By Cheryl Costello
When you step onto the USS Constitution, you walk on a page of history. It’s the world’s oldest commissioned warship still afloat—a wood-hulled three-masted frigate built in 1797. Now its commander is a historical milestone herself.
B.J. Farrell is the first female commander of the Constitution. The 76 leaders before her were all men. “She [the ship] already has an incredible story that includes an undefeated battle record of 33 and 0. Later this year she reaches another milestone as she turns 225,” Farrell told the crowd at a ceremony full of pomp and circumstance near Boston, where the Constitution is docked.
The ship earned the nickname “Old Ironsides” because her strong wooden hull seemed to be impenetrable by cannon fire.
We spoke with Farrell on board the ship just a few days after she took command. “This is the gun deck of the ship. This is where the majority of the battle would have taken place,” she showed us.
The Constitution gets underway seven times every summer. “I have a crew of 80 active-duty sailors,” Farrell explains. “The crew has to be able to accomplish the mission of an 1812 sailor and the mission of a 2022 sailor [at the same time].” The sailors spend time on a historic ship, but also must re-enter the fleet after the assignment and complete their jobs.
Farrell says she’s leaning on her experience at the Naval Academy in her high-ranking position today. “I grew up on a lake in Kentucky. It was fairly small—I had an 18-foot powerboat growing up. So the first time I went to the Naval Academy for Plebe Summer and we took the 44-foot sailboats out, it was a great opportunity to take it one step further before I ended up on my first guided missile cruiser.”
Farrell says her sail training at the academy, the basics and the attention to detail emphasized there, apply to commanding the Constitution. And the Severn River was her classroom. “It just gave me immediate respect for the power that comes with being at sea.”
Married with two children, a 6-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter, Farrell knows she represents over 70,000 active-duty women in the Navy today—and anyone looking for some inspiration.
“Push yourself outside your comfort zone and look for things that aren’t necessarily easily visible opportunities. In Western Kentucky, the Navy was not a common career path. But I did the research and looked into it and it has led me down an amazing career that I just never imagined.”
She’s now a piece of history right along with Old Ironsides.
This summer, the USS Constitution will hold a lottery to select about 150 people who will get to go underway on the ship this summer. If you’re from the Bay region and considering a visit, stay tuned to the ship’s social media channels for more information.