Wakefield native is sailing on history with July 4 cruise on USS Constitution

New Hampshire Sunday News
June 28. 2014 6:15PM
Wakefield native Petty Officer 1st Class Michael Bresnahan, a 2007 graduate of Spaulding High School, will be the "officer of the deck" when USS Constitution sets out on her annual turnaround cruise on July 4th. (Courtesy of U.S. Navy)

When USS Constitution embarks on its annual 4th of July turnaround cruise in Boston on Friday, the "officer of the deck" making sure everything goes smoothly on board will be a 25-year-old Wakefield native.

Petty Officer 1st Class Michael Bresnahan, a 2007 graduate of Spaulding High School, says he's "pretty cool under pressure." That will surely come in handy when Constitution, the world's oldest warship still afloat, plays its starring role in Boston Harborfest festivities for Independence Day.

Originally launched in 1797, the wooden-hulled, three-masted frigate nicknamed "Old Ironsides" is berthed in Charlestown Navy Yard. And that's where Bresnahan is serving a three-year duty assignment.

Bresnahan is a yeoman, the administration officer for Constitution and its crew. In addition to personnel duties, he handles official correspondence with the Navy and the Department of Defense and works with city agencies and local organizations on all things related to the historic ship.

He also serves as a mast captain, which entails supervising training and sailing on board.

"Constitution's where the United States Navy began and has paved the way for the Navy as we know it now," Bresnahan said. "So being a part of her heritage and sharing that with everybody that comes to see Constitution is very enjoyable, very interesting, and I feel privileged to be able to be a part of it."

While an estimated 750,000 people are expected to visit Constitution this year, it's not all for show.

"We do a lot of training on that ship," Bresnahan said. "We learn how to sail it. We learn all about the history and how it works."

Why would modern sailors learn how to sail a 217-year-old ship? "To keep the heritage," he said. "We're keeping Constitution alive by sharing her history and demonstrating how she sails and how she works."

For a New Hampshire native who remembers visiting Constitution as a boy, it's an enviable posting.

There's a strict screening process for those who wish to join Constitution's crew. According to the official website, crew members "must be able to interact with the public with maturity and tact and be an exceptional representative of the U.S. Navy."

This Friday, July 4th, is the big day; 300 guests chosen by lottery will be on board when Constitution makes its way out into Boston harbor, fires its guns, then returns to port.

The ship will be towed by a tugboat; its only source of propulsion is its sails. "If there's any wind, we're probably going to catch the wind, but we're going to stay attached to that tugboat," Bresnahan said.

And as officer of the deck, he will be overseeing everything that happens, from the screening and boarding of guests to the onboard ceremonies and return to port. "It's pretty cool to be the one who's in charge of the whole event," he said.

The captain will be on board, he said. "but he's so busy with so many other things going on he can't be doing all that stuff."

"So that's where I step in."

Isn't he worried about, say, crashing into the dock? "We're very good at what we do," he replied.

Bresnahan said he'll be too busy to be nervous while everything is going on. But he expects "once it's done, I'll sit back and think about it: I can't believe I was the guy that did all that."

There will be more festivities when the newly restored whaling ship Charles W. Morgan visits Boston July 18 to 22 from its home port at Mystic Seaport. The Morgan, the second-oldest ship still afloat, will dock next to Constitution.

"There's going to be a fun little ceremony: two tall ships are kind of greeting each other again," Bresnahan said.

Bresnahan, who loved history in school, said this tour of duty has made it more real to him. "Everything makes more sense when you can see and touch and feel it," he said.

Named by George Washington, Constitution played a key role in defending its namesake document, he said. "Through the War of 1812, we kind of finished winning our independence," he said. "We were still being pushed around a little by our big brother across the pond until after the War of 1812."

The national anthem came out of that war, he noted. "And so to be a part of the ship that was involved in all that is a really great opportunity."

So how much of Constitution is original? Navy personnel who do the physical maintenance on the ship estimate somewhere between 10 and 30 percent of the wood is original, he said.

Most of that is below the water line, where salt water has helped preserve it; that includes the entire 150-foot keel of solid white oak. "Think of a shipwreck that's been under the water for hundreds of years and it still looks the same," he said.

After its glory during the War of 1812, Constitution served in the Barbary wars and patrolled the waters around Africa for slave ships. It even cruised around the world in 1847.

But it ended up in disrepair by the late 19th century, winding up in Portsmouth, where "they were kind of using it as office space," Bresnahan said. "It was just sitting there kind of falling apart."

Then, in 1896, Constitution was returned to Boston, and its former glory, just in time for its 100th birthday.

This is the last summer people can visit Constitution until 2018. Next year, the ship will be in dry dock undergoing some needed repairs right next door to its current berth.

"People shouldn't be worried that Constitution's falling apart," Bresnahan said. "It's just kind of like when you hit your 3,000 miles, it's time for an oil change...."

Plans call for replacing much of the copper on the ship, checking the wood that's been underwater and making any needed replacements, as well as interior renovations to make the layout more authentic. "They're trying to bring the ship back to look like it was in 1812 again," he said.

Bresnahan will be keeping an eye on Constitution while she's in dry dock, and he plans to do one thing few people historically have ever done: "I'll be going under there, making sure I touch the bottom of the ship."

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