Its masts and six billowing white sails towering above the New England waters it once protected, the oak warship nicknamed Old Ironsides set out Monday under its own power for the first time in 116 years.
An estimated 100,000 people on land and sea watched as the USS Constitution left its temporary anchorage at Marblehead, Mass., on a one-hour voyage marking its 200th anniversary. The ship is normally docked at Boston’s Charlestown Navy Yard, where it has been a floating museum for generations.
The oldest commissioned warship in the world was saluted by modern naval escorts: the Blue Angels flying team, which zoomed past 300 feet above the deck, and the guided missile destroyer USS Ramage and the frigate USS Halyburton.
The 44-gun frigate sailed the Atlantic at a modest speed of 4 knots in light winds.
“I’m kind of speechless, you know,” said boatswain’s mate Joe Wilson, captain of the deck. “I wanted to cry. They were tears of joy.”
Wilson, who is black, typified the diversity on the Navy flagship. The crew includes Claire Bloom, the Constitution’s first woman executive officer.
The sailing itself also was vastly different from the days when the Constitution outran its enemies, deflected cannonballs and outgunned the British in the War of 1812.
“At first, it was a little bit scary,” said Bill Conser, a Navy recruit, as he prepared to climb up the rigging. “But it’s something you overcome. If someone were shooting a cannonball at me, it would make it a lot harder to do.”
Launched on Oct. 21, 1797, as one of the Navy’s first warships, Old Ironsides was undefeated in 30 engagements.
It was its victory over the HMS Guerriere in 1812 that signaled America’s arrival as a naval power.