Tall ship Kalmar Nyckel is docked at the Inner Harbor's… (Christopher T. Assaf, Baltimore…)
The tall ships — old showboats that they are — danced into Baltimore looking regal and festooned, the stateliest of guests at an affair expected to bring President Barack Obama to Baltimore.
"It's a ballet, with a couple hard-rock pieces in the middle," said Mike McGeady, president of Sail Baltimore, of the intense maritime choreography used to welcome dozens of Star-Spangled Spectacular ships into the waters around Baltimore on Wednesday without disrupting commercial port trade.
"We have to have our party without shutting down the livelihoods of the people who are here," he said.
The events celebrating the bicentennial of the Battle of Baltimore — and of Francis Scott Key's writing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" as he watched the British fail in their attack on Fort McHenry this week in 1814 — kicked off with the ships' arrival and received an unexpected boost from leaked word of the president's planned visit Friday.
The White House would not confirm Obama's visit, but sources with knowledge of the event said he would take a private tour of Fort McHenry before attending a previously scheduled fundraiser in Baltimore County.
"Let's just say they've been at all the meetings," McGeady said of members of Obama's Secret Service security team attending planning sessions. Vice President Joe Biden is also set to appear in Baltimore, speaking at a concert at Fort McHenry on Saturday night that will be broadcast live on PBS.
The events Wednesday were reminiscent of the kickoff to the state's War of 1812 bicentennial celebration, the 2012 Star-Spangled Sailabration, which brought 1.5 million people to Baltimore and even more ships than this week's events.
Still, the Spectacular events — which officials expect to draw at least a million people — seem loftier in presence, if not in scope. Their patriotic overtones, pegged to the origin of the national anthem and spanning Thursday's anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, seem to be resonating at a more nationwide level.
In Baltimore, things came to life as the Inner Harbor waters vibrated with cannon fire. Tourists and other visitors took in the arrival of the tall old ships, which docked along the promenade.
Included in the crowd were Charles and Mary Lorenz of Eastport, who rode a bus into town to see the ships before the weekend crowds roll into Baltimore.
"We wanted to see them all come in," said Mary Lorenz, 78, who was wearing a white captain's hat she got during the Sailabration events two years ago. "We like to look around and see things."
"It's stuff like this that Baltimore needs more of," said Charles Lorenz, 73, who remembers riding past a much-different waterfront on his stepfather's Arabber cart more than 60 years ago.
Susan Baker, who was taking in the ships with granddaughters Elsie, 2, and Addie, 11 months, said she thought their arrival would be more like "a procession of ships." She missed some arrivals because they weren't on schedule, according to an arrival sheet she got from a visitor's center.
Still, she said, "it's great to see them all down here."
Many on board the tall ships — including their captains, who were welcomed at an evening ceremony by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake — were equally enthusiastic about the week's events, which will include a barbecue and other opportunities for crews to meet.
Lauren Morgens, captain of the Kalmar Nyckel, a Delaware-based recreation of the Dutch pinnace that brought settlers to the Americas in 1638, said the all-volunteer crew gives tours to schoolchildren at events year-round, but was especially excited for the Spectacular.
The ship's crew is full, but more volunteers are planning to arrive in coming days, Morgens said. "There are no more bunks, but people still want to be able to be part of the festival" and will sleep on the deck, she said.
Such events are fun for ship crews — most of whom will be in Baltimore until Tuesday — because many of them are fans of the old vessels themselves, said Ulises Custodio, logistics officer on the El Galeon Andalucía. The reproduction of a 16th-century Spanish galleon has been touring the Caribbean and the East Coast with its all-Spanish, mostly volunteer crew since last year, and on Wednesday was berthed parallel to the Constellation.
"I think for the crew, what's most fun about it is we can visit other ships that are museums just like ours, and meet other crews that are doing something that we like to think is quite unique," Custodio said. "The big thing for us is being able to share some experiences and share some time and moments."
Custodio said the Orioles games going on this weekend have also excited his crew, many of whom have never been to a major league baseball game and are hoping to attend one. "They told me they all have to buy something orange," he said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Matthew Hay Brown contributed to this article.