Is Constellation a Hopeless Case? Denmark Saved Own Landmark Frigate

October 02, 1994|By FRANK D. ROYLANCE

A visit to the dim, claustrophobic lower decks of the Constellation these days bears more than a slight resemblance to spelunking.

Long after the rain stops, water seeps down through the planks of the spar deck and drips into puddles on the gun deck.

Creep down another steep ladder to the berth deck, and you can see that the low beams are supported by stout shoring; knees and walls are badly water-stained, broken and decayed. The crew quarters are jammed with old rigging, tools and lumber, and the whole place smells dank and musty.

The Constellation can evoke a vivid sense of its age, a powerful asset in a floating wooden museum. But there is also this overwhelming sense of decay, and of loss. It is easy to conclude, "This is hopeless. It can't be saved."

That is much the same feeling that Danish citizens had 15 years ago when they crept aboard the wooden frigate Jylland, whose proud history and sad decline bore an uncanny resemblance to the Constellation's. The story of the Jylland's subsequent rescue can likewise stand as an example for those who would save Baltimore's Inner Harbor landmark.

"It was almost hopeless, to look at it," said Christian Rose, the mayor of Ebeltoft, Denmark, and spokesman for Fregatten Jylland, the nonprofit organization that owns and maintains the ship.

Launched in 1860, just five years after the Constellation, the Jylland was Denmark's last wooden warship. Unlike the Constellation, it was built with a steam engine to assist its full complement of sails.

Both ships saw wartime service in the 1860s -- the Constellation in the Civil War, the Jylland in an 1864 conflict with Austria and Prussia. Ten years later, Jylland was refitted as a royal yacht and made several voyages to the West Indies, Venezuela and European ports.

The Jylland left the naval service in 1908 and was converted to a corvette, or sloop-of-war. Like the Constellation, it served intermittently as a training ship, with several narrow escapes from the scrap yard in the 1950s. Also like the Constellation, it was repaired some, but never fully restored.

By the time Mr. Rose's group won possession of the ship in 1979, time, gravity and decay had bent or "hogged" the Jylland's keel 35 inches at the center, far worse than the Constellation's current hog of about 26 inches.

"You must be naive to have the thoughts of success we had, but it did succeed," he said.

The repairs began in 1984 and took 10 years. The bill came to $20 million, not far from the $25 million estimate often given as the cost of repairs to the Constellation.

The Jylland's rescuers were fortunate to have a pair of "angels" on their side. The first was Maersk McKinney Moller, the Danish owner of Maersk shipping lines, who gave $10 million in cash and services to the effort.

The other was Prince Henrik, husband of Denmark's Queen Margrethe II. At his urging, the people of Denmark contributed the other $10 million. In all, he rallied 20,000 private donors from a nation of 5 million people, each giving an average of $500. A proportional response from Americans would rouse a million donors.

"We are proud of the result," Mr. Rose said. The Jylland looks wonderful. Its gun deck is restored to its appearance in the 1864 war, while the spar deck and staterooms look the way they did during the ship's service as a royal yacht.

A month after the restoration was completed in March, Jylland's crew began recaulking. Maintenance is expected to cost $1 million a year. Fregatten Jylland hopes to collect $3 million annually in donations, admissions and sales at a maritime historic park being built around the ship.

Although some experts argue that wooden ships are better off in 6TC salt water, which acts as a wood preservative, the Danes elected to keep the Jylland in dry dock.

Rain, rot and drying wind remain enemies, but other problems are addressed. The ship does not rest with its full weight on its keel and frame. Instead, it is supported by a system of steel beams, most hidden in the fabric of the ship. That also provides support for the full standing rig.

The Jylland restoration employed traditional materials and methods, and preserved as much old wood as possible.

"If you do it the way we are, with as deep a respect for the historic original as possible, the material must be original, the way of building it must be the same," Mr. Rose said.

Even so, about 60 percent of the ship's original wood was lost, about the same percentage likely to go if the Constellation were restored by traditional methods.

Along with the high cost of traditional repairs, the prospect of losing all that ancient wood appalls former Pride of Baltimore director Gail Shawe, who is leading efforts to save the Constellation.

"You would take away 70 percent of the vessel, and what do you have left?" she asked.

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