USS Constitution

A quick tour, 11-Mar-2009

Part 1 of what I hope will be more visits, as there is a lot more of the ship and her infrastructure to see and learn the history of.

Each small image links to a large one -- use your browser controls to navigate back and forth.

Our tour took place on a rainy day. The ship is berthed at Pier 1 in the Charlestown Navy Yard as usual, and is undergoing more maintenance and restoration work. There is a temporary superstructure "roof" built over the top deck with plywood and tarps to keep weather out while crews work underneath. Partially for that reason and partially because a lot of the rigging aloft has been removed and laid aside on the pier anyway, our tour didn't really get into masts and rigging too much other than to discuss the huge acreage of sail she *could* set.

There is some exterior hull work being done as well, but not quite as enthusiastically while it's still winter.

Our ship's historian pointing out the thin fir and oak shims being inserted to re-create deck camber. The original spar deck was crowned upward to help shed water out toward the scuppers, but one of the redecking projects in the past gave that up in favor of a *flat* deck which tends to increase water retention and more leaks to below. So the cambered deck is coming back, which involves ripping up the entire existing one and laying new planks.

The area in the background is a portion of the new finished decking. The traditional cotton and oakum is still used to caulk the deck between the planks, but modern marine caulks and sealants are being used for the final sealing layer instead of tar. Care in the selection of woods for all parts of the ship is still a big factor, although some newer technology of laminates and glues is slowly being added where it doesn't significantly change the period character of the structure.

The old planks are very firmly nailed down and caulked to each other and the deck beams, requiring huge amounts of force to crack them loose even after the spikes are removed. They're using a bottle jack and a 4x4 to push upward from below, and the bang when a board finally breaks loose is really impressive and shakes the entire deck.

Starting to go below. The temporary roof doesn't cover the entire deck, so a fair amount of rainwater comes in along the surface. It is pretty clear that the flat deck has suffered the effects of weather quite a bit; there are quite a few leaks down through the joints and caulking here and there.

Many of these pictures needed quite a bit of color-correction and other post fixup and may still look a little weird, because of the odd mix of light sources down below. At least there *is* a reasonable amount of light. In the days of lanterns and no electricity, everything would have been much darker inside. As I hate using flash unless absolutely necessary, I went with the "natural" light as best I could in the timeframe we had. I imagine that another visit with more leisure for photography would involve tripods, delayed capture, and frequent manual setting of white-balance.

Down onto the gun deck. These are all long guns, as opposed to the shorter "carronades" that have been taken off the spar deck during reconstruction. Each of the long guns weighs close to 6000 pounds and fires 24-pound balls, or would if it were really cast to be a working piece of ordnance. These are early 20th-century recreations, not meant to be fired or withstand the pressure that a full powder charge would produce. They're still iron and still heavy; a "loose cannon" would be the equivalent of an SUV rolling around the deck with no parking brake.

Each gun has a box to temporarily store the components of the next round -- powder charge and the wad. I found this especially interesting because one of the projects I'm working on involves determining reliable optical characteristics of what a standard "wad" would be, when in fact it could vary all over the place as they were constructed from any old cotton-waste or scrap rope parts that could be scrounged up. I need an easily-identifiable wad that can be distinguished from a powder-bag and a replica cannonball as part of an interactive museum display that allows people to perform their own gun drill. This is tough, because anything that could prevent a ball from rolling out of the barrel was fair game back in the day, especially when it was about to be fired out of a cannon and would disintegrate over the water anyway -- who cares what it's made from.

Cannon shot stored in racks amidships. This was temporary storage just for battle situations, keeping ammunition handy to the gun crews. The full stock of ball was stored elsewhere in a more contained fashion when the ship was simply underway or [especially] when in stormy weather.

Generally, one set of powder, ball, and wad was always kept pre-loaded into each gun with the muzzle covered, so that if a battle situation were to suddenly develop the ship would be ready for one full round of firepower without a lot of scrambling beforehand. To keep moisture out, the guns were also rolled fully inboard and made fast tilted upward to retain everything in the right place.

Gun hardware: the sponge, dipped in water and sent down the barrel to put out any remaining sparks; and a "worm" to extract out any remaining components of wad or cartridge bag. Obviously both items would need to be mounted on the end of a long pole to be useful; these heads are racked for display purposes here.

In the absence of problems, a good crew of 8 - 12 working a gun could cycle it and fire every minute and a half or two minutes, the hardest part of the work being running the carriages back and forth to reposition. Firing recoil did much of the work of bringing it inboard, but that motion had to be constrained as much as possible.

More gun hardware. We weren't told what all this stuff is at the time but I got an explanation later on. Barrel-sized balls were certainly not all that could be fired from a cannon. Inside the plastic box is a round of grape shot wrapped up in canvas; just behind it to the right is a grape shot ball and a cylindrical canister into which shrapnel could be packed, all designed as anti-personnel rounds. At the far corner of the table is various types of bar shot, intended to rip through rigging, as well as the standard round ball shot with a wooden sizing gauge to make sure it wouldn't jam in the bore. The long stick is a linstock, a holder for an ignition match which in later eras was superseded by flintlocks mounted right on the guns and triggered by pulling a lanyard. One thing I don't see here is the quill or rod used to poke down the touchhole into the felt charge bag and and open up an ignition path into the powder.

