“If You Can’t Have Fun With a Problem...
You will Never Solve it”

Taylor Axiom
Tying Up the Constitution
In the summer of 1996 the U.S.S. CONSTITUTION sailed for the first and last time in the 20th Century - and it is said, for the last time ever. The Navy announced that it does not intend to sail the ship again. I think, if true, that this says a great deal about us as a Nation - and what it says is not good.
The U.S.S. CONSTITUTION, as almost everyone knows, is by far the oldest commissioned war ship in the world. She is also an incredible sailing vessel that has been meticulously restored. I have been on this ship several times and, of all the Tall Ships [link: tall ships] in the world, she is a wonder and ready to take an active part in the fleet. The Navy says it would be unsafe to sail her - if this be so, the reasons are not readily apparent. I have been around wood structures all my life and an active sailor of a good-sized wood sailing vessel [link: camelot] for over 15 years. CONSTITUTION, by any standard, cannot be better restored or maintained. Unless there is some hidden flaw, which would raise other questions after the millions spent and the quality of the work that was clearly accomplished. This “dangerous” aspect must have something to do with something other than the sailing ability of CONSTITUTION herself.
Captain Butch [link: captain butch] spent time on CONSTITUTION and, like me, believes her to look flawless. Her diagonal bracing has been replaced and her hog is gone. Most of the spars have been replaced and her sails, although not a complete set, are new. What is the problem?
Last time I visited CONSTITUTION I asked the Mate. His (Navy PR) reasons were that she is a National Treasure and too precious to risk. I suggested that CONSTITUTION could be sailed conservatively and productively, and that given her shape, it did not seem that there was too much risk involved. He said that she would have to be escorted because someone hostile to the U.S. may want to do her damage - being a National Icon. This escorting, he explained, cost money. Another issue he went on to say was crew size - there were not enough trained seaman to sail her. I noted that the Navy needed to train anyway and escorting the CONSTITUTION seemed as good as any way to do it. Protecting National Icons, somehow, seems to be part of what our military should be doing. In addition, I proposed that the Navy Academy maintained a very extensive fleet of sailing vessels still believing, apparently, that sail training was a good thing for future navel officers. Further, I proposed that many citizens would pay worthy amounts of money for a real sailing experience aboard CONSTITUTION. He agreed that all these are feasible ideas but that the Navy says no. Why?
A wooden sailing vessel is expensive to maintain. The most expensive way to keep one is tied to a dock. Salt water and sailing are good for a wooden ship. Fresh water and no action make a bad combination. When a ship is sailed small things break and get replaced in real time. Properly sailed, a wooded ship gets better over time and big problems rarely remain hidden.
CONSTITUTION was one of the best designed and built ships of her type. In 54 engagements no enemy ever succeeded in putting a cannon ball through her sides. She was very large and powerful for a frigate and never lost a battle. She was fast. She could - and did - outfight anything fast enough to catch her and she could out sail anything large enough to defeat her. Even when 50 plus years old, on her last cruise, she sailed hull-down, in a matter of hours, an entire fleet of ships leaving Gibraltar. CONSTITUTION was perfect for her intended use, a “lucky” ship that commanded great loyalty from her crews and commanders.
And, she IS a symbol of what this country can do - and stood for. She is fully commissioned and sits at the dock when she could be continuing service to her nation and namesake. What is the problem?
Is the nation that built her, now, incapable of using her? In fact, is her present situation the truly accurate symbol of our culture today?
There are always reasons not to do something - and “good” ones to. In the cause of the CONSTITUTION, the litany makes a long list: “she is too old and fragile.” “We might lose her in an accident.” “Someone could get hurt.” “It costs money and the budget will not allow it.” “Fewer people will get to see her if she sails a lot.” “We don’t know how to sail her today.”
Lets see if these objections hold up:

“She is too old and fragile.”

What does age have to do with it? At 200 years plus, CONSTITUTION is in better shape than the vast majority of ships on the water. Capability is what counts - the basic structure of this ship has been restored - anything else can be repaired and upgraded as required. This ship was designed to fire broadsides at a time, sail in hurricanes and haul supplies for several hundred seaman sustaining them for months at a time at sea. She has been fought, grounded and sailed in weather that no one, in any ship at any time - including today - would deliberately go into. By merely being prudent and sailing conservatively, CONSTITUTION can be held within an envelope that keeps her easily inside her present design limits. CONSTITUTION, we are told, was returned to original specifications with materials equal to or better than first used. In over 200 years, most of the ship has been replaced. It is the idea, the design that remains - and that is a good as it ever has been. History confirms that this is a solid ship.

The Constitution is robust and designed to be modified. But only according to her nature and with prudence.


“We might lose her in an accident.”

Seems to me that we already have lost her in an accident - an accident of will. There is risk in sailing this ship as there is with any other. Prudent sailing and proper skill will attenuate the risk. Not keeping these skills may be a bigger risk, however. Not exercising the will to use the ship as she was designed to be used may be a bigger, and in the end, an unacceptable risk. It would be unfortunate to lose her physically - but we already have lost her metaphysically. It would be a rare circumstance to have a total loss even if there was an incident. She avoided total lose in over a half a century of active duty, sailing without aid, engine, and in hostile waters. We cannot match this performance today?

