Constellation send-off Warship: The venerable sloop of war ventured safely from the Inner Harbor to Locust Point for desperately needed repairs.

November 18, 1996|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

With thousands watching in soft autumn sunlight, the warship Constellation was pulled from its Inner Harbor berth yesterday and escorted down the harbor for 2 1/2 years of repair work at the Fort McHenry Shipyard on Locust Point.

The walking-speed voyage, powered by the tug Capt. Russi, took one hour and 48 minutes. It went without serious incident, in calm water and light winds. The ship's high-speed auxiliary pumps were never needed.

By 12: 40 p.m., the Civil War relic was tied securely to a wharf in front of the shipyard's Dry Dock No. 5. It will spend the next several weeks there off-loading 250 tons of ballast and 40 years of accumulated maritime junk before entering the dry dock before Christmas.

"It couldn't have gone much smoother," said a beaming Louis F. Linden, executive director of the Constellation Foundation.

The departure was delayed for 30 minutes by speechmaking. Once the ship got under way "she started taking on more water than when she was in her berth," Linden said. But the leaks were handled by the ship's primary bilge pumps, and "it never ever approached any kind of hazardous situation."

Off Locust Point, a man in a rowboat intruded on the 500-foot "safety zone" around the ship and was quickly warned off by police and Coast Guard launches.

The send-off was punctuated by applause from the crowd as the ship cleared its dock, and later by a thunderous 19-gun salute from the 29th Infantry Division. The guns' reports echoed across the city and sent hundreds of sea gulls fleeing from the Inner Harbor.

Crowds lined the basin's sea wall, Federal Hill, and any piers and wharves that afforded a view, all the way to Fort McHenry.

Robin Rider, 44, of South Baltimore watched the departure ceremonies at the Inner Harbor amphitheater, then made his way down to the Hall Street Pier in Locust Point to watch the ship go by.

At both spots he held up an American flag and a sign that read, "Good Luck Constellation."

"I walked by her every day on my way to work," he said. "I'm going to miss this every morning."

Built in 1854, the sloop of war fought the slave trade off West Africa in the 1850s. It served in the Civil War, protecting Union shipping from Confederate privateers in the Mediterranean and patrolling the Gulf of Mexico. In 1880, it carried food relief to famine-stricken Ireland. It was later a sail training ship and reserve flagship during World War II.

Constellation has been in Baltimore since 1954 and became the centerpiece for the Inner Harbor Renaissance. But it has suffered from historically inaccurate restoration and neglected maintenance. A Navy inspection in 1993 found its keel bent and its timbers dangerously weakened by rot.

Two years ago, a reconstituted Constellation Foundation launched a $9 million campaign to restore the ship to its 1850s appearance. The city has pledged $3 million, the state has appropriated $1 million of its $3 million share, and the private sector has begun to provide the remaining $3 million.

Gail Shawe, chairwoman of the Constellation Foundation, said, "The thought of the ship being towed out of here, not on a grand occasion like this, but towed out of here forever, was unacceptable.

"We knew it wouldn't be easy, but we knew it had to be done," she said. She appealed for continuing financial help from individual and corporate members of the community, and said she looked forward to "her return, with flags flying and masts in place."

Yesterday's departure marked the first time the ship has left the Inner Harbor since 1982. The farewell ceremonies included U.S. Navy Secretary John H. Dalton, Maryland Transportation Secretary David L. Winstead, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, and members and friends of the Constellation Foundation's board of directors.

Dalton recounted the proud history of the Navy's various Constellations -- from the original 1797 frigate commissioned by President George Washington and built at Fells Point, to the 36-year-old aircraft carrier Constellation now training for a six-month tour in the Arabian Gulf.

Dalton called the 1854 sloop of war "fast, sleek and beautiful" when it was launched as the past all-sail warship built for the Navy. It remains "an enduring symbol of America's place as the great naval power in the world. Through peace and war, this fine ship has been and done it all, and she has done it all right."

"God bless the Constellation and the skilled shipwrights who will restore her," he said.

Winstead praised the efforts of those who have worked the last two years to devise a rescue plan for the rot-ravaged ship. "In Maryland," he said, "we don't give up the ship."

Schmoke compared the ship to a precious family heirloom. "She will be saved," he said.

Pub Date: 11/18/96

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