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Magnificent mayhem off Marblehead

Ten years later, BayState boater recalls the busy and chaotic last sail of Old Ironsides

Ten years later, BayState boater recalls the busy and chaotic last sail of Old Ironsides

Every mariner who went by boat on July 21, 1997 to see the USS Constitution sail for the first time in 116 years (and last, as it turned out, the vessel afterwards deemed too fragile for further excursions) discovered that it was the spectacle around the event that was almost the true spectacle.

Arriving early off Marblehead, Mass., that morning, a crew had time to view some of the other pleasure boats convening for the passage, as well as service vessels like the Coast Guard Cutter Seneca “on station,” and special yachts such as the 12 Meter Valiant sporting the words, “Welcome Back, Old Ironsides” on her sail.

Off in the distance the tops of the Constitution’s spars could be glimpsed poking over the rocks of Marblehead Neck as the ship lay moored. But once the warship started out of MarbleheadHarbor under tow the whole cast of the experience changed. From my perspective, it was a sort of controlled chaos.

Looking at MarbleheadHarbor it was as if the whole basin had emptied at once of every boat in it, along with fleets of every other port in Salem Sound. This armada reminded some of that vast fleet of ships, big and little, that had once set out to rescue the British soldiers in World War II from the beach at Dunkirk.

The swarms of boats soon engulfed the scores of other vessels from ports all over Massachusetts waiting offshore, and what had been a smooth sea under a gray sky became a cauldron that would remain turbulent for the duration. As far as the eye could see (some 3,000 boats strong, according to the Boston Globe) were power and sail boats of every type and size, along with cruise and tour ships, whalewatchers, windjammers, personal watercraft, inflatable dinghies and just about every other kind of object that could be set afloat. Added to this were the 100 combined units of escort and patrol vessels, including Coast Guard cutters and buoy tenders; Coast Guard Auxiliary boats; harbormaster and police boats; and the tugs and the destroyer USS Halyburton and frigate USS Ramage, surrounding Old Ironsides.

Beyond the confused seas was a cacophony of sounds. Not simply engine noises, but the “Whoop! Whoop! Whoop!” of the fireboat (hurling continuous plumes of water skyward); the rumble and roar of helicopters; airhorns; bullhorns (used frequently by the Coast Guard Auxiliary to herd boats in the proper direction); the screams of the Blue Angels making several aerial passes over the Constitution; the cannons of Old Ironsides herself, the VHF chatter on the radio (which some, no doubt, shut off for sanity’s sake); and the shouts and curses aplenty as boats maneuvered so as not to hit or be hit by other vessels, all in proximity you could measure in inches.

Not surprisingly the Boston press reported several collisions or incidents between boats in the massive spectator fleet. One involved a powerboat grounding near Marblehead’s entrance, where some personal injuries occurred.

However, the most “spectacular” incident reported was that of the 112-foot Sail Training Schooner Ernestina, out of New Bedford, colliding with a 25-foot Auxiliary sloop. The smaller sailboat was dead in the water with mainsail up but no wind, and its outboard stalled from breaking waves soaking it.

As Ernestina approached it, the crew apparently noticed too late the lack of progress of the small Catalina sloop and — being somewhat limited in its maneuverability due to traffic, wakes and its own great inertia — speared the rigging of the Catalina with its significant bowsprit. This took down the rig of the smaller boat and pinned the boat under the schooner’s bow, with the three occupants of the Catalina abandoning ship by scrambling up the bowsprit rigging and onto the deck of Ernestina.

Eventually the two vessels were separated and the badly damaged sloop was towed in to a Hingham marina, carrying aboard three very shaken crew members from the collision at sea.

For most of the spectator fleet — kept a good distance away — crews watched the panoply as best they could, as the 200-year-old, 204-foot-long battleship ghosted downwind for 5-1/2 miles, under a light northeast wind, once her tow lines had been dropped and her sails set.

Once the great ship’s sails were doused, many a skipper quit the scene almost immediately with relief; for helming had been anything but fun on this historic day. A few had one final wave to hurdle, literally — the one thrown by the Ramage as she plowed full of guests and full steam back to Boston.

In comparing notes with other boaters who had shared the events of the day, the consensus seemed to be that though they wouldn’t have missed it, their own “constitutions” might not weather a repeat.

Mary Jane Hayes is a freelance writer and photographer from Hanover, Mass. She is the author of the award-winning “Eye on the Sea: Reflections on the Boating Life” (Breakaway Books, 1999) and a frequent contributor to Soundings. She and her husband, Warren, cruise New England and beyond aboard their Grand Banks 36, Sea Story II.