That we might lose the Constitution in an accident of history may be the major metaphor of our day. Lets hope it does not become a reality.


“Someone could get hurt.”

True. It is an all volunteer military and learning to deal with risk is one aspect of the training. There are Tall Ships predominately sailed by teen-age Cadets. Most of the risk associated with the old sailing days is greatly mitigated by modern electronics, communication systems, proper food and medical knowledge. I suspect that sailing CONSTITUTION is safer than crossing the streets of New York city. This is a cya excuse.

Can fear cause us not to apply the Constitution to our modern needs and context?


“It costs money and the budget will not allow it.”

The “budget!” In the world’s richest Nation “the budget” is a mantra used whenever someone doesn’t want to do something. I bet that this could be made into a net income generator for the Navy. What would people contribute just to see CONSTITUTION sail? What would they pay to spend a week on her as a deck hand? What might advertisers pay for (tasteful) use of her persona and image in ads. Or. perhaps, the government might want to keep that IP to itself for positioning the USA brand, globally. We certainly spend a great deal more doing this in less real and far less effective ways.

Can you imagine someone saying that the Constitution cannot be fit into the budget? That money is more important? We have a great deal of money but only one Constitution.


“Fewer people will get to see her if she sails a lot.” CONSTITUTION is a must see when in Boston but I suspect that more people would see her if she sailed with the international Tall Ships fleet. There have been times in the past when she was hauled from U.S. port to port so that she could be enjoyed by a larger audience. Why not sail her from port to port? Why not let people experience the “real thing?” No, I didn’t say that.

Perhaps it is time to take our Constitution abroad rather than our military industrial complex [link: making rights].


“We don’t know how to sail her today.”

Well now, there is one good answer to this: learn how! This is, of course, is the point. As we move to a more technically supported society, and as much of our life become vicarious in nature, we need to experience life and technology in a primary way. Else, we loose the feel of it. When this primary feel is lost we risk becoming cerebral monsters poor designers and abusers of technology [link: the monkeys paw]. When CONSTITUTION was last sailed, the Navy had to be trained by a private group. This is not a good sign. This is a case where the reason given for not doing something is the best reason for doing it.

There is an old saying about constitutions: “use it or lose it.”

I have a bias, of course, but it seems that every reason that I was given is pure fluff. Or, it is a symptom of a deeper issue - which disturbs me even more if it is a true reflection of our society. I myself, do not believe it is. I believe, if they had the facts in hand, that the vast majority of people would want the ship used. Talk to the sailers who sailed CONSTITUTION on her 200th birthday - see how their eyes shine - you will get the idea. She is not something to look at, she is something to use - to sail!
There is a comprehensive history of CONSTITUTION written by one of her recent Captains. Read it yourself and decide if this “most fortunate ship” is ready to sit at the dock for the next 100 years or if her spirit is better expressed out in the medium for which she was designed.
When setting the space in a Taylor environment we tell the knowledgeWorkers that “everything speaks.” Every aspect of the environment has something to say, expresses an idea and attitude. In architecture, theme [link: theme in architecture] is the means to integrate the whole with the parts. It is how a unified message is created - how a building speaks in one voice. Even in common buildings, and poorly done architecture, there is a theme - it is too often a theme of disunity, distraction, loss of integrity. A “non-theme” but a theme nevertheless.
It seems to me that the frigate CONSTITUTION has more in common with it’s namesake than is at first apparent. Our Constitution is respected and honored although is nature is understood by few and taught to almost no one. It is brought out on the 4th of July and paraded around but rarely ever sailed in a serious way. When someone wants to get an agenda across it is used as a club the shut up the opposition - after all, who wants to argue with sacred things? It seems, particularly in recent times, to be tied to dock - a curiosity and attraction. Something to show the kids but not something to take seriously. After all, we are in modern times now. Who needs the CONSTITUTION when you have a whole Navy that can blow away any inconvenience that may crop up?
We don’t think much of the past in our country. We do not study history too seriously. We wrap it in red white and blue and play band music. Most of the past is forgotten. That part we remember we turn into an unused icon.
In this way we disrespect our past and discount our future.
If the Constitution is a “national treasure too precious to risk,” what does this foretell? Will we let fear and to loss of use and the rigor of learning prevent us from learning how to sail her? Will we not let her sail the world and stand in harms way? Will we lose the courage of our own convictions for lack of experience? Will we teach our children that she is an artifact to admire but not a living thing to use?
If the CONSTITUTION had a voice - if we could listen - what do you think would be her choice? One wonders, who speaks for the Constitution today?
Return To Index
Matt Taylor
January 24, 1998

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posted: January 24, 1998

revised: May 18, 2003
• 19980124.345209.mt • 19990323.666622.mt •

• 20030518.296400.mt •

Copyright© Matt Taylor 1998, 2003

 note: this document is about 50% finished



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