Sailing back to school

After 111 years, the Constellation visits the Naval Academy

October 27, 2004|By Molly Knight | Molly Knight,SUN STAFF

As it glided slowly away from its berth yesterday morning, the Constellation - the antique sloop of war moored in Baltimore's Inner Harbor - created quite a scene for an old Civil War ship.

Cannons cracked. Crowds waved and cheered goodbye. Red, white and blue confetti rained down on its wooden deck.

At 150 years old, the Constellation left Baltimore at 9:15 a.m. for a six-hour journey to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis - its first trip there in 111 years.

Although it had to be pulled by four Vane Brothers Co. tugboats, the majestic frigate proved that despite everything, it's still seaworthy.

"This is definitely a historic event," said Chris Rowsom, executive director of the USS Constellation Museum, which spent two years planning the voyage - the culmination of a yearlong birthday celebration. "Old-fashioned Navy ships like this don't get out on the water."

The sight of the Constellation and its entourage - a flotilla of more than 10 ships, including the Pride of Baltimore II - drew onlookers to the shoreline and to the decks of boats.

Aboard the 179-foot-long ship, more than 120 passengers and a crew of 30 soaked up the journey.

"Whoa, it's amazing that we're taking this out for a spin," said Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer, snapping photos as the Constellation passed Fort McHenry and, cruising farther out into the channel, began to slightly sway.

For many passengers, the voyage was a chance to learn more about the Constellation, which was first launched from Gosport Navy Yard in 1854. It went on to serve in the Civil War, during which it protected against Confederate raiders. Academy midshipmen trained on the vessel from 1871 to 1893.

Retired in 1955

It was not until 1955 that the Constellation was retired to Baltimore, arriving on a floating dock because of its poor condition.

During yesterday's sail, volunteers dressed in Civil War-era costumes climbed the ship's rope ladders and onto the edge of the bow, reminding some passengers that life aboard the Constellation wasn't easy.

"In the old days, there would be a 40-mile-an-hour wind, sleet and slippery ropes, and someone would order you to climb to the top of the mast and unfurl the flag," said David Beck, an executive with Northrop Grumman Corp., which donated $50,000 for the voyage. "If you fell, you died."

Tales of adventure

Meade Atkeson, general manager of the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel, shared tales of his great-great-great-uncle - midshipman Richard Wordam Meade Graham (he went by the last name Meade) - who served on the Constellation's maiden voyage to several European cities.

Atkeson, 44, whose family has donated a collection of Meade's letters and artifacts to the USS Constellation Museum, said the trip gave him newfound respect for Meade, who died of yellow fever aboard the Constellation at age 19.

"It makes me think about how brave he must have been," said Atkeson, who was joined by family members. "At such a young age, he set off on a ship to places that few people had been, and nothing seemed to faze him - not even this terrible disease."

Atkeson added: "He had a fun time in the years leading up to his death, but he had a tough life on the ship."

On yesterday's trip, however, there were no hardships - not even a case of seasickness. A clear, calm day meant smooth sailing for the Constellation; the only drama was when the tall ship barely cleared the Key Bridge. It docked at the academy at 3:30 p.m., more than an hour before its scheduled arrival time.

Free tours

Until Nov. 4, the Constellation will be moored at the academy's Farragut Seawall for a week, and it will be open to the public for free tours from today until Sunday.

Rowsom acknowledged that despite the excitement surrounding the Constellation's trip, its absence will undoubtedly cause some concern in Baltimore

"The pier looks naked without her, so I know there will be a little panic from those asking, `Where'd she go?'" Rowsom said. "But we're only gone for a while, and we'll be back soon."

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