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USS Constitution sails to mark 1812 battle that earned it 'Old Ironsides' nickname

 

At 215 years old, the USS Constitution is the U.S. Navy's oldest commissioned warship afloat. But it's not too old to take a quick sail.

For 17 minutes on Sunday, the ship cruised west across Boston Harbor, reaching a maximum speed of 3.1 knots. It was its first sail under its own power since turning 200 in 1997.

The short trip -- a distance of 1,100 yards -- was to commemorate the Constitution's victory over a British warship of a similar size in a fierce battle during the War of 1812. The victory earned the ship its nickname, "Old Ironsides."

Chief Petty Officer Frank Neely, a Constitution spokesman and crew member, said he was among the 285 lucky people who were aboard on Sunday. It was a warn day with a few clouds, but still perfect for the sail, he said.

"This was really terrific," Neely said. "It couldn't have been more memorable."

The trip marked the day two centuries ago when the Constitution defeated the British frigate HMS Guerriere during the War of 1812. The Guerriere proved no match for the Constitution, which was heavier and longer. The vessels blasted away at each other at close range, even colliding at one point, during the 35-minute battle.

"I cannot think of a better way to honor those who fought in the war as well as celebrate Constitution's successes during the War of 1812 than for the ship to be under sail," Constitution Cmdr. Matt Bonner said in a statement.

Following the sail, tugs took the vessel to Fort Independence on nearby Castle Island where a huge crowd had gathered, and the Constitution fired a 21-gun salute, Neely said.

The ship, which was first launched in 1797, is stationed in Charlestown, and periodically is tugged into the harbor for historical display. Its primary mission today is to provide teach people about its history. Each year, about 500,000 people tour the ship, Neely said.