[Photos] [Watch] 'Old Ironsides' Arrives in Dry Dock

Published May 20, 2015 9:22 AM by Kathryn Stone

The world’s oldest commissioned warship still afloat has been moved to dry dock this week to begin a planned three year restoration project.

The USS Constitution was moved into Dry Dock 1 at the historic Charlestown Navy Yard after two hours of flooding Sunday. On Monday evening, Navy divers declared the vessel safe to move and by around 11:30pm the ship was safely in dry dock.  Water was then pumped out of the dry dock at a rate of about three feet an hour well into Tuesday morning. The movement of ‘Old Ironisides’ marks the beginning of a three year multi-million dollar restoration project that is aimed at preserving this important piece of maritime and U.S. history for future generations.

Commander Sean Kearns commented on the project by saying, "We're now positioned to carry out the restoration work which will return Constitution to the water, preserving her for the next generation of Americans to enjoy and learn about our nation's great naval heritage."

The USS Constitution was first launched in 1797 and is one of the original six ships that George Washington ordered constructed to protect the fledgling country’s maritime interests. Constitution’s crowning achievement came, however, in the war of 1812 when the ship defeated four British frigates earning her the nickname “old ironsides” because cannonballs could not penetrate her thick hull. Since 1907 the ship has been on display for the public.

According to Naval History and Heritage Command Director Sam Cox, the USS Constitution still carries on an important mission by bringing awareness to the importance of maritime and naval history. "Her mission today is to preserve and promote U.S. Navy heritage by sharing the history of 'Old Ironsides' and the stories of the men and women who have faithfully served with distinction on the warship's decks for 217 years. When a visitor sets foot on the deck of USS Constitution, he or she is making contact with the beginnings of the U.S. Navy, a navy that has kept the sea lanes free for more than 200 years. Keeping her ready to do so is incredibly important," said Cox.

The Constitution was last dry docked in 1992 for a multi-year series of renovations made in preparation for the ship’s bi-centennial. The current renovation will consist of replacing planking in the lower hull, repairing the ship’s rigging and upper masts and replacing the copper sheathing on the vessel’s hull. For this last repair over 3,400 sheets of copper protecting the ship’s hull below the waterline will be replaced in order to keep worms and sea life from attaching to the vessel’s underside. 

The work is extremely sensitive and requires extensive knowledge of 18 century shipbuilding techniques as well as specially crafted tools. It is being undertaken by the Naval History and Maintenance Department in Boston. Richard Moore Boston’s detachment director explained that the work onboard the Constitution required specialized talents. "We do work with modern tools but we still use some of the old methods; the hull planks are still pinned through the deck but we use hydraulics and pneumatics to pull them out.”

However, despite the difficult undertaking they have been tasked with Moore notes the enthusiasm and pride his team feels for the job. "They realize the undertaking they're on. They're all proud to work on this vessel, they take such great care and their workmanship is great. I'm very proud to work here and so are they."

Restoration work on ‘Old Ironsides’ was originally slated to begin in late March, but was pushed back to May due to harsh winter weather conditions. The USS Constitution will reopen for tours beginning June 9 and visitors will have the opportunity see the active shipyard site and learn about the repair process from the ship’s crew.