Cmdr. Billie J. Farrell never thought during almost two decades of naval service that she would have the chance to command a warship whose inaugural launching was witnessed by President John Adams.
But in a Jan. 21 ceremony at Charleston Navy Yard in Boston, Cmdr. Farrell will become the 77th captain of the USS Constitution, affectionately known as “Old Ironsides,” the world’s oldest naval ship in active service.
“She’s undefeated — 33 battles and never captured or sunk,” the future skipper of the three-masted, wooden-hulled heavy frigate boasted in an interview late last week with The Washington Times.
Cmdr. Farrell will be the first woman to command the vessel in the ship’s history, dating back to 1797. The Constitution got its nickname because of its virtually impregnable hull while in service during the First Barbary War, the War of 1812 and as a training ship for Union forces during the Civil War.
“It’s going to be an amazing opportunity to be able to stand on that deck and feel the presence of all those people who came before me,” she said. “This is not a replica. This is the actual ship.”
She learned of the opportunity to command “Old Ironsides” after being notified she had been selected for future command of a warship. One name jumped out when she saw the list of available ships: USS Constitution. The warship, retired from active service 141 years ago, still serves officially as a museum ship designed to promote public awareness of the Navy’s mission and participate in public events.
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“That is an amazing opportunity. The stars aligned,” Cmdr. Farrell said.
Cmdr. Farrell is a native of Paducah, Kentucky, and a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. She trained as a surface warfare officer and served as the executive officer of the USS Vicksburg, a Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser.
She acknowledged that the change in assignments means adapting to some technological challenges. The 80 crew members, all active-duty Navy personnel, climb the rigging and loosen sails rather than fire up the engine to power the ship and plot their course with charts and sextants rather than punching numbers into a military version of a GPS.
“I also don’t have an Aegis Combat System here,” said Cmdr. Farrell, referring to the Navy’s integrated warfare system that tracks and guides weapons to destroy enemy targets. “We have to work the guns.”
The position of captain of the USS Constitution also comes with a uniform change. Along with khakis and the camouflage-patterned standard Navy working uniform, the ship’s company dons the same outfits worn by sailors in the War of 1812, including the Napoleonic-era “fore and aft” hat for officers.
“We have the uniforms specially made for the crew. I put mine on for the first time this morning,” Cmdr. Farrell said. “It was pretty amazing. You can really ‘feel’ the history.”
The learning curve is steep for a crew member — or captain — of the USS Constitution. An intensive on-the-job training program teaches the basics of operating a vessel that took on North African Barbary pirates and then the British navy during the War of 1812.
“But the principles of the Navy are the same. You focus on the basics, and then you grow from there,” Cmdr. Farrell said.
Although she will be the first woman to command the ship, the USS Constitution has had other female crew members. Lt. Cmdr. Claire V. Bloom was the executive officer in 1997, the first time Old Ironsides sailed under its own power since 1881. Today, women make up more than a third of the crew.
Cmdr. Farrell will relieve the USS Constitution’s current captain, Cmdr. John Benda, in a ceremony that will be closed to the public. The ship will reopen for public visits that afternoon, Navy officials said.
Anne Grimes Rand, president of the USS Constitution’s museum, said she is looking forward to having Cmdr. Farrell lead the crew.
“This is an exciting time in Boston with a female mayor and a female captain for ‘Old Ironsides,’” Ms. Rand said. Boston lawyer Michelle Wu was elected as the city’s first female mayor in November.
The active-duty sailors stationed aboard the USS Constitution provide free tours to support the ship’s mission of promoting the Navy’s history and the nation’s maritime heritage. Old Ironsides sets sail about seven times a year.
George Washington ordered the construction of the USS Constitution along with five other frigates that became the nucleus of the fledgling nation’s Navy. The ship’s next captain said there is simply no other vessel quite like it.
“There are so few things that were here at the founding of our country. You can touch it and walk on it and feel those hallowed grounds,” Cmdr. Farrell said. “You just can re-create it.”
Cmdr. Farrell said she wants to make sure she does her part to strengthen the ship’s legacy and tell its story before she hands over command of the USS Constitution in about two years — the standard tour for a ship’s captain.
“It will always have a special place,” she said. “You have to preserve it and keep it intact so the memory doesn’t fade.”