- - Sunday, August 19, 2012

BOSTON — The 215-year-old USS Constitution has sailed for the first time since 1997, taking a 17-minute cruise across Boston Harbor to the cheers of thousands of onlookers.

The short trip Sunday was to commemorate the Navy ship’s victory over a British warship of a similar size in a fierce battle during the War of 1812. Following the battle, the Constitution was nicknamed “Old Ironsides.”

“It’s a fun day. We get to watch the boat shoot fake cannons,” 8-year-old Ronan Healy of Quincy, Mass., told the Boston Globe.

Brian and Nicole Healy brought Ronan and his 10-year-old brother, Aiden, to Castle Island in South Boston to witness some history in the making.

“It’s a historical day for the whole [of] Massachusetts,” Aiden told the Globe.

Chief Petty Officer Frank Neely said 285 lucky people were aboard Sunday as the Constitution reached a maximum speed of 3.1 knots.

The trip marks the first time the Constitution has set sail under its own power since turning 200 years old in 1997, which itself was the first such trip since 1881. The Navy ship is periodically tugged into the harbor for historical display.

Sunday’s short trip, which follows a three-year restoration project, marks the day two centuries ago when the Constitution bested the British frigate HMS Guerriere.

The Constitution was under the command of Capt. Issac Hull when it engaged the Guerriere off Nova Scotia on Aug. 19, 1812. The young war was not going well for America, which had surrendered Detroit to the British with basically no resistance a week earlier.

But the Guerriere proved no match for the Constitution, which was heavier and longer. The vessels blasted away at each other at close range, even colliding at one point, during the 35-minute battle. The Constitution’s 24-pound cannonballs felled the Guerriere’s mast, while the British vessels’ 18-pound cannonballs had trouble penetrating the Constitution’s two-foot-thick oak hull, said Matthew Brenckle, a historian at the USS Constitution Museum.

Mr. Brenckle said a sailor’s memoirs recorded how one cannonball seemed to slightly penetrate the ship, before dropping into the sea. The sailor then called out the quote that would give the Constitution its nickname, “Huzzah, her sides are made of iron! See where the shot fell out!”

It wasn’t the first naval win in what would be a divisive, expensive war, but it set off celebrations around the country, Mr. Brenckle said.

“Strategically, it really did nothing to change the course of the war,” he said. “But the morale boost that that provided for the American cause, I think, was quite important.”