In his first term as mayor, William Donald Schaefer set about making Baltimore's waterfront a focal point for travelers. He established Sail Baltimore, a modest effort to attract a few majestic ships to the port and bring people downtown. The concept led to Operation Sail in 1976, a week of celebrating the nation's bicentennial that brought about 500,000 visitors to the city and renewed municipal pride.
"There was no Harborplace then, just a promenade and piers," said Gilbert Sandler, Baltimore historian. "We were elbow-to-elbow along the quays. We felt like we were part of something huge, something big time in a big town. You could sense something extraordinary was happening. It really proved to us that we could bring people downtown."
Bob Hillman, CFO of Sandy Hillman Communications, who chaired the 1976 Op Sail in the city, said no one really grasped the draw the ships would have. "There was such camaraderie. Many families invited crew members into their homes," Hillman said. "It became a great tradition for Baltimore, and now they are following up on that tradition in a great way."
The more than 500 tall ship visits to municipal docks helped foster tourism that led to Harborplace, the National Aquarium and Convention Center.
The city launched its own ship, a topsail schooner, that it christened the Pride of Baltimore. The ship resembled the ships that carried trade to and from the city in the early 19th century. It became the city's seagoing ambassador visiting ports around the world and touting its home city. When the schooner was lost at sea in 1986, the city built the Pride II, which continues the goodwill mission today.
"People really began to use the harbor and were excited about downtown," said Martin Millspaugh, former chief executive of Charles Center Inner Harbor, a group that helped launch the revitalization of downtown.
Sailabration will spur more tourism to the port city, said Tom Noonan, president of Visit Baltimore, the city's marketing arm.
"Our perception is that these events will be the game-changer," Noonan said. "These events will be broadcast around the world."
Al Roker will do his Today show segments Thursday aboard a Brazilian tall ship docked in the Inner Harbor. The America's Incentive Business Travel Market convention — about 1,500 travel and tourism planners — will be in town the last two days of Sailabration, a coincidence that Noonan hopes attracts future conventions and tourists to Baltimore.
Throughout the week, organizers will mark many key events.
On Thursday, Flag Day, the celebration will focus on the historic Star-Spangled Banner Flag House on East Pratt Street as three original threads from the flag that flew over Fort McHenry 200 years ago are sewn into the National 9-11 flag, which will eventually fly in New York City. Later that evening, the fort will be the background for the National Pause for the Pledge of Allegiance, a countrywide observance on Flag Day every year.
On June 18, organizers will mark the 200th anniversary of the declaration of war on Great Britain and the official start of the bicentennial period, which will continue through September 2014. More Sailabration events are planned in the next few months, and the ships will sail back in two years to mark the end of the War of 1812.
Lisa A. Shenkle, spokeswoman for Sail Baltimore, said she always tears up when the tall ships depart the city. But the city's welcome and hospitality make her certain of their return.
"The crews become your friends in a global sense," she said. "As they cross the horizon onto their next adventure, the fabric of our city is embedded in their memories."
What: Sailabration, the commemoration of the bicentennial of the War of 1812 and the writing of "The Star-Spangled Banner"
When: June 13 to June 19
Where: Baltimore's Inner Harbor, Fort McHenry, Martin State Airport and other locations
Inner Harbor activities: Star-Spangled Sailabration Villages will feature live entertainment, traditional festival fare and hands-on fun for kids. Ships, docked throughout the harbor area, will be open for tours.
Transportation: Officials urge visitors to use public transportation, because parking will be limited. Options include the Water Taxi, MTA's MARC, the light rail and buses, Amtrak and the Charm City Circulator's free Banner Route, which travels from the Baltimore Visitor Center to Fort McHenry every 10 minutes.
For the air shows, the city has scheduled a free shuttle bus to Fort McHenry only from M&T Bank Stadium, where parking will be available for $20. Beginning Thursday, Fort Avenue will be closed at Andre Street and will not reopen until June 18.
Viewing spots for air shows: Canton Waterfront, Riverside, Cherry Hill, Reedbird Island and Garrett parks in the city. Motorists stopping to watch the show on the side of the road or any major highway will be ticketed.