Published by the Navy Museum Foundation, a project of the Naval Historical Foundation, Washington Navy Yard, DC, 2002
ORIGINAL TEXT OF PAMPHLET
FOREWORD TO THE 1978 MONOGRAPH
When supervisory responsibility for the USS Constitution, at Boston, passed to the Director of Naval History in October, 1977, we here in Washington became aware of her “old” foretop, replaced during Constitution’s recent overhaul and stored at Boston Naval Shipyard. We immediately became interested in bringing this bit of our naval heritage to Washington and placing it on display at the Navy Memorial Museum.
Some months, and many plans, later, Ralph Yarn and Tony Vitale arrived at the Washington Navy Yard, complete with fighting top. We were astonished and delighted at the size, shape, and character of this structure. In an effort to capture some of the unique knowledge and seafaring flavor of these Boston experts, we enlisted John Reilly to interview these delightful craftsmen at their work of rigging our display. This lively little article is his splendid response.
JOHN D. H. KANE, JR.
Rear Admiral, U.S.N.(Ret.)
Director of Naval History
FOREWORD TO THE 2002 REPRINT
Under the stewardship of the Naval Historical Center, the USS Constitution has entered its third century as the world’s oldest commissioned warship afloat. Indeed, the fame frigate celebrated her 200th birthday in 1997 under sail in Massachusetts Bay. Meanwhile the fighting top that came to the Navy Museum a quarter century ago has become a focal point for Museum visitors while serving as the backdrop to hundreds of Navy retirements, changes of command, receptions, and presentations.
The Navy Museum Foundation is pleased to reprint this original 1978 Naval Historical Center publication for sale in the Navy Museum Shop. It is noteworthy that the author of this short monograph, John Reilly, has retired from the Naval Historical Center and now works for the Foundation as a researcher-writer.
Through the purchase of this publication you are helping to support the Navy Museum and we are most grateful. More information about or organization and how you can help is located on the inside back cover.
William L. Ball, III
Navy Museum Foundation
The Constitution Fighting Top
By John C. Reilly, Jr.
Ralph Yarn and Tony Vitale are Navy shipyard riggers—but with a difference. Instead of laboring with steel and aluminum, they work with wood and rope. Instead of repairing submarines or missile ships, they help to maintain the Navy’s only wooden sailing warship still in commission, the frigate Constitution. They didn’t learn their trade in school, but picked up its fundamentals and fine points from an earlier generation of stick-and-canvas sailors who rigged oceangoing sailing ships or had trusted their lives to their workmanship when they went to sea.
Yarn and Vitale are part of a twelve-man crew who work – under the direction of the Navy’s Supervisor of Shipbuilding at Boston – to keep the 181-year old Constitution shipshape. Since “Old Ironsides” is built entirely of wood – hull, masts, and spars – this is more than enough to keep the whole team busy. A wooden ship requires constant maintenance to remain in good condition. For many years, the care of the warship was simply part of the Boston Naval Shipyard’s everyday workload. In 1972, however, the shipyard was closed. The frigate’s long association with the place of her birth made it logical that she remain in Boston, even after the former shipyard had become part of the Boston National Historical Park. Like any other ship, though, Constitution still required upkeep and maintenance, and that of a highly specialized kind. Thus, after the Boston yard’s other activities fell silent, this small group of Navy craftsmen has continued to look after their ship.
Constitution was originally launched at Boston in 1797 and soon won widespread renown for her fighting spirit. In the closing years of the 18th century and opening of the 19th, her ability to punish French privateers in the Caribbean and Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean swelled American hearts with pride. Her greatest glory came during the War of 1812, when she slugged it out with British men-of-war and withstood her enemy’s worst broadsides while battering him to surrender. Her strength under fire won the ship her famous nickname, “Old Ironsides.”
During the frigate’s middle years, as she was growing technologically obsolescent, her outstanding record in the nation’s early wars made it obvious that she should be preserved. Yet, while she was being saved for her historical significance, the old warship continued to receive various military tasks; and her configuration was altered from time to time to suit her current assignment.
