More than 300,000 visitors are expected to pack the Inner Harbor this weekend to hear steel drum bands, cheer the winner of a Key West-to-Baltimore sailboat race, wager on oyster-slurping contests and watch a blessing of the fleet beneath a sky filled with fireworks.
The third annual Baltimore Waterfront Festival begins at noon today at the amphitheater at Pratt and Light streets and ends at 9 p.m. Sunday.
The opening celebration will feature a welcome by Mayor Martin O'Malley, giant papier-mache puppets dancing by the harbor's edge, a stunt bike rider wheeling around the amphitheater, the Pride of Baltimore blasting a salute with its cannons and a fireboat spraying an arc of water.
"I think it's going to be a wonderful weekend for Baltimore," said Bill Gilmore, executive director of the Baltimore Office of Promotion. "We're going to have a great crowd, and I'm hoping that Mother Nature will be with us, and the weather is fine."
City-sponsored festivals date back at least to the 1970s and 1980s, when the City Fair was held at locations downtown and near the waterfront.
Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke in 1997 created the first Baltimore Waterfront Festival to welcome the sailors and thousands of tourists, who came to town as part of the city's participation in the Whitbread Round the World Race.
One of the new elements in this year's festival will be the conclusion of a 1,000-mile sailboat race from Key West, Fla., to Baltimore. It is expected to end tomorrow at the Rusty Scupper restaurant.
The winner of the 12-boat competition will take home a trophy called the Hemingway Cup.
"The Key West race is definitely going to be a highlight of the festival. After the thousand-mile race, it's going to be exciting to watch the boats finish in the Inner Harbor," said Gilmore.
Also new this year is an obstacle course set up on Rash Field at the foot of Federal Hill. People will be invited to scramble up a rock-climbing wall, scale a cargo net, swing from ropes and throw their backs into tug-of-war competitions.
Four teams from downtown companies tried out the Outdoor Adventure Area yesterday afternoon. Sixteen workers from Phillips Restaurant, Chevy Chase Bank, the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association, and Harborplace and the Gallery used their lunch breaks to clamber through a tunnel, scale rope ladders and race across patches of sand.
"It was child's play," said Daniel Young, 22, a waiter at Phillips, after he bested an opponent from Chevy Chase Bank.
Also new this year is a children's entertainment area called the SS Family Fun Zone, which will be located near Light Street on the west side of the Inner Harbor. Kids will be able to build model boats, touch crabs and other critters from the sea in a "touch tank" and take free sailing lessons on small boats.
Visitors will be able to learn about the contributions of blacks to the history of maritime life on the Chesapeake Bay in a series of presentations by author Vince Leggett in a tent on the west shore of the Inner Harbor.
At 10 a.m. on Saturday, bicycles topped by sculptures will race through the streets of downtown as part of the East Coast Kinetic Sculpture Race sponsored by the American Visionary Arts Museum.
The festival will conclude with a blessing of bay work boats. The vessels will begin parading around the harbor at 7 p.m. Sunday, and there will be fireworks after the ceremony.