Cannons roared, flags waved, a mariachi band played and tens of thousands of visitors packed the Inner Harbor last night to greet an armada of tall ships from around the globe.
The six-day Operation Sail 2000 festival kicked off with Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Mayor Martin O'Malley welcoming the 31 graceful and majestic vessels thronging the port.
"This visit is going to ring in a new era of prosperity, another era of good times and good opportunities for the people of Baltimore City," said O'Malley, standing in the Inner Harbor's amphitheater, under a banner proclaiming "the largest tall-ship event in history."
With cannon firing and an Irish band playing, visiting captains took their seats on the podium, behind a line of local school children waving the flags of many nations.
To their right was the permanently moored battleship Constellation. To their left floated the gracious 258-foot Ecuadorean barque, Guayas, and in the center was the city's own clipper, Pride of Baltimore II.
Around the Inner Harbor, out at Fells Point, beyond to Canton, and over to Locust Point, the magnificent ships were all awaiting a weekend wave of visitors.
The fleet, drawn from 15 nations, is scheduled to visit eight East Coast ports - including New York for the July 4 holiday - before dispersing across the world in the fall.
O'Malley said the ships symbolized Baltimore's tradition as a thriving port city and a point of entry for immigrants. Their arrival, he added, signaled a new era of prosperity, just as the 1976 bicentennial tall-ship visit helped launched Baltimore's downtown renewal.
"I, for one, feel very proud and very lucky to be alive today in Baltimore, the greatest city in America," the mayor declared.
Glendening advised the crowd to "feel free to spend lots of money, pay lots of taxes, and enjoy yourselves here."
Organizers expect 1 million visitors to spend $55 million in the city during the eight-day seafaring festival.
Hours before the official opening at 6 p.m., sunshine and sails drew crowds downtown. From a distance, the masts and rigging shimmered in the mirrored glass buildings.
Sailors in uniform mixed with tourists pushing strollers.
The air was thick with the fragrant smoke from 47 food stands serving Thai chicken, gyros, Japanese dumplings, fried rice, fruit, sangria and pina coladas.
There were lines for everything: meals, water taxis, the National Aquarium and, of course, the tall ships.
When Italy's Amerigo Vespucci, moored outside Harborplace's Light Street Pavilion, started welcoming visitors at 1 p.m., the line stretched almost to the Maryland Science Center.
First up the gangplank of the 331-foot, full-rigged ship was Sarah Hickman, 69, of Catonsville, who had waited an hour in the midday sun.
"I was here in 1984, but didn't visit the ships. If they wait another 16 years to come again, I probably won't be around," she said with a laugh.
Ten thousand square dancers happened to be in town for the 49th annual National Square Dance Convention at the Baltimore Convention Center. They transformed the waterfront into a costume party.
"I think it's nice that they brought in all these ships just for the square dancing convention," said Nancy Pratt of Columbia Crossroads, Pa., a dancer in red petticoats and white blouse with a red, white and blue ribbon.
"The sailors are pretty well decked out - but I think we're dressed pretty well, too."
As she spoke, a German sailor from the ship Gorch Fock II walked past. He wore a white uniform, blue collar and white cap with black ribbons flowing from it and a black, red and gold pin.
"Are you from Germany?" a man in shorts and sunglasses shouted out.
"Yes sir," said the sailor, Marc Kunzel.
"I've been all over Germany, know all about it," the man said.
"You have a good city," he replied.
Kunzel said he's enjoying the Operation Sail tour.
"These festivals give such a great opportunity to talk to people, to interact with them," said Kunzel. "They are all so friendly.
"They all come up to you, find out where you are from and how you are doing. In Germany, it is not like this."
Casting a knowing eye over the scene was Babs Ertle, a Clarksville Middle School science teacher, whose husband, Chuck, was working on one of the tugs ushering the visiting ships into dock.
"It's exciting to see," said Ertle, who crewed aboard the Pride of Baltimore II on voyages to Hawaii and Alaska in 1994 and 1995.
Guiding the ships to their berths along the waterfront required the expertise of city, state and federal agencies including the U.S. Coast Guard, Maryland Natural Resources Police, Association of Maryland Pilots, Secret Service, FBI and FEMA.
The ships cruised into the harbor one at a time from Wednesday through yesterday, taking their place beside the Constellation, Harborplace and the National Aquarium.