s no way to guarantee the sort of mild conditions the Constitution enjoyed during that test. And in fact, their concern is echoed in the same NAVSEA report held up by Melhuish and his camp: The document notes that while the weather on the day of the trial was significantly calmer than predicted, it could have just as easily gone the other way, posing a “substantial risk” to the ship.

This is especially worrisome for Wallace, due to his unique familiarity with a significant weakness in the Constitution‘s structure. In the early 1970s, while doing maintenance work on the ship, Wallace and his crew discovered that about 40 of its futtocks, the curved timbers that serve as the hull’s ribs, had badly decayed. Because the ship was not in dry dock, they could replace the compromised futtocks only down to the waterline, which meant swapping original timbers that were up to 20
feet long with new ones averaging just 4 feet in length. The result, Wallace says, is a hull less able to withstand unpredictable currents. “With any kind of large sea movement, and with those short futtocks in there, you could have a collapse of some of the framing of the ship,” Wallace says. That would be very bad news for Old Ironsides. “I’ve seen many wooden ships gone all of a sudden,” he says, citing the Pride of Baltimore, a replica 19th-century Baltimore Clipper topsail schooner built just 30 years ago that went under in a freak squall in 1986, killing the captain and three others.

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“The Constitution is a wooden ship. It could sink,” he says. “I worked on that ship from the bottom of the keel to the masts and rigging for 25 years. Every hair on my body still stands at attention when I see her move. When I hear some of the things they tried or are trying to do, it makes me nervous.”

After the success of the Marblehead outing in 1997, it looked as though more travel was in the cards for the Constitution: Besides scheduled trips to Gloucester and Portsmouth in 1998, the Navy was considering sending the ship to Newport in 1999, and New York City in 2000. Fearing that enthusiasm was overcoming caution, in April 1998 Gillen scrambled to organize a press conference at the Charlestown Navy Yard, during which he and three other former commanding officers said problems with the ship’s “structural integrity” gave them “grave concerns about the safety of Old Ironsides.”

The sentiment was shared by several powerful local pols, including Mayor Tom Menino, Congressman Joe Moakley, and Senator Ted Kennedy–whose grandfather John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald was instrumental in bringing the Constitution back to Boston in 1897–who were alarmed by the thought of losing one of the city’s top tourism draws for any length of time whatsoever. A few weeks before the press conference, Melhuish and his then boss, Rear Admiral Bud Langston, had met with Menino to discuss what they had in mind for Old Ironsides. “We had a vision to safely share the ship with our nation by visiting other cities,” says Langston. “I explained that because of Marblehead, the number of visitors to the Constitution doubled” from 512,539 in 1995 to more than 1 million after that voyage. “But the mayor said he’d mine the harbor before he’d let out the Constitution again.” Langston, who as a Navy aviator had survived more than 300 combat missions, was taken aback by this response. “I guess I didn’t understand Boston politics,” he says.

Whether due to the Gillen press conference, political pressure, or both, in June 1998 the Navy abruptly announced that all pending trips of the Constitution—including the Gloucester and Portsmouth visits, just weeks away—were off. “I simply cannot justify the risk of unexpected weather harming this national treasure,” said Admiral Jay Johnson, chief of naval operations. (Ted Kennedy was particularly ecstatic, which was somewhat ironic, considering that he himself had supported a failed bid to send the ship down to New York in 1963. “Old Ironsides has been saved once again,” he exclaimed.)

Melhuish says his crew was “shell-shocked” by the decision. He believed then—as he does now—that the threat posed by weather is vastly overstated, thanks to advances in forecasting technology. “I had felt we could quite easily take the ship down to New York City, mooring it right under the Statue of Liberty with the president aboard. Some people thought it would be a dangerous Navy PR stunt. But it was about the ship and how to bring it to the people.

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“I’m not saying the ship should sail up and down the coast,” he adds. “But I want to unshackle the political debate so we can have a rational, dispassionate discussion” about what Old Ironsides can–and should–be used for. “The Constitution is capable of unique events that can bind the country together, and with proper planning, it can be done.”

For now, at least, the Constitution isn’t going anywhere. Last month it began “routine restorations” expected to run through 2009, meaning it won’t be leading the parade when the Tall Ships return to Boston that year. (That’s actually fine by Melhuish, who says, “For the Constitution to be a nautical hood ornament for Tall Ships regattas is demeaning.”)

Still, both sides are girding for a fight. Melhuish is pushing Congress to designate the ship the United States’ “ship of state”; while that wouldn’t allay structural concerns, he believes it would at least remind Bostonians of who really owns the vessel. His efforts to loose the Constitution from Massachusetts Bay are backed by Michael Beck, the commander during the Marblehead journey, who says of the Constitution, “No other symbol can achieve what she could on a national basis. When the Constitution sails, all the dangers that surround her represent the exact threats or concerns we might have as a civilization.” For his part, the tactically minded Gillen is laying a little lower, though he was moved to draft a rebuttal to a June Naval History magazine piece by Melhuish calling for the Navy to set free the ship.

In between is the Navy, trying to remain cool amid the flaring passions. “Nothing is ruled in or out at this point,” says NHC spokesman Jack Green. “The question of the ship going to other ports and what it would be allowed to do or not do will be reviewed, based on a variety of budgetary, technical, and historical factors.” Especially budgetary: For the Constitution to travel far south likely means making part of the trip via the Cape Cod Canal, and to clear the cape’s bridges the upper masts and all their rigging would have to be removed and then reassembled–a costly proposition.

Sitting in his Charlestown office, the ship’s current commanding officer, Captain William A. Bullard III, notes that whatever position they take, all his predecessors are equally genuine in their conviction. “It’s impossible not to establish a deep and personal connection with this ship,” he says. “The War of 1812 was huge for this nation, and there are a lot of special things this ship can do for its bicentennial.”

Bullard’s command will probably end before 2012. But if the Navy decides that Old Ironsides can safely fly its flag far beyond Boston, would he want to be at its helm? “Who wouldn’t?” he says, staring out at the masts and rigging filling his window. “Who wouldn’t?”