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Charmed Life

Float On

Sam Holden

By Charles Cohen | Posted 10/17/2001

Office-jockey journalists such as myself tend to celebrate, even glorify, our occasional brushes with genuine labor. Anything to interrupt this endless search for the right words--so long as we don't have to work too hard.

So it is when I finagle my way on board the U.S.S. Constellation for a rare voyage. (The floating museum is usually affixed to a dock outside Harborplace.) I figure I'm in for a nice little jaunt from Fells Point, where it was towed for the annual Fun Festival, to its Inner Harbor home.

And I am--until the end of the trip, when I'm put on a towline gang, stationed on shore to haul the 900-ton ship into its regular berth after it's been pushed across the water by two tugboats. It is a half-hour of "Six, 12, heave." For the eight of us fighting the westward wind, it's kind of embarrassing, pulling with everything we have and seeing the old ship go nowhere. What would the original crew have made of our huffing and puffing?

Still, we take pride in our labor. At least we are putting this old sloop-of-war to work. Even if docking outside a Tex-Mex restaurant is a long way from patrolling the African coast for illegal slave ships (the Constellation liberated 694 captives bound for slavery from 1859 to 1861), there's a thrill to wrapping line around a mooring bit below the gun deck, taking in the view from the water, listening to the 147-year-old boat creak. For a few brief moments, this is a working ship again.

It isn't just the writer on board who feels the faint shudder of the past. "There was a nice stiff breeze," says James Demske, a port captain with the Canton-based shipping-services firm Vane Brothers Co., who is piloting the Constellation by coordinating the movements of the tugs from aboard the old sloop's deck. "You can feel her. She moves by herself with just a slight breeze, with just the wind whipping. She must have been a race horse."

Seeing the Constellation at its usual berth, it's easy to forget this was ever a working ship, let alone a sloop-of-war. (The last fully sail-powered warship built by the U.S. Navy, it saw action off Europe and Africa before and during the Civil War.) The harbor water is "flat," says Paul Powichroski, the ship's manager. There are no swells, and the ship rarely heels unless there's a storm. He says some tourists doubt it's even floating--he's been asked if the Constellation is mounted in underwater concrete.

To mark the occasion of an actual voyage, Powichroski makes sure during the trip to visit his favorite part of the ship. Rather than watch the waterfront go by from the deck, he goes down into the bilge, the very bottom of the ship, built with 24-inch frames that look like a whale's ribs.

"The hold--that's where you can really see how the ship's built," says Powichroski, who worked on the team that restored the Constellation in the late '90s. "You can see how everything takes shape."

He seems to know every inch of the bilge, from the marks left in timbers by the original shipbuilders' axes to the 24-inch copper spikes known as "drifts" that hold the ship together. "We have seen joints that after 147 years you couldn't slip a piece of paper between them," he says.

He scrambles up a set of stairs to show off the breast hook, which fastens the ship's two sides together at its stem. The boomerang-shaped piece came from the trunk of an old-growth tree that must have been quite a sight before it gave its life to shipping. "It's my favorite piece of wood on the whole ship," he says, the kind of thing that inspired him and other shipwrights to preserve more than half of the Constellation's original timbers during the three-year restoration, which ended in 1999.

Traversing the harbor, gazing at the ship's rigging flapping in the wind, I imagine what the Constellation must have looked like when those masts were full with sail. More than likely, the Constellation's sailing days are over. U.S. Navy policy bars retired battleships--even century-and-a-half-old ones--from sailing again, lest they fall into enemy hands. It would take an act of Congress to make an exception for the Constellation, says Chris Rowsom, the ship/museum's executive director. Even then, it would take lots of money to make the old ship seaworthy, or even Chesapeake Bay-worthy.

Besides, it was nerve-racking just watching the Constellation return slowly home from Fells Point. The last thing anyone wanted to see was this fragile piece of U.S history slam into an Inner Harbor sea wall. Accordingly, as they approached Harborplace, the tug crews eased up to allow the ship to be hauled in by hand.

That's where we on the towline come in, dragging the old sloop in seemingly one inch at a time. As the ship gets closer, it feels like we're pulling against a force much bigger than ourselves. In moments of stasis, when the line captain allows us to catch our breath, I gaze up at the empty gun deck, picturing 300 men raising the sails, hoisting cannonballs through the hold, or doing this very job--hauling the ship to safe harbor, a task we finally manage by adopting a different pulling technique.

Now safely back at the keyboard, trying to summarize my brief visit to the fringe of living history, I find the right words hard to come by. So I'll leave them to Cindy Ambrose, another volunteer who shared the grunt work: "It took me back in time. It was not like we were soldiers going off to war; we were pulling the bow line. [But] I'm glad I wasn't just standing there."

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