By Seth Daniel
It’s not often that the Navy Yard is filled with hundreds of excited spectators at 10 p.m. on a cool Sunday night.
But when history is unfolding before their very eyes, it can become a motivation for just such a special trip.
Hundreds of Charlestown residents and visitors to the Town flocked to the Navy Yard Sunday night to watch the patient and careful process of filling DryDock #1 and putting the USS Constitution back afloat after more than two years out of the water for major repairs.
It’s a process that only happens every 20 to 25 years, so watching Old Ironsides migrate back out to the sea after nearly 220 years afloat was something very special.
“The Navy Yard was a magical place Sunday evening as USS Constitution floated once more,” said Constitution Museum President Anne Grimes Rand. “It was fun to see the Yard alive with activity – an active Navy Yard and a place for public appreciation of the work underway. The officers and crew of Constitution, Naval History & Heritage Command Detachment Boston’s restorers and riggers, and Portsmouth Naval Shipyard docking staff were the stars of the show, keeping the operations running smoothly. With great promotion and lots of hands-on activities, there was a terrific turnout from near and far.”
She added that with special hours from 9 p.m. to midnight at the Museum, they welcomed some 5,000 visitors.
The proceedings got underway around 4 p.m. when the caisson on the drydock began letting water into the space.
Trained Navy divers wearing construction diving equipment and outfitted with microphones and underwater cameras began their job of monitoring things below the waterline.
Onshore, the USS Constitution Museum and the National Parks Service had fun activities for the kids, and informative lectures for adults. Many members of the board for the museum were onsite for the special occasion as well.
As the DryDock filled up, the crowds got bigger – some bringing chairs and camping out on the lawn while others stationed themselves as close to the old boat as they could get.
At 9:42 p.m., the call went out from a cadet, “The boat has floated!”
That elicited sustained cheers from the crowd. About an hour later, the caisson – which held back the sea from the ship – was removed by a tugboat. That let the water in to the lip of the DryDock and put the ship afloat enough so that it could be backed up using ropes to its temporary resting place on Pier 1.
As it crossed the threshold back into the sea, there were but 18 inches of clearance between the newly repaired hull and the concrete lip of the DryDock.
But all went well, and a celebration of sorts broke out as the ship settled on Pier 1.
For residents of Charlestown, it was also a special time.
Justin and Elizabeth Flynn brought their daughter, Hanna, and their dog, Ruby, down for the evening – watching for several hours on a summer Sunday night.
“The Constitution is such an important part of our nation’s history and Charlestown,” said Elizabeth. “We wouldn’t have missed seeing it back in the water. The Naval engineers and everyone who helped restore it did and an amazing job. We appreciate the museum sharing the ins and outs of the restoration – it was a history lesson for all of us.”
Lois Siegelman, president of the Friends of the Charlestown Navy Yard, said she observed the entire evening down on the pier to watch history unfold. She said the Friends are excited to have the old boat back on the water.
“We are thrilled to see the USS Constitution nearing the completion of its restoration and continuing its history in Boston Harbor,” she said. “I personally spent eight hours observing the carefully executed process to protect the ship while it was safely returned to the Harbor. Although the restoration is not complete, the Constitution looks absolutely elegant. I can’t wait to see it with all of its masts, rigging and cannons back on board. I was also pleased to be able to interact with others from all over Charlestown as well as from other parts of the city, state, and country. Many thanks to the USS Constitution Museum, the National Park Service, and the United States Navy for preserving, supporting and sharing this national treasure.”
For Charlestown’s Mike Mickelson, who came down to take some photos and watch the even unfold, he said he thought of all of those who helped restore Old Ironsides so many years ago with penny donations.
“As I watched, I thought of elderly friends in Australia who warmly remember as schoolchildren enthusiastically gathering pennies to save ‘Old Ironsides,’” he said.
The ship will remain in its temporary location for a few weeks so the new repairs can acclimate to the seawater. It will move back to its usual home on the other side of the pier later this summer, but it will remain closed to the public through Labor Day.