The Navy eventually decided that the frigate should be restored to her original appearance, and many individual Americans contributed to a fund to make this possible. From 1927 to 1930, she was carefully refitted. When the work was done, she was taken on a four-year tour of ports in 21 states, Cuba, and Panama. During the cruise, she was seen by more than four and one-half million persons. Since then, she has attracted visitors from around the world. In July 1976, she lead the Bicentennial parade of 70 ships, from 19 nations, through Boston Harbor as part of Operation “Sail.”
In recent years, an increasing amount of research has been done into the details of her appearance and rig. This quest for authenticity has been considerably less easy than it might seem, since the ship plans of that day were little more than general-arrangement drawings, which often differed, in many minor respects, from the actual ship. Photography, of course, was unknown; the artists’ representations which exist are not necessarily accurate. In spite of these difficulties, painstaking research by both Navy people and private individuals has produced numerous items of information which, when pieced together like the fragments of a jigsaw puzzle, contribute to the accuracy of Constitution’s configuration. Numerous changes in detail were made during the ship’s 1973-76 overhaul, and expert hands of her shipyard maintenance crew are still at work. Their goal is a Constitution which will resemble as closely as is humanly possible her configuration at the time she earned her battle honors.
During the frigate’s recent refit, the fighting tops were removed from her three masts and replaced by new ones. The fore-top – probably the fifth generation foremast fighting top – was recently shipped to Washington and installed in the Navy Memorial Museum at the old Washington Navy Yard.
Constitution’s foremast, extending more than 150 feet above her deck, is made up of three sections. The lowest and heaviest is the foremast proper, its heel resting on the keelson. To the top of the foremast is attached the fore topmast; above this is the fore topgallant mast. This three-piece supports the horizontal yards, from which were suspended four large square sails. These – foresail, fore topsail, fore topgallantsail, and fore royal – formed an essential part of Constitution’s propulsion plant. Handled by seamen who climbed aloft to work them, they were taken in and let out as the desired speed and the strength of the wind dictated. The mast is braced in place by a system of stays, or heavy lines, stretched tautly forward and aft and connected to the bowsprit, the deck, or the mainmast. To give it lateral strength and stability, heavy shrouds run from the top of the mast to chain-wales, or channels, which are heavy timbers extending from the ship’s sides. Ratlines, lashed across the shrouds at intervals, turn the shrouds into large rope ladders up which men could climb to handle the sails.
Each topmast is steadied by its own, smaller, set of shrouds. To give adequate lateral support, the lower ends of these had to be anchored as far outboard as possible. The principal purpose of the fighting top was thus not tactical, but structural; it provided properly spread mooring points for the topmast shrouds and helped to hold the upper portion of the foremast steady against weight and pressure of yards and sails. Each mast had its assigned detail of topmen. When the ship was performing any evolution which involved making, reefing or furling sail, these men took their station in the tops. From this vantage point, they could quickly man the yards to take in or let out said as needed. In charge of the topmen on each mast was a captain of the top, an experienced seaman with a considerable amount of responsibility for the proper handling of the ship.
In battle, most of the ship’s topmen were required to man her guns. A midshipman or petty officer was placed in command of each of the tops, with several topmen to make emergency repairs to sails and rigging and to use small arms. Marines might be assigned to the top as well. A page from Constitution’s 1812 Quarter Bill – seen on the front cover of this booklet – shows a Master’s Mate assigned to command the foretop, with four seamen and a Marine corporal in charge of four privates.
