Tall Ship Celebration sails into Bay City this July

It’s safe to say that each of the 11 ships participating in this summer’s Bay City Tall Ship Celebration has a unique history, but perhaps none more than the Pride of Baltimore II.

The latter, a topsail schooner that has appeared in every Bay City Tall Ship festival since 2001, has a rich tradition that combines elements of America’s beginnings, tragedy, and a new start that resembles a mythical Phoenix rising from the ashes.

Those attending this year’s Tall Ship Celebration, which takes place from July 18-21 in downtown Bay City, have the opportunity to sample some of that history while greeting a ship that’s become a Great Lakes Bay Region favorite.

“It’s not only a beautiful ship, but it has a beautiful history,” said Shirley Roberts, the executive director of Bay Sail and the Tall Ship event. “We love having them here.”

Pride of Baltimore II's captain, Jan Miles.

Roberts said the Pride of Baltimore II has built a loyal following in Bay City, and the ship’s captain, Jan Miles, said he and his crew look forward to re-connecting with festival organizers, volunteers, and old friends.

“There has always been a lot of respect between us and Bay City,” Miles said. “But Bay City, from the very beginning, has been very diligent in respecting the realities of these vessels and very conscientious in how they accommodate them.”

Miles became the Pride of Baltimore II’s skipper in 1988 after the ship was built in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. The original Pride of Baltimore was struck by a sudden, violent squall in May 1986 and sank in the Atlantic Ocean 250 miles from Puerto Rico. The ship’s captain and three crew members died in the tragic accident, sending a city and its sailing community into mourning.

Miles, who’d been a partner captain on the Pride of Baltimore I (but wasn’t on the ship during the ’86 tragedy in which eight crew members survived), said there was little talk of building a new boat – at first.

This year’s Tall Ship Celebration takes place from July 18-21 in downtown Bay City.

“There was no anticipation of building another boat,” Miles said. “But in the hundreds of notes and other correspondence we received in the aftermath, a lot of people urged us to consider it.

“From there, public sentiment grew very strong and the idea gained a lot of momentum.”

The Pride of Baltimore II was commissioned in 1988 and has since visited 200 ports in 40 countries. It will visit ports in Bay City, Toronto, Wisconsin, Ohio, and New York during this summer’s Tall Ship Challenge.

The 157-foot Pride of Baltimore II is modeled after a type of vessel known as a Baltimore Clipper, although it’s not a replica because it’s built to meet contemporary standards for seaworthiness.

The original Pride of Baltimore was commissioned in 1977 and sailed over 150,000 nautical miles in its brief history. But the name itself dates even further back; it was the nickname of the Chasseur, a Baltimore-built topsail schooner that helped win the War of 1812.

Miles’ 12-person crew includes full-time members as well as people who sign on for certain legs of the Tall Ship Challenge tour and often perform duties similar to regular crew members. He said sailing the Great Lakes is a joy and a challenge.

“One thing about the Great Lakes is that you can be in the middle of the lake and out of sight of land, but that doesn’t mean you have plenty of room,” he said. “Land can be out of sight but it’s only 14 miles away, so there’s a sharpening of awareness when compared to sailing on larger bodies of water.

The Pride of Baltimore II in Bay City in 2016.

“When weather pops up, there’s always the question of how much room do you actually have to maneuver?”

Miles said he and his crew also appreciate sailing in fresh water because it’s a nice break from their typical seawater voyages.

“On the East Coast, we’re used to being caked in salt from head to toe. Sailing in freshwater is like taking a shower,” he said with a laugh.

He also appreciates how Bay City welcomes the Pride of Baltimore II and her crew as well as the event’s attention to detail.

“We’re like little islands of society when we’re underway,” he said. “Each crew member has specific needs, and Bay City does a great job of understanding that we need some help and assistance along the way.

“When you have that kind of diligence and an understanding that our vessels can do a lot of things, but not everything, it makes a big difference.”

Roberts, the executive director of Bay City’s six previous Tall Ship festivals as well, said the Pride of Baltimore II combines history and beauty like few other vessels.

“We’ve invited boats because they’re beautiful or because they have in incredible story,” she said. “The Pride of Baltimore has both.”

Roberts anticipates another large crowd for this year’s event, which drew an estimated 100,000 spectators to the region in 2016.

“I’m not sure if we’ll see a crowd quite as we did in 2016,” Roberts said, “but we anticipate a significant turnout this year.”

Pride of Baltimore II at home in Baltimore.

The 2016 event also featured the Draken Harald Harfagre, the world’s tallest Viking ship, which decided at the last minute to sail into Bay City after originally declining because of high waterway fees unrelated to the event.

For Roberts, her staff, and a small army of volunteers, every Tall Ship Celebration creates new challenges and the 2019 event is no exception.

“One issue that we’re grappling with now is the level of the waterways,” she said. “When we first started this event in 2001 we worried that the water levels were too low. Our concern now is that they’re too high and that can present some challenges.”

Roberts said high water is a concern because of a major power line at the mouth of the Saginaw River. As water levels rise, the distance between the water and the powerline decreases – which can pose obvious problems for the Tall Ships and their high masts.

Bay City’s Tall Ship Celebration has, in many ways, coincided with the growth and development of Bay City’s downtown.

“I do think there’s a connection to some degree,” said Roberts. “Prior to 2000 there wasn’t a lot of positive news about this community but I think, first, bringing a tall ship (the Appledore I) to our community, which is very rare, and then to hold a high-class event like the Tall Ship Celebration, helped people to see us in a different light.”

The first tall ships are expected to arrive in Bay City before noon on Thursday, July 18. The festival officially opens to the public at 10:00 a.m. on Friday, July 19 and closes at 5:00 p.m. on Sunday, July 21. Click here for a complete list of events.

Among the ships joining this year’s festival is the Santa Maria, a Spanish-built replica of Christopher Columbus’ flagship making its first voyage on the Great Lakes. Also, the Bluenose II, Nova Scotia’s 143-foot tall ship, returns to Bay City for the first time since 2001.

Michigan Sugar Company is the presenting sponsor for this year’s event.

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