Navy Cmdr. Billie Farrell to be first female skipper of USS Constitution

In almost two decades of naval service, Cmdr. Billie J. Farrell never thought she’d 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 still 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 224-year history, dating back to 1797. It got its famed nickname because of its virtually impregnable hull while in service in 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.

“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. Trained as a surface warfare officer, she previously had 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-member crew — like her, 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,” Cmdr. Farrell said, 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 crewmember — 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 later 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 USS Constitution, there have been other female crewmembers. Former Lt. Cmdr. Claire V. Bloom was the executive officer in 1997, the first time Old Ironsides sailed under her 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. But the ship will reopen for public visitation that afternoon, Navy officials said.

Anne Grimes Rand, president of the USS Constitution’s museum, 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, referring to Boston lawyer Michelle Wu, who was elected the city’s first female mayor in November.

The active-duty sailors stationed aboard 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 in the world.

“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 recreate it.”

When she hands over command of the USS Constitution in about two years — the standard tour for a ship’s captain — Cmdr. Farrell said she wants to make sure she did her part to help strengthen the ship’s legacy and tell her story.

“It will always have a special place,” she said. “You have to preserve it and keep it intact so the memory doesn’t fade.”

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