The height of the top – Constitution’s foretop, for example, rises more than 50 feet above her deck – combined with the short battle ranges of the wooden-ship days to make these elevated platforms good vantage points for light antipersonnel weapons. Ship-to-ship actions were fought at ranges from a few hundred yards down to direct physical contact. During such combats, the marines and sailors in the tops fired smoothbore muskets as well as swivel guns; miniature cannon, firing small shot and handled by one or two men. An enemy’s officers, gun crews, and topmen were particularly attractive targets of this small-arms fire, which grew intense as pairs of ships drew together in the heat of battle. When ships were close alongside, explosive grenades could be thrown into clusters of enemy fighters to add to the havoc of point-blank action. This was no new concept; from classical times through the Middle Ages, warships had been fitted with elevated “castles” at bow and stern as well as large masthead platforms from which arrows could be shot and stones and javelins thrown.
The foretop now mounted in the Navy Memorial Museum was fabricated in 1927 for the Constitution’s original restoration. It was brought to Washington on a flat-bed trailer. A special cradle had to be built by Constitution’s carpenters to carry the top at an angle so that it would fit highway width limitations. To give the visitor an idea of its appearance and use on board ship, it has been installed just above the floor on a simulated section of the mast and rigged with topmast and futtock shrouds. These have been fashioned by hand – two months’ steady work for Ralph Yarn – and lashed in place just as they are on Constitution’s mast. Uniformed manikins, armed with period weapons, will add a final touch of realism.
The mounting and rigging of the foretop display took Yarn and Tony Vitale, aided by museum staff, more than a week. Just as there were no short cuts and no mass-produced assemblies in 1812, there are none now. Every splice and serving was done by hand; every ratline was carefully lashed in place in the sailor-fashion of days that are long gone. As Vitale explained it, “we try to do everything as perfectly as we possibly can, because every so often an old square-rigger sailor will come on board, look her over, and ask ‘Who taught you boys to do it that way?’”
In rigging Constitution, one concession has been made to the twentieth century. In years past, all her standing rigging was made of tarred hemp. This expanded in warm weather and shrank in cold; the fibers absorbed dampness and, eventually, rotted and became unsafe. New England winters were more than it could take, so the frigate’s topmasts had to be taken down each fall and rerigged in the spring. In the early 1960’s, hemp was replaced by polypropylene line. This needs no tarring, is not bothered by weather, and allows Constitution to remain fully rigged throughout the year. The “poly” line used in rigging the foretop varies from small marline to hawsers 5 inches in circumference. The riggers say that it is much the same to work with as hemp, except for one small bonus. Instead of having to whip the ends of lines with twine to keep them from unraveling, they simply fuse the ends of the strands together with a cigarette lighter.
Both riggers came by their skills honestly, in traditional seafaring style. Yarn and Vitale come from families of fishermen and learned their rigging from men with first-hand experience in sail. Both had previous training before coming to work in Boston. Yarn, for instance, learned his rigging before World War II in a commercial shipyard, from an old squarerigger seaman named “Boots” Lear. He began work in the Boston yard in 1950, and is due to retire at the end of this year. Vitale, the “youngster” of the two, will probably do the same around the end of 1979. They do their work in much the same way as it was done centuries ago, except for assistance of a modern pierside crane near Constitution’s berth.
This alone gives them a great advantage over their ancestors. Until the development of powered cranes late in the last century, riggers had to use sheer legs, or sheers, to erect a ship’s masts and bowsprit. Sheers consisted of two or three large spars, their tops joined and their bases slightly spread, leaning at such an angle that the upper end of the sheers would overhand the deck of a ship brought alongside. Heavy tackle, slung from the top of the sheers, was used to pick up sections of a ship’s masts and lower them into their places on board. The ultimate source of power here was human muscle, with seamen or shipyard workers hauling on lines of heaving around a capstan to raise the massive mast sections.
The sizes and weights involved were formidable. Constitution’s foremast, for instance, measures 93 feet 8 inches even before the topmast and topgallant mast are added. Her foretop is 19 feet across and 14 feet long; more than a foot thick, it alone weighs more than seven and a half tons. Navy yards often had sets of sheers mounted on a pier or a seawall, or a sheer hulk might be used. This was an old warship, cut down to her lower deck and equipped with sheer legs and their tackle; the floating cranes we see in today’s harbors are their descendants. If a ship had to be masted in some remote place where no facilities were to be had, her crew could take two spare spars and construct a set of sheers on their own deck — one more indication of the kind of versatility that sailors of that day took for granted.