One of the beds in the captain's quarters, and the light is coming in from the glass-enclosed area to the left that was a private head hanging off the side of the stern. This is actually a "modernized" berth, whereas in the War of 1812 era the captain would have slept in a hanging cot. This berth is just about the same size as the Thermarest-based car sleeping rig I spent quite a few nights in while road-tripping cross-country last summer, so that probably qualifies as "luxurious" on the scale of shipboard sleeping quarters.

The odd round bluish thing is daylight coming in through a primitive attempt at an operable porthole, which there are several of pierced through the hull here and there and referred to as "airports". These weren't in the ship's original design but were added a little later in an attempt to bring in air and maybe a little light, especially on the berth deck, but they often leak even when secured shut with a large bolt.

Most of the crew would sleep one level down in the berth deck, swinging cheek-by-jowl in canvas hammocks hooked up between two deck beams. The hammocks here are stowed, i.e. both ends over one hook to take up less room.

Even down here we see a few puddles from the deck leaks above.

The massive wooden "knees", made of laminated white oak, that line either side of the berth deck help stiffen the sides of the hull and transfer most of the localized gun-deck weight above down to the hull and lower structure.

In case we're confused about which deck is which and the terminology, here's a diagram. The knees are the thick black areas at either side. See the big picture for better clarity. The orlop [lowest] deck wasn't in this drawing so I dotted it in approximately where it sits.

In addition to the knees there are numerous bits of bracing and stiffening everywhere, and in many different key directions. And the continual enemy is rot -- in a perpetually moist maritime environment and exacerbated by various weather leaks from above, some evidence of degradation is present at almost every level of the ship.

There's this large and handsome pump in the middle of the berth deck which is hand-operated from above on the gun deck; I'm not sure if it's for fire suppression or bilge but it possibly serves both functions to some extent.

The tiller room. Normally we would see the control ropes that connect up to the wheel on the spar deck, but if necessary [as it was in the battle vs. HMS Java when the wheel assembly was damaged] the rudder can be controlled by relaying orders to crew stationed on the block-and-tackle rigs down here.

Down the hatch! This tiny passage leads down to the aft powder magazine.

Down here in the filling room, gunpowder was taken from the magazine and prepared into the felt-bagged cannon charges. This area is tucked into the stern just forward of the rudder, possibly one of the better-protected areas of the ship. During battle, young boys called "powder monkeys" would carefully ferry assembled charges and other supplies up to the gun deck crews.

The powder magazine itself, for longer-term gunpowder storage, is completely lined in copper sheeting to keep humidity away from the barrels. Moisture from the hull would condense on the outside of the copper and fall away. Obviously this area had to be protected from sparks and fire -- there's a "light box" arrangement that would allow lanterns to shine into the magazine through glass but keep their flame physically outside the space.

Gunpowder kegs apparently had to be turned over every so often to maintain the even distribution of the ingredients.

That's one reason all the walls and ceilings were generally painted white -- both to reflect as much light around as possible, and to make it easier to see that things were kept clean. Here we're in the surgeon's cockpit on the orlop deck, the lowest "real" deck in the vessel, which gives very little headroom but nonetheless, is where the surgeons would work triaging battle casualties by lantern light. Our historian described how it would be poorly lit and stinking of blood and guts and body parts, while medical crew worked on their knees at makeshift tables trying to patch up their injured fighting crew.

Conjecture is that the floors were traditionally painted red for a reason...

The orlop deck is sort of a half deck, a noncontiguous deck which is broken in the middle by the larger space of the ship's hold. The stacks of chairs stored here are almost certainly not period, but are needed for various modern-day shipboard functions.

The chairs are occupying the cable tier, where the large "cables" aka anchor lines would be coiled up and stored. I didn't manage to capture exactly where the cables would pass up and forward to the bow -- maybe next trip. Ships carried a variety of anchors, from the big heavy main "bowers" to smaller, human-manageable "kedge" anchors often used to help pull a ship forward in times of no wind.

We're about 14 feet below waterline here.

Down here, nearest the keel, we see the diagonal riders that help transfer load and support the weight of the heavy guns, and help strengthen the ship's structure and resist the tendency of the bow and stern to sag down, or "hog" as it's called. These members were apparently part of the original design but were taken out around the 1820s, with the almost obvious result that the line of the keel eventually began bending. Basically they are essential for any long wooden ship to have, as most of the upward bouyant force is at the waist in the middle and the two ends pull downward. These forces are basically always trying to break the ship in half. New riders were installed while the ship was drydocked in 1993, the first time they reappeared as part of the structure in 150+ years.

Hogging is evidently a major issue in keeping almost all the large wooden ships intact, and is mentioned frequently in numerous articles about restoration and maintenance. For generous amounts of further reading:

The "" website is moving to one or both of
which present some different classes of information, and more pictures and notes are available at .

The museum site and its ancillary domain have some more info but geared more toward education about lifestyles and battle tactics of the times rather than shipboard technical detail.

I also found more technical discussion at the USS Constellation site, describing similar preservation efforts.

As with any topic you could name there are also some independent naval-history enthusiast sites around the internet, such as hazegray [whose images all seem to be unavailable at the moment, unfortunately] and the HSNA site that has some very cool online versions of books and manuals from various periods.

_H* 090312