Ships were meant to sail, but that’s exactly what the USS Constitution in the Charlestown Navy Yard hasn’t been doing for the past 18 months – as COVID-19 had prevented the ship from leaving port until last Friday, May 21.
After having been shut down since March 2020 to visitors, and not having hosted and “Underway” since October 2019, the Navy Yard and the USS Constitution’s crew were brimming with excitement and activity early on Friday morning. The crew had moved to a virtual tour format, and had been practicing their skills on land and in port, but none had been able to give a live tour of the ship or carry out their duties on the water until last Friday.
The anticipation and energy was clear on board the ship, as the crew and the members of the Naval Heritage and History Command prepared the ship to hit the Harbor.
“The crew is very excited, like me, to get to do what we love to do, and that’s being out on the ship sailing,” said 76th Commander John Benda. “That’s what sailors are born to do, and Naval officer too. We’re really good at telling the story of the USS Constitution and the legacy of it, and we’ve been very successful even in a COVID year shifting to a virtual platform with 300 virtual tours and four million views. We’re really proud of that, but what we really want to do is bring people on-board the ship to be able to touch a piece of history and really get to meet a US Navy sailor, maybe for the first time in their lives.”
The ship took its first Underway and cruised the Inner Harbor on Friday, stopping at Castle Island for a 21-gun canon salute – wowing many that had gathered on the waterfront to watch the spectacle. Following that, they stopped at the U.S. Coast Guard Station – where Old Ironsides was built – and fired off a 17-gun canon salute to honor the station and service members.
Once back in port, the ship was able to finally open to the public once again for live tours – the first given in-person since March 2020, when the ship closed to visitors due to COVID-19.
Benda said he was very happy to take out the ship as Commander for the first time.
“It feels really good to be out,” he said. “I had the pleasure to be second in command for a few years and took the ship out 14 times under the 75th in command. I was really excited to have the opportunity to do it last year, but the whole COVID thing happened. I’m really proud of the crew, the Constitution Museum and the Naval Heritage Command to come together and move this 224 year old historic warship through Boston Harbor safely and show it off to the American people – then come back to the Charlestown Navy Yard to open our gates once again.”
On board during the Underway, there was a mixture of excitement amongst the sailors for being able to unfurl the sails for the first time, to practice their climbing skills up the ropes and to the loft – and simply to breath the salty air on the deck of a “moving” ship.
Halfway through the voyage, AO2 Jennifer Jordan led a group of sailors through drills with 1812 replica spears, noting the commands she used and what each meant. That is done in-person for visitors on the ship, but it has also been transferred to an online gallery for those that can’t make it to the ship – and that transition to online video coverage likely will continue beyond the COVID-19 era for the crew.
Also onboard were the 1812 Marine Guard re-enactors, many of whom hadn’t held their stations onboard the ship since 2019.
“This is my 32nd year and the hair still stands up on my neck every time we leave,” he said, as the ship began to cruise out of the Navy Yard. “It never gets old. There are a lot of Civil War re-enactors who ask why I do 1812? I always tell them it’s because I get to go out and play on this ship. It’s always been an honor and it’s great to be back.”
Said member Chris Cox, “I felt like this day would never come. It’s great to get out and do what we do rather than sit tied up for more than a year. October 2019 was the last time we were out. This ship was built to sail and not to stay in port.”
Upon return to the Navy Yard, USS Constitution reopened to the public for tours that evening. The ship has resumed public visitation, Fridays to Sundays, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. The crew will continue to host a live virtual tour on Mondays at 1 p.m.