Two young boys in the crowd on the Duluth ship canal pier debated whether the El Galeón Andalucía would fit underneath the Aerial Lift Bridge.
“Yeah, I don’t think that one’s gonna make it,” one boy said to the other.
The audience filling Canal Park gasped as the Pride of Baltimore II’s tall mast neared the bridge, then awarded the ship with applause as it easily passed underneath. Repeatedly throughout the Thursday’s Parade of Sail — kicking off Tall Ships Duluth — the tall ships entering the canal defied the crowd’s worry that a mast would hit the bottom of the bridge.
Art Lee drove down to Duluth from Biwabik Thursday to see the Parade of Sail. He attended the tall ships festival in Duluth three years ago and he likes to attend because of “the majesty of the sails,” he said. There’s a history to the ships, making him think of the 18th century, he said. It’s also special to have the tall ships visit a city like Duluth because they’re usually found on the coasts of the United States rather than in the heart of the country.
“You have to go to Boston to see this,” he said.
Thousands of people lined both sides of the canal and Lake Superior’s shore to glimpse — and document on cellphones held above the crowd on selfie sticks — the vessels coming into the harbor to kick off Tall Ships Duluth, a festival in which nine tall ships are on display behind the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center until Sunday.
As the bell rang on the bridge before it raised to make way for the tall ships to enter the harbor, a woman in the crowd on the pier exclaimed, “They’re lining up!”
Behind the DECC, a quiet anticipation settled over the crowd and people readied their cellphones and cameras to snap pictures of the first ship — the Sundew, a decommissioned U.S. Coast Guard cutter now privately owned in Duluth — which would announce itself with a loud horn and water spraying from boat deck hoses.
People sighed in relief on the canal as a breeze picked up the water from the Sundew and carried it over the crowd in the 83-degree heat.
Duluth first responders received 11 medical calls during Thursday’s festival — including a report of scaffolding falling on a person, but the person was treated at the scene, according to Duluth Police spokesman Ron Tinsley. Traffic congestion was the only problem reported in Canal or Bayfront parks, he said. He suggests people give themselves extra time to travel to the festival, park in downtown Duluth and walk to the festival if possible, and to call 911 if you see something suspicious.
After the first three ships entered Duluth’s harbor and the bridge was lowered to allow the traffic to travel to and from Park Point, a tugboat pulled Mama Duck — the World’s Largest Rubber Duck — across the harbor, giving the crowd gathered along the canal a peek at it in the distance.
“There’s the duck!” a man yelled. Another man chanted, “The duck! The duck! We all see the duck!” while a woman stated, “They need to bring the duck over here.”
However, the canal crowd didn’t get a chance to see the duck up close because it didn’t enter the harbor via the canal.
In the crowd gathered behind the DECC, Lissa Millard from North Branch, Minn., was experiencing her first tall ships festival and was attending to see the duck. “It’s so big and cute,” she said. “(But) now that we’re here and see the ships, it’s amazing.”
Millard’s daughter, 10-year-old Jayden Gerten, gave the festival two thumbs up. She said she was excited to see the rubber duck, but thought the ships were neat too.
“I like that they’re old — and they look cool.”
Ray Challaway, of Anchorage, Alaska, made a special pilgrimage to Duluth for the festival. He had a slightly different take on the giant rubber duck’s appearance at the Tall Ships Festival.
“There’s no correlation between that duck and the majestic ships we came to see. 2,800 miles — to see a duck,” he said.
Stacey Casterline was attending with her children from Billings, Mont., and her mother, Duluth resident Debbie Eider — all of them wearing rubber duck souvenir T-shirts. Casterline was born and raised in Duluth and the tall ships festival happened to coincide with her family’s annual vacation, she explained.
They were attending the Parade of Sail because it was opportunity to see the ships before they needed to head home for the kids’ first day of school on Monday, Casterline said. It was exciting to see the ships for the first time, she said, while Eider added, “And the rubber duck, that’s the big thing.”
Standing near the canal, Casterline was surprised by the size of the crowd in Canal Park.
“I’ve never seen it this busy, not even on Fourth of July, and I’ve been coming here all my life,” she said.
Maple Grove, Minn., resident Brandy Gelle was attending the festival with her two children. Gelle said she has been on and seen boats before, but “nothing like this.”
“Our kids were excited to see the rubber ducky, of course,” she said.
“Out there!” her 2-year-old son said in response, pointing toward the water. He added that he wanted to take a bath with the rubber duck and go on the boats.
Three “pirates” walked among the crowd in Canal Park. Nick Zauhar of Duluth, Keith Chesney of Fredenburg and Magdalena Rios of Moose Lake were working as re-enactors. They were fan favorites, stopping every few feet to take photos with festival attendees — or as Zauhar joked, “Three steps, freeze, three steps, freeze.”
Chesney has been a re-enactor for nearly 25 years and has gotten used to wearing the wool clothes of a different era on hot, humid days like Thursday’s Parade of Sail.
“You constantly drink water,” he said.
They typically participate in re-enactments in Wisconsin and Minnesota that involve the War of 1812 or the fur trade, so being a pirate during the tall ships festival is different than their usual task. Chesney noted that his favorite moments during re-enactments is when he sees a child have an aha! moment of understanding while learning about history.
The tall ships festival is different, though. It’s a fun situation, where they get to take photos and talk with people, and maybe pique someone’s interest in history, they said.
Jonny Slanga, the first mate on the S/V Denis Sullivan, is from Duluth. He said the festival crowds in Duluth rival any other festival the ship has traveled to this summer.
“It’s a lot of fun being able to share my home,” Slanga said. “It makes me really proud that Duluth has such a warm welcoming for the ships.”
Kathy Dixon, of Minnetonka, Minn., said seeing the boats in person makes her wish she learned more about them before attending the festival.
“I just wish I read more about the history before I got here,” she said. “I’d like to learn more about the ships that are actually coming through.”
The nine ships taking part in this year’s Tall Ships Duluth are:
Pride of Baltimore II, a 19th-century Baltimore clipper replica
El Galeón Andalucía, a replica of a Spanish galleon
U.S. Brig Niagara, a replica of a War of 1812 vessel
Mist of Avalon, a replica of a 19th-century Grand Banks schooner
When and If, Gen. George S. Patton’s personal schooner
S/V Denis Sullivan, a replica of a 19th-century Great Lakes schooner
Appledore V, a gaff-rigged topsail schooner
Zeeto, a replica of an 1850s fishing schooner
Abbey Road, a modern-day schooner used to teach sailing to kids.
In addition to the tall ships, the World’s Largest Rubber Duck, a 61-foot-tall inflatable creation, is on display at Bayfront Festival Park.
Gates are open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. today through Sunday. Single-day and multi-day tickets to view the ships remain available, in addition to options for on-ship tours or a combination ticket with other Duluth attractions. Tickets can be purchased at the gate or in advance online at tallshipsduluth.com.
Duluth police said drivers should expect congested traffic in Canal Park and the Bayfront area through the weekend. People heading to the festival should allow for extra time, and consider parking downtown and walking to the festival grounds.
For more information about Tall Ships Duluth, including a schedule of events, go to tallshipsduluth.com.
Written by Lisa Kaczke and Kim Schneider as published in the Duluth News Tribune