As thousands cheer, USS Constitution sails under its own power for only second time in 131 years

As thousands of onlookers cheered from Castle Island in South Boston, the USS Constitution sailed under its own power Sunday for just the second time in 131 years, marking the 200th anniversary of the battle that earned it the nickname Old Ironsides.

“It’s a twice in a lifetime opportunity, sailing on her own power,” said Bob Pound, 48, of Quincy, referring to the last time the USS Constitution sailed on its own in 1997 for Marblehead’s 200th anniversary.

Brian Healy, 42, of Quincy and his wife Nicole, 40, brought their sons Aiden, 10, and Ronan, 8, to witness some history in the making. “It’s a historical day for the whole [of] Massachusetts,” said Aiden.

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“It’s a fun day. We get to watch the boat shoot fake cannons,” added Ronan.

Paul Spellman, 73, and his wife Maureen, 71, traveled from Holliston a warm, sunny day. “We come in every time they have something special. It’s a great place to spend the day,” he said.

Patriotic music sounded from Fort Independence as the world’s oldest commissioned warship still afloat came into view. “Once again, Boston well shows her history,” said Ken Smith, 47, of Cambridge.

“We’re hoping she goes rogue and goes off on her own,” joked his wife, Anne Marie, 47.

The Constitution was towed past the crowd to a point between Castle Island and Deer Island. About 200 sailors then unfurled four of its sails before it was released from its tugboat tethers and sailed toward open water for about 10 minutes.

Then, it slowly made its way back toward Castle Island, aided by a tugboat. After it approached and fired its cannons, the crowd cheered and boats honked their horns as they bobbed in the harbor a safe distance away.

“It was awesome,” said Liam Corbett, 31, of New Bedford, who was there with his wife Nicole, 31, daughter Aurora, 5, son Max, 2, and their dog Rex. “We took the kids to see some history and got here just as the Constitution was coming down. I probably took over 100 pictures. It was a good family thing to do,” he said.

The day brought special memories to Nicole, who was a crew member on a replica of a British tall ship, the HMS Bounty, when it was docked behind the Constitution in 1999.

Anne Marie Smith called the sight “exciting and inspiring, just spectacular.”