Two of the riggers’ principal tools are a sharp, square-tipped rigger’s knife and a “snake” — a length of bent wire with a wooden handle, used for leading the end of a line through a tight lashing. The real tools of this craft, though, are hands – and the brains that guide them. Vitale explains that the mechanical skills required — knotting, splicing, serving — can be mastered in relatively short order. The real learning involves becoming thoroughly familiar with all the innumerable details of rigging a large sailing ship in proper “Old Navy” fashion. Both men point out that there is no plan or handbook which explains how to arrange the details of the Constitution’s rigging. Sail training ships, like those which took place in Operation “Sail,” are modern-built vessels for the most part, using such things as wire rigging and steel blocks; they shed little or no light on the way things were done in the Navy of nearly two centuries ago.
A collection of drawings and other graphics, depicting aspects of the ship’s appearance over the years, has been put together; but none of these do more than illustrate the general arrangement of Constitution’s rigging. They do not, for instance, show how the stays were secured to the masts or how deadeyes were rigged and served. Specimen rigging plans can be found in old nautical dictionaries. Yarn has a recent reprint of Falconer’s “classic” 18th-century New Universal Dictionary of the Marine. He says, though, that he uses this simply as a guide to terminology since it says nothing about the actual process of rigging a ship. The same holds true of the many manuals compiled as guides to young seamen and officers; while they explain what is to be done, they do not touch upon the how.
Vitale and Yarn both stress that they must carry the fine points of Constitution’s rigging in their heads, although both have compiled notebooks to assist their memories. The techniques used in Constitution today are a combination of what was learned when the ship was restored between 1927 and 1931 with the “tricks of the trade” that today’s riggers were taught by old-timers who, in their turn, had learned in the same way.
At this time, it appears likely that apprentices or younger riggers will be brought on board to learn the skills that Yarn and Vitale have accumulated over the years. Both men agree that at least two new workers are needed to keep Constitution’s work progressing. They would like, they say, to find young men with a nautical inclination to painstaking hand craftsmanship and some interest in ships. A “stomach for heights” is essential. Working on Constitution involves a great deal of climbing. Much time is spent in the upper masts and rigging, or in a bosun’s chair suspended many feet above the deck. A prospective rigger is given a chilling, but effective, test. He is seated in a chair, hoisted two hundred feet into the air, and allowed to free-fall nearly to the ground before being brought up short. If rigging still appeals to him, then he may have possibilities. Yarn points out that, where life and limb are quite literally at stake, you have to be able to rely on your fellow under any circumstances. And he says that, after all, is how he was tested many years ago.
Tony Vitale and Ralph Yarn are among the few surviving inheritors of a craft that was already ancient when Christopher Columbus weighed anchor for the New World. The calluses on their hands are their service ribbons. No machine, no computer, no textbook can fill their place. It seems especially fitting that they will soon begin to pass their hard-earned skills on to a coming generation of nautical craftsmen.
John C. Reilly, Jr. earned a B.S. in history and politics at Mount St. Mary’s College and an M.S.L.S. in library science at the Catholic University of America. Commissioned in the Naval Reserve in 1956, he served on active duty until 1959.
Reilly established the library at the Coast Guard Headquarters before joining the staff of the Ships History Branch, Naval Historical Center, in 1967. In 1984 he became the head of the Ships History Branch, and retired from Federal service in 2001. He then joined the Naval Historical Foundation as a researcher in the Historical Services Division.
Reilly is co-author of American Battleships, 1886-1923; Predreadnought Design and Construction (Naval Institute Press, 1980); author of United States Navy Destroyers of World War II (Sterling, 1983); compiler of Operational Experience of Fast Battleships (Naval Historical Center, 1987; 2nd edition, 1989); and author of numerous small publications, articles, and papers on historical subjects.