Partway down the Patapsco River, as this stately wooden sailing ship cleared Curtis Bay and neared the open water beyond the Key Bridge for the first time in half a century, Paul Powichroski could not contain himself.
He grabbed local port captain Jim Demske, who was directing the departure, in a semi-bear hug. "This is as far out as we have ever been, buddy," Demske said. Powichroski, the ship's manager, said, "It feels fantastic."
He just wished there was some sail aloft.
The Constellation, in celebration of the 150th anniversary of its launch this year, was venturing out of Baltimore's harbor for the first time since her arrival there in 1955. Yet the old sloop of war was a fettered beauty. The gorgeous double-wheeled, teak-and-mahogany helm was lashed with the crown spoke pointing straight up, and the rudder amidships. The capstan bars were stowed. And the mizzenmast, mainmast and foremast were missing the canvas the ship was built to carry.
Instead, the capstan, which sailors of old would turn to haul in the anchor, bore three laptop computers hooked to navigational aids. The wet air of the Chesapeake Bay bore the odor of engine exhaust. And two powerful tugboats conveyed the 1,400-ton warrior on its southbound journey.
The Constellation was permitted to leave the confines of the Inner Harbor for a 291/2-mile trip to Annapolis yesterday, to mark its birthday and the Naval Academy's homecoming weekend. But it was not the way the ship was designed to travel, and it would be for less than a week.
Still, there was a majesty to the 61/2-hour trip, as the Constellation was escorted at 61/2 knots, or about 71/2 mph, by boats from the U.S. Coast Guard, the Baltimore police and fire departments and the FBI, as well as a flotilla of private vessels.
As members of the vessel's volunteer crew scoured the dark recesses of the hold for trouble, they noted that the ship barely leaked and that, as in days past, the water pulsing past the hull outside could be heard.
The Constellation was the last all-sail ship built for the U.S. Navy. It was constructed in Norfolk and launched in 1854, and it saw quick duty attempting to interdict the slave trade. In 1858, the vessel -- as flagship of the U.S. Africa Squadron -- captured a slave brig, the Cora, rescuing 705 slaves.
The ship later was part of the Union blockade of the Confederacy during the Civil War, and afterward was used as a Navy training ship. In the 20th century, the Constellation became confused with the frigate USS Constellation, which had been launched in Baltimore in 1797. But in 1991, a scientific study confirmed that the Constellation, which had been brought to Baltimore in 1955, had been constructed from a few remnants of the 1797 ship.
The ship was extensively overhauled between 1996 and 1999.
Yesterday's journey started about 9 a.m. when Demske, the port captain for Vane Brothers, the Baltimore tugboat company that offered its boats free of charge, began pulling the Constellation away from its berth at the Inner Harbor.
While there were plenty of volunteers in gaudy Civil War-era uniforms and scores of VIPs on board, it was Demske, 52, clad in a black fleece jacket and khaki pants and toting a walkie-talkie, who choreographed the trip.
Demske, a native of South Bend, Ind., first got one of his boats, the Capt. Russi, lashed to the Constellation's port quarter. Once the lines were cast off and the gangway pulled in, the tug backed the Constellation into the harbor amid the sound of creaking ropes. It pivoted to starboard and headed out the shipping channel.
As the ship left, cannon salutes were fired from other vessels; bagpipers in red kilts, light blue sweaters and white gaiters played on the red brick pier; and schoolchildren waved U.S. flags in farewell. Fireboats shot sprays of water into the air in salute.
Approaching Baltimore's Key Bridge, Demske halted the entourage and brought a second Vane tug, the Elizabeth Ann, to the front, where a thick white towline was attached via steel cables to the Constellation, and the tug began to pull the sloop.
Now borne by the ebb tide and the straining Elizabeth Ann, the Constellation glided past the maroon stacks of the Sparrows Point steel mill and a gigantic inbound Panamanian freighter, the Prestige Ace, as if in review.
Helicopters circled, and a foursome of gray Air Force A-10 Warthogs thundered overhead. As the ship approached the Key Bridge, there was some discussion as to whether the vessel's "pig stick," or flagpole, above the mainmast ought to be lowered. The bridge was 183 feet up; the mast and pig stick were 175 feet. The pole was lowered anyhow, just in case.
And shortly after the pig stick came down, the Constellation's shipwright, Bruce MacKenzie, went up. MacKenzie, of Towson, built the Constellation's new helm in his Fells Point wood shop. He had built the ship's mighty bowsprit. Indeed, he had been so intimately involved in the overhaul that he felt that the ship was partly his.
"It can't help but hit your soul," he said as he prepared to climb the ship's shrouds and ratlines to the thick mainmast yards. "You're affected. This ship affects you. It definitely has me. It has a soul. It's alive."
After he spoke, he scrambled up the lines and stood on a spar and watched the bridge go by like a low-flying airplane.
Into the Brewerton channel the Constellation went, past Rock Point Shoal and the spit of North Point -- roughly a third of the way to Annapolis, approaching open water. The overcast was broken by patches of blue sky. Smaller sailing boats ran alongside at a distance, like children chasing a parade.
The tugs pulled the sloop to starboard just before Bodkin Point Shoal, then into the Craighill Channel for the final run to the Severn River and the Naval Academy berth at Annapolis.
Ashore, in the distance at Cape St. Clair, the trees were turning autumn colors. But the Chesapeake Bay water was a green around the Baltimore Light, with the Sandy Point Light in the distant haze.
The flotilla cruised under the Bay Bridge at 1:15 p.m. and turned for the domes and spires of Annapolis 10 minutes later. From there, it slowed to a crawl.
There were more cannon salutes and jet flyovers as the Constellation approached, and a Navy band struck up the music of John Philip Sousa as the tugs nosed the wooden warship against the academy seawall at 3:15 p.m.
Demske looked relieved as the ship was secured and the gangway run out. "An uneventful trip," he said. "The kind I like."