PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — They were known as the days of “Wooden Ships and Iron Men.” The era takes us to a time when men first ventured out to sea and under sail. The ships were built of wood and frequently eaten into sinking hulks by Teredos, termites of the sea. They were sailed through the centuries by explorers, merchants, fishermen, whalers, pirates and men of war – the “Iron Men who risked life and limb through storm and cannonball barrage. Women joined in, but often disguised as men. Boys as young as 12 were recruited. But today, it’s the ships that we’ll consider. You may have read that the U.S.S. Constitution – “Old Ironsides” is out of dry dock and returning to her Boston pier as America’s best known wooden sailing vessel still afloat. She dates to 1797. Let’s set a course for a summer getaway to visit and board one or more of 5 significant wooden ships within a day or long weekend drive. We can start right here in Philadelphia as we climb the gangway of the …..
When in port, the Gazela can be found and boarded at Penn’s Landing as part of the Independence Seaport Museum Complex. Today Gazela with planking that first went to sea in 1883 is among the oldest wooden vessels still voyaging under sail, but now as Philadelphia’s ambassador in the international fleet of “Tall Ships.” Her working life was spent on the Grand Banks as a Portuguese Cod Fishing boat. The salt used to preserve the fish is credited with also preserving her hull. If you want to get a feel for life as a member of an Iron Men crew, The Ship Preservation Guild is always looking for volunteers. Believe me, it’s an incomparable experience. I spent a week reporting for KYW from the Gazela in 1986 as she sailed to New York as part of a global flotilla for the relighting of the Statue of Liberty.
A comfortable weekend getaway to nearby Baltimore and the Inner Harbor puts you aboard one of the United States Navy’s first frigates, a sister ship to Old Ironsides, the U.S.S. Constellation was launched in 1797 near where she’s now docked among a collection of historic ships along the same quay that holds the National Aquarium. Constellation has an imposing history that includes Caribbean victories over the French, action against the Barbary Pirates in the Mediterranean and guarding the Chesapeake Bay in the War of 1812. Stand at the helm, gaze past the bow sprit and let your imagination take charge. Adult tickets to visit all four historic ships at the Inner Harbor are $18 with discounts for seniors, students, youth and kids.
For our next three historic wooden ships, steer by the North Star to New England.
Imagine being at sea for 3 years away from home and family, under the most grueling conditions, all in search of valuable whale oil, to light the homes of 19th century America. That was the life of a whaling man. The last of the wooden Whaling ships that sailed in the wake of the fictional Pequod that chased Moby Dick to its own doom, is the Charles W. Morgan. Yes. She still floats, and is the last of the great whaling fleet to do so. I’ve boarded the Morgan any number of times at the Mystic Seaport near New London, Connecticut. Each visit is a voyage in time, with a hand on the helm or touching a harpoon. Visits to this still sturdy ship are often accompanied by the music of a working whaler. Adult Seaport tickets are $28.95 with discounts for seniors and youngsters. It can easily be an all day venture and include a variety of boat excursions.
The year was 1620 when the legendary Mayflower set sail from England with her belly full of Pilgrims. they were fleeing religious persecution to face a stormy 66 days at sea and an uncertain future. No. The original Mayflower is not still afloat, but a faithfully reproduced wooden replica is. This unique example of a 16th century merchant vessel is usually found on the waterfront at Plymouth, Massachusetts within hailing distance of the iconic Plymouth Rock. But the Mayflower is currently undergoing a lengthy restoration at the Mystic Seaport. Visitors have a rare chance to see it and the Morgan in one location. Sorry. Visitors cannot board but a lesson in the ship builders trade and a view of the Mayflower II is something to chat about with nautical minded friends. The vessel is expected to be ready for the sail back to port in Plymouth for the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrim landing in 2020. If you’re planning that far ahead, Thanksgiving might be a unique time in the “Plimouth Colony”.
At 220 years old, “Old Ironsides” is the oldest warship still on active duty with the United States Navy. She also has the distinction of being the only naval vessel still on duty that has actually sunk an enemy ship. She saw victories over the Barbary Pirates and the British in the War of 1812, served as a training ship for midshipmen, sailed as a goodwill ambassador for America and is now a museum and ceremonial vessel. On July 23, U.S.S. Constitution was refloated after 2 years in dry dock for extensive maintenance that included covering her bottom with over 2,200 sheets of copper to protect the aged wooden hull. Constitution is now being refitted to open for visitors by September. But it can be seen from dockside at the Charlestown Navy Yard in the heart of Boston. A great ways to visit the Constitution Museum and the ship is by water taxi. Admission to the museum and Old Ironsides is free, but donations are excepted.