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Interview With USS Constitution Commanding Officer Cmdr. Matt Bonner

Our sailors are the face of the Navy

Edward H. Lundquist: How you would describe your job and your command, USS Constitution, here in Boston.

Cmdr. Matt Bonner: As a commanding officer you’re responsible and accountable for everything that goes on with the command. So I don’t think it’s any different than commanding a destroyer or an aircraft squadron. I’ve got 70 sailors, and I’m responsible for their professional and personal development. On top of that, I’m responsible for a 215-year-old national icon.

Our sailors are the face of the Navy. For most people that we host here on the Constitution – they may not have met a sailor before and so this might be the first sailor they meet and it might be the only sailor they ever meet, depending upon where they’re from or what they do.

“To have commanded the Constitution is a signal honor, to be a member of her crew in no matter how humble a capacity is an equal one.”

Capt. William Bainbridge, U.S. Navy, ninth commanding officer of the USS Constitution

A lot of people think that we hand our sailors a script and they memorize it, but our sailors actually learn the Constitution’s history. Each one does it a little differently, with things they can personally relate to. I’ve had African American sailors talk about the free blacks that served on board. I have sailors talk about their ratings: “Today I’m a fire controlman, this is what I do today, but back in the day, I would have worked on the guns.” We try to incorporate the ship’s history with what the Navy does today. We talk about piracy; we talk about keeping the sea lanes free for commerce. Those are missions that we still do today, and not just for our own interest but for everyone. And so that’s one of the things we try to tie in so that the American public. I think that’s probably our biggest mission.

 

Do you have a close relationship with the Coast Guard training ship Eagle down in New London, Conn.?

We do work very closely with Eagle for our sail training. I sailed the Eagle. It was just very eye opening. You can read about it in a book, but you can’t fully understand it until you see it in action. We’re never going to do the complex maneuvers that they do in terms of setting all their sails, but it gives you the respect of the rig and the things that you need to be aware of. Square rig sailing can be dangerous. But it’s also a great way to demonstrate teamwork.

USS Constitution

USS Constitution fires a 21-gun salute in honor of America’s 237th birthday during the ship’s annual Fourth of July turnaround cruise. More than 500 guests went under way with Old Ironsides for a three-hour tour of Boston Harbor in celebration of Independence Day 2013. U.S. Navy photo by Sonar Technician (Submarine) 2nd Class Thomas Rooney

And that’s part of the things we do during chief petty officer heritage weeks. We bring in 150 chief selects here, and they sleep on board, learn the gun drills, and we do sail training with them. They don’t necessarily go aloft, but they provide the manpower on deck to raise the forty five hundred pound main topsail yard with a sail attached to it – you need about 80 sailors and they all have to be pulling in unison. And you’ve got one sailor out there who’s the line captain, directing with a “2 – 4 – 6 – heave” and you watch that sail go up and on up. That’s the teamwork.

 

I notice that you have a gun set up on the pier to run in and out.

They will be doing that on board. That’s our replica the gun deck. It’s built exactly the way the deck on Constitution is built. It’s an actual 24-pound long gun that weighs 6,500 pounds. We’ll use it to demonstrate to the public what the firing sequence is for a 24-pound long gun.

We’re blessed with a detachment from the Navy History and Heritage Command that’s up here. They’ve been known by a variety of names, but “Maintenance and Repair” is what everybody calls them, “M and R.” They’re a group of about 25 Navy government civilians whose sole purpose is the maintenance and restoration of Constitution.

 

So let’s talk a little bit about the challenge of keeping this ship looking good, and it does look really good. That’s a lot of work.

It is. We’re blessed with a detachment from the Navy History and Heritage Command that’s up here. They’ve been known by a variety of names, but “Maintenance and Repair” is what everybody calls them, “M and R.” They’re a group of about 25 Navy government civilians whose sole purpose is the maintenance and restoration of Constitution. While my sailors are responsible for the cleanliness and will do some touch up painting here and there, the History and Heritage attachment are responsible for keeping the ship in her configuration – replacing planks, doing all the planning for the upcoming dry dock, setting up the rigging. We will provide bodies to help them, but they are really the experts and, you know, they’re all artisans.

 

You’ve actually been under way, under sail.

USS Constitution

Ship’s Serviceman 2nd Class Justin Howard, left, and Seaman Samantha Hurtado wipe down a gun port during a field day cleaning evolution May 1, 2013, aboard USS Constitution. Constitution sailors recently re-opened the ship’s gun ports in preparation for this summer’s tour season, during which thousands of visitors stop to see Old Ironsides daily. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Peter D. Melkus

There’s a lot of planning that goes into what we call a sailing demonstration of Constitution. When she sailed in 1997, it was the first time in 116 years that she had sailed on the power of the wind. When we sailed in 2012 to commemorate the battle against HMS Guerriere – it was the 2nd time in 131 years. Planning for the August 2012 sailing demonstration really started in August of 2011, and probably before that … It’s a 215-year-old ship and we have to factor wind and sea states and different things. So we work with Naval Sea Systems Command, our M&R team, and even the Naval Academy hydrodynamics lab.  We took a lot of lessons from that experience that we’re we hopefully will apply in the dry dock period to install some permanent instrumentation to help us better understand what the stresses and strains are. So that, hopefully she’ll sail again, but she’ll never leave Massachusetts waters. We’ll never sail her to New York or other places, because the risk is too great.

 

How many sails do you have, or can actually use?

The Navy actually has 11. When she sailed in ’97, she used what they call her “six-sail battle configuration,” and last year we just used the three topsails. We normally bend on four sails, maybe up to six during the year. We’ve got three bent on right now. We’ll put the main up after July 4, so she’ll have the four sails we had on board last year.

 

A great deal of effort goes into keeping the ship as original and as authentic as possible.

I wouldn’t say original. The public law dictates that she is supposed to be as kept as close to her 1812 configuration as possible. And that’s what they do. They try to be as authentic in what they replace things with. Obviously, we have probably some more laminate woods than we did 200 years ago just because of technology. We have electricity on board now. We have modern de-watering equipment that didn’t exist in 1812. But you try to balance that, and we still use some of the original skills and the methods because it’s what works best. They’ll use power machinery to cut and shape the wood, but when they’re installing it, they’re hammering pieces into place with trunnels. They’re still using manpower to get there. We may use a crane to help put the sail on the yard, but there are still guys out on the yard who are attaching it and other things to the yard.

 

Is there any other kind of “space age” modern technology that’s also being used to inspect or repair the ship?

I think that’s one of the things they are looking at. Obviously, technology has come a long way. They’re very meticulous about documenting what they’ve done to the ship here; such as “deck beam 16 was replaced in 2012,” to keep track of that. That wasn’t done before the mid-1900s; you just replaced it as you needed it. So now they are keeping track to see how things age. In dry dock, there may be a way to X-ray the keel and different parts of the ship to get a better idea of how good or bad it really is. So I think they are always constantly looking for that. You’re always going to try to find how you can bring technology to bear without completely changing the ship.

 

Teak decks?

They’re actually not teak. The decks were originally fir or pine. We still use Douglas fir on her decks, and occasionally some laminates, but I think we’re going back to more of the Douglas fir because they hold up better than the laminates do.

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Capt. Edward H. Lundquist, U.S. Navy (Ret.) is a senior-level communications professional with more than...