Tall ships sail into Duluth harborby Bob Kelleher, Minnesota Public Radio
Duluth, Minn. — Three flags flap up to 10 stories up in the pair of high masts rising from the decks of the Pride of Baltimore II.
The wooden schooner arrived early for the four-day Tall Ships Festival and has been hiding for the past couple of days at a Superior, Wis., boat landing. But as word spread of the ship's presence on Wednesday, a steady stream of camera-carrying visitors began snapping photos of the highly polished ship from the closest dock.
More than 100,000 visitors are expected to flock into Duluth this weekend for the festival, likely to be the city's biggest summer attraction. It opens Thursday with a grand arrival of all nine ships.
The first Duluth Maritime Festival two years ago was a huge success, drawing more than 100,000 visitors -- with just three ships.
This year organizers got lucky as a fleet of the wooden ships is taking part in a race on the Great Lakes. That allows nine sailing ships to sail to Duluth. For four days, the ships will be on display, open for tours and a limited number of rides for ticket holders.
That's generated a lot of interest.
"The calls and the inquiries are just non-stop," said Gene Shaw, a spokesman for festival organizer Visit Duluth.
Hordes of visitors are coming to take in a rare spectacle of ship and sails.
"It's going to be an impressive sight, there's no doubt about it," Shaw said, adding it was "probably in the 1800s, the last time we had nine sailing ships inside the Duluth harbor."
Visit Duluth also organized that first festival, an event that turned out to be part smashing success and part disaster. Patrons spent hours in line, with no access to restrooms or food.
Shaw said a lot more people showed up during a certain period of time than expected. He vows that this year will be very different because the crowd will be spread among more ships.
"With nine ships involved here, you know -- three sailing, the others where you can get on board -- that should alleviate crowd control or crowd lines," he said.
The festival also will include food and entertainment, including music, and performances of the Pirates of Penzance Opera by University of Minnesota-Duluth students.
The prospect of huge crowds has drawn other attractions like diver Scott Mitchen's $10 million display of recovered treasure, including gold, copper tools and cannon.
"We have underwater wood, we have copper, stone and bone," Mitchen said. "That's copper culture artifacts, stone artifacts that go back to ten thousand years, and dinosaur bones. We have dinosaur bones that are right from Lake Superior here."
Among the tall ships, the U.S. Brig Niagara is the biggest, at 198 feet in length, or about two-thirds of a football field. The original was built to fight the British in the War of 1812. The current Niagara is mostly replica, although it was first built on the skeleton of the original recovered after decades under water.
Other notables include the HMS Bounty, a replica built for the 1960 film, and seen in other movies like the Pirates of the Caribbean series.
The festival comes during a busy summer in Duluth, including a popular air show just two weeks ago. Tax receipts indicate tourism running up to 4.5 percent above last summer, and a couple percentage points above the recent average.
Despite major interstate reconstruction in Duluth, traffic has moved well for large events like Grandma's Marathon and the Duluth Air Show, said John Bray, a spokesman for the state Department of Transportation.
But Bray said motorists should slow down when they hit the lengthy construction zone.
"We are aggressively enforcing that 45 miles per hour [limit], so 46 will get you a ticket," he said.
A bigger challenge for visitors might be the traffic and parking close to the waterfront and downtown.
The festival's official kickoff is the Grand Parade of Sail Thursday afternoon. The nine ships will rendezvous out on the lake, then in sets of three head in for a staggered Parade of Sail beginning at 2 p.m. Official opening ceremonies start at 5 p.m.
The weather looks mostly cooperative, although clouds and a chance of rain are in the forecast for Friday.
- Morning Edition, 07/29/2010, 7:25 a.m.