The magnificent tall ships return to Baltimore's harbor

OpSail 2000 rewards years of hope and work


When local organizers of OpSail 2000 learned last fall that an Italian ship, the Amerigo Vespucci, planned to bypass Baltimore during this week's festival of tall ships, they knew they had to reverse that decision.

As president of Sail Baltimore, the group coordinating the arrival of more than 30 ships in and around the Inner Harbor starting Wednesday, William R. MacIntosh couldn't bear to have one of the largest, most elegant and most coveted tall ships in the world skip Baltimore by sailing directly from Norfolk, Va., to Philadelphia.

So, MacIntosh struck upon an idea. Postcards.

He armed himself with 20 postcards depicting the majestic 330-foot Amerigo Vespucci docked at the west wall of the Inner Harbor in 1986 - postcards still on sale at a local bookstore. Then he headed for Washington.

At the office of Giovanni Bortolato, a rear admiral in the Italian navy and the Italian naval attache, MacIntosh pulled out his secret weapon.

"We want this to happen again," MacIntosh told Bortolato waving a postcard. "What can we do?"

In the weeks and months that followed, MacIntosh had a ready supply of incentives. He talked about the convenient downtown docking, the proximity to Washington and the warm, welcoming community - the same amenities offered to all the ships.

"We needed to lure them here," MacIntosh said. "Every time I corresponded with him, I sent a postcard. I wanted to impress on them that we wanted them to come."

On Wednesday, that postcard image will meld into real life when the Amerigo Vespucci is once again expected to grace the west wall of the Inner Harbor - cutting its Norfolk visit short and arriving late to Philadelphia in order to stop in Charm City.

A million visitors are expected to crowd the Inner Harbor, Fells Point, Canton and Locust Point from Wednesday through June 29 for the largest sailing festival in the city's history.

The celebration will feature the Italian tall ship and more than 30 others from 15 countries. Included are ships from Indonesia, Chile, Germany, Colombia, the Netherlands, Canada, Belgium, Denmark and Ukraine.

Both ceremonial and functional, many of the vessels are used to train cadets to sail.

OpSail organizers predict that the nine-day event, with a budget of about $1.5 million, will bring the region $55 million in direct spending.

That spending translates to an economic impact of $100 million, according to the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association.

The tall ship visit will also offer the region worldwide visibility whose value cannot be measured.

"The short-term impact of these visits is very tangible, measurable, quantifiable," said Gregory H. Barnhill, a board member of Sail Baltimore and a managing director at Deutsche Banc Alex. Brown, which is the title sponsor of the event.

"The positive results from the relationships that are developed during the stopover could take years to bear fruit, but have greater reach and economic benefits to the state. We've seen that with the Volvo."

OpSail 2000 is being compared by some in the tourism industry to the Whitbread Round the World Race, now called the Volvo Ocean Race Round the World, which will return in April 2002. In 1998, that stopover brought an estimated $26.5 million in economic impact to the state.

And the timing is perfect for highlighting Baltimore's attributes to summer travelers, industry experts say.

"This will certainly put Baltimore in the spotlight," said Carroll R. Armstrong, president and chief executive officer of the convention association. "It's a great opener for the season. You couldn't ask for better."

MacIntosh likes to view the event as a precursor to a successful bid by the Washington-Baltimore Regional 2012 Coalition for the Olympic Games.

"It marshals the same spirit and the assets," he said. "It's great PR, and it's also great rehearsal in many senses."

The Baltimore stopover is one of seven East Coast ports that the tall ships will visit on their way from Miami to Portland, Maine, this summer. Operation Sail Inc., the national organization producing OpSail 2000, was the idea of President John F. Kennedy, who founded it in 1961 to promote international unity.

Sail Baltimore, a nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing ships and maritime events to Baltimore, was founded in 1976 and has brought more than 400 ships to the region, including tall ships, military vessels, and environmental and educational ships.

For Baltimore, this marks the city's first year as an official host city for an Operation Sail event. But local organizers have lobbied hard in past years and persuaded ships to come to Baltimore though the city was not on the list of designated ports.

Baltimore's negotiating began in earnest in 1974 when a group of business people learned that the tall ships were coming to New York for a bicentennial celebration.

Before that, Baltimore had played host to an occasional ship.

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