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Now Playing at a Theater Near You: Old Ironsides

Muscular numbers. But the Constitution seems to shoulder its burden effortlessly, sitting on the water like a black swan. How, you wonder, could something made of wood carry all this iron weight? And not just carry but dance it lightly atop mountainous seas and glide it smoothly across countless latitudes?

In Old Ironsides' case, it's not just any wood but live oak, harvested from Georgia's Sea Islands. A cubic foot of it can weigh 76 pounds, and it was so much mightier than the shipwright's usual white oak that it amounted to a secret weapon. ("Huzzah! Her sides are made of iron," cried a sailor when British cannonballs popcorned off those massive planks, and a nickname for the ages was born.)

It would be hard to overstate the effect of Old Ironsides' early victories on a country just emerging from the yoke of dependence. When the Constitution went broadside to broadside with HMS Guerriere in 1812 -- outsailing and outgunning the Brit vessel even after having its wheel shot away -- upstart America signaled its willingness to take on the world's superpower. When it went on to defeat the Java, the Admiralty in London directed its outraged captains not to engage American frigates one-on-one. When the Constitution bested two British ships, Cyane and Levant, at the same time, America's role as military power was sealed.

"Right after the Revolutionary War, the rest of the world didn't take us seriously," said Lt. William Marks, the ship's executive officer. "The Constitution in particular proved that no country could impose its will on us. We're pretty proud of her record."

Scramble below decks, where 32 guns manned by 14 sailors each once fought these actions, and the awesome enterprise of a sailing war begins to take shape in a way even Imax can't reproduce. "You've got to get the feel of how close this is," was Wier's admonition to his computer artists when the director came aboard the Constitution with them, according to Robertson.

Close indeed. Even the captain's suite is cramped; the officers' quarters are little more than tall coffins. And each deck lower is closer still, until even small visitors are humbled by the lowest orlop, bent over double in the space where wounded arms and legs were lopped off in the ship's surgery.

This pleasant funk of oil paint and old wood must be dead on, you think. But no. With 450 men aboard, sharing 18 inches of hammock space, living on salt beef and grog, working 12 hours a day without showers or toilets, sometimes in sweltering tropical air, sometimes in a suffocating brume of gun smoke and shattered bodies, it probably didn't smell like a clean and empty ship on a sunny fall day in Boston Harbor, perfectly preserved though it is.

Walking these decks is a powerful way to imagine the era. Movie effects will give us a passable glimpse of what it probably looked like. The nearby museum explains quite well just what happened. And, of course, the masterful O'Brian can transport our minds there for chapters at a time. But what it actually smelled and tasted and felt like to live and fight aboard one of the great fighting ships in the age of sail . . . well, only imagination can tell us that.

The USS Constitution (617-242-7511 , www.ussconstitution.navy.mil) is permanently docked at Charlestown Navy Yard, off Chelsea Street in Boston. During winter, the ship offers free 30-minute tours from 10 a.m. to 3:50 p.m. In addition, the Navy Yard, near Bunker Hill, features a World War II-era destroyer and the USS Constitution Museum (617-426-1812, www.ussconstitutionmuseum.org; free), an exceptional small museum that encapsulates Old Ironsides' history and the tall ship era generally.


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