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
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
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
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 "ussconstitution.navy.mil" 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
ancillary domain have some more info but geared more toward education
about lifestyles and battle tactics of the times rather than shipboard
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.