BOSTON — Old Ironsides took one last trip around Boston Harbor on Friday ahead of a major, multi-year restoration project, firing its canons while the Dropkick Murphys punk band and a Boston Pops quintet entertained hundreds of special guests and dignitaries on board.
The USS Constitution, the world's oldest commissioned warship still afloat, was pushed along by a tugboat, its sails already taken down as it prepares to enter dry-dock for the repairs, which the Navy says could take about three years.
The three-mast frigate, which earned its nickname after winning battles during the War of 1812 against Great Britain, gave a traditional 21-gun salute to Fort Independence on Castle Island, one of the oldest fortified sites in the country. It also gave a 17-gun salute at the Coast Guard's Boston base and it's all active-duty Navy crew laid a wreath in the harbor to honor the armed forces branch, which turned 239 years old this week.
Gov. Deval Patrick and other high-ranking navy officials were among the 500 or so guests on board for the three-hour cruise.
"It was amazing," said Bill Poole, a member of the Lexington Minute Men who was dressed in his Revolutionary War era garb. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience to be on a ship of such antiquity."
Virginia Hart, an Easton resident who watched as the ship fired its cannons off Fort Independence, said: "That's our history. She's such an integral part of the United States."
Built in Boston and launched in October 1797, the USS Constitution was among the first warships of the new nation. It was commissioned by the U.S. Navy following the Revolutionary War in order to protect American merchant ships off the northern coast of Africa.
For the most part, the USS Constitution still will be open for public tours until it officially enters dry dock in March 2015.
The repair work is expected to involve re-coppering the ship's hull, replacing worn riggings, changing out old planks on the gun and berth decks and making general repairs to the stern, bow and captain's cabin.
Peter Melkus, a spokesman for the Constitution, declined to say how much the repairs might cost, since dry dock inspections might reveal more or less damage than anticipated. He said the last time the ship was dry docked for major repairs was 1995, in preparation for its bicentennial. Some repairs were done while the ship was still in the harbor from about 2007 to 2010, Melkus said.
The USS Constitution is expected to be back in the water by 2017. By spring or summer 2018, it should return to its familiar spot at the Navy Yard pier, where it has been a major tourist destination, with more than 500,000 visitors a year.