Peace Time: Timber Troubles

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December 1, 2020: The oldest ship in the U.S. Navy, and one that is still in commission (active), is the sail powered frigate USS Constitution. In reality this is a memorial and museum ship and the "commissioned" status is basically honorary. The two-century old Constitution can no longer sail, or fight but it is maintained and kept afloat. To do that, one of the oldest naval traditions, the naval forest reserve, is still observed. The U.S. Navy maintains a grove of white oak trees in Indiana. White oak provides some of the hardest and sturdiest timbers that were used to build the Constitution and ships like her. It was not for nothing that the Constitution was called “old ironsides” because some cannon balls that would penetrate the hulls of other ships instead bounced off the Constitution’s white oak hull.

During the American Revolution a major reason for Britain holding on to the American colonies was the enormous quantities of ship-quality lumber that was available. Rulers of sea-faring nations had always paid attention to obtaining prime ship building timber and by the 18th century the demand was enormous. Britain was the largest user of such lumber.

That demand began to grow because of a revolution in ship design in the 15th century produced larger ships with better handling characteristics. These high-seas vessels required strong timbers to handle the harsh conditions often encountered far from shore. The three ships Columbus used to cross the Atlantic were relatively small but sturdy, and well-built to handle sustained open-ocean travel. Crossing the Atlantic proved to Europeans that there were new lands out there and more ships were required to deal with these new opportunities. By the 16th century there were large military and commercial fleets sailing from Europe to the Americas and around Africa and across the Indian Ocean to the Far East. At that point it was realized that the best ship building materials were in short supply and the best available timbers were in North America. Africa had some prime hardwoods but the endemic tropical diseases, especially malaria kept Europeans out of the interior until the mid-19th century.

The U.S. Navy converted to metal ships in the late 19th century but a booming economy maintained and increased the demand for the same high-quality timber wooden sailing ships required. Nearly all the U.S. Navy sailing ships were scrapped during the late 19th century but the Constitution survived as a training ship. By 1907, nostalgia for the age of sail and American wooden ships resulted in the Constitution being turned into a museum ship. As the 19th century passed Constitution began to show its age and in 1997 went to drydock for a complete overhaul and much of its wooden parts were replaced. More such overhauls were planned in the future. At that point it was realized the ship quality white oak was in short supply. Actually, the navy noted the shortage of suitably old white oaks in the early 1970s and in 1973 found, purchased and maintained a 50,000-acre (20,000 hectare) area where white oaks grew and there over a hundred were assessed as old and tall enough to provide what the long planks the Constitution needed to keep its hull in good shape. The “Constitution Grove” has new white oaks planted and protected so they can grow large enough to keep the Constitution in repair. These trees are periodically cut down and stored long enough for them to dry out and be ready for use as ship repair materials.

Wooden ships usually had one or more crew members who were skilled carpenters and able to carry out emergency repairs. But when combat, a disaster or old age lead to holes in the hull, the best the ship’s carpenter can do is apply a patch so the ship can slowly make its way to a port with supplies of the right size timber to repair a hull. There are still a lot of skilled carpenters around who can build and repair wooden ships, but few such vessels are as large as the 2,200-ton Constitution, that is 93 meters (304 feet) long. So special care must be taken to provide the materials needed to keep the Constitution afloat.

 


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