On June 30, 2005, sailing vessels from around the world enter Commencement Bay in a Parade of Sail that kicks off Tacoma's first Tall Ships Festival. For the next five days, 29 tall ships, highlighted by the 356-foot full-rigged ship Pallada from Russia and the 270-foot Mexican barque Cuauhtemoc, line the city's Thea Foss Waterway where huge crowds gather to view and tour them. Tacoma is one of eight West Coast ports visited by the tall ships in conjunction with the Tall Ships Challenge, a race starting in Japan and concluding in Victoria, British Columbia. The organizer, the American Sail Training Association, will later recognize Tacoma as the Tall Ships Port of the Year for its enthusiastic reception of the ships, and the Tall Ships will return to Tacoma in July 2008.
The forest of masts lining Thea Foss Waterway during the first five days of July 2005 kindled memories of an era more than a century earlier when Tacoma was booming and Commencement Bay was crowded with tall ships from around the world. It was Tacoma's natural deep water harbor, along with the tall trees that covered the surrounding hills, that drew the first non-Indian settlers to Commencement Bay in the 1850s. Sailing vessels shipped lumber to California, and within a few decades, large fleets of tall ships carried lumber, wheat, and coal from Tacoma to ports up and down the West Coast, across the Pacific to Asia, and around the Horn to the East Coast, while others brought tea, rice, and other goods from Asia to be shipped across the United States from Tacoma by train.
By the time voters created the public Port of Tacoma in 1918, sailing ships had largely given way to steamships, which would soon be replaced by oil-powered vessels. But tall ships remained popular tourist attractions throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. In 1933, the then-136-year-old USS Constitution ("Old Ironsides") highlighted the annual Tacoma Fleet Week. By the 1970s, growing interest in tall ships led to the construction of replicas of historic ships, such as Sir Francis Drake's Golden Hind and the Hudson's Bay Company's Nonsuch, which like Old Ironsides attracted crowds when they visited Tacoma. The historic replicas included the Grays Harbor-based Lady Washington, whose original was once captained by early Northwest Coast explorer Robert Gray (1755-1806) and which later became the first American ship to visit Japan.
Preparing a Welcome
The Lady Washington and several other smaller sailing vessels visited Tacoma in 2002, when the American Sail Training Association (ASTA), based in Newport, Rhode Island, first brought the Tall Ships to the West Coast, but Seattle was the Puget Sound host port for the 2002 festival. By early 2003, officials from the Port of Tacoma, the City of Tacoma, the Visitors and Convention Bureau, the Tacoma Economic Development Council, and other organizations were at work on plans to have Tacoma host the Tall Ships' next visit to the West Coast in 2005.
Clare Petrich, who in 1995 became the first woman elected to serve as a Port of Tacoma commissioner, was a driving force behind the effort and ended up chairing Tacoma's 2005 festival. ASTA awarded the 2005 event to Tacoma in August 2003. The Port became one of the leading corporate sponsors of the Tall Ships festival, which was also supported by many other waterfront and tideflats businesses as well as downtown merchants.
The Tacoma Events Commission, headed by Doug Miller, a former Tacoma City Councilor, organized the festival. Organizers faced major challenges over the next two years. They had to raise millions of dollars in cash and in-kind contributions, make deals for each of the ships that would attend, build moorage for the larger ships, negotiate with the Coast Guard for required permits and with the city over payment for services needed during the festival, and sign up thousands of volunteers to work the festival.
The 2,300 volunteers who made the festival possible included more than 80 longshore workers from International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 23, the union that handles all longshore work at the Port of Tacoma. For the volunteer workers who tied up the tall ships, the work recalled the origins of Tacoma's earliest longshore unions in the 1880s, during the heyday of sail. One noted, "The Longshore hall is lined with photos of old ships. These ships are just a throwback for us" (Kearsley).
Parade of Sail
The work of organizers and volunteers began paying off on June 30, 2005, when huge crowds lined the waterfront to greet the Tall Ships as they arrived. The Parade of Sail kicked off around 1:00 p.m. as 25 vessels led by the R. Tucker Thompson, a 60-foot schooner from New Zealand, sailed from Vashon Island's Quartermaster Harbor toward Point Defiance. Some 125,000 to 200,000 people watched from shore, and thousands more watched from more than 3,000 private boats, as the ships turned down Tacoma's Ruston Way waterfront into Commencement Bay to their moorage along Thea Foss Waterway.
Many ships, including the Lady Washington making a return visit, drew applause. The loudest cheers went to the two largest ships: Russia's 356-foot Pallada and Mexico's 270-foot Cuauhtemoc. Long cedar canoes from the Puyallup Nation greeted the tall ships with a traditional welcoming ceremony.
Over the next five days, crowds waited in long lines for free tours of the tall ships. Smaller numbers paid for short cruises on some of the vessels. Estimates varied considerably, but by the time the tall ships sailed for their next destination on July 5, the festival was believed to have drawn at least 825,000 visitors and perhaps as many as 1,375,000. Even the lower estimate was twice the attendance that had been predicted.
In November 2005, Tacoma's success hosting the festival was recognized when ASTA Executive Director Peter Mello presented the 2005 Tall Ship Port of the Year Award to festival chairwoman (and Port Commissioner) Clare Petrich. Tacoma won the honor over seven other West Coast ports that had also hosted the tall ships: Victoria, Vancouver, and Port Alberni in British Columbia, and San Diego, Los Angeles, Oxnard, and the Channel Islands in California.
Tacoma hosted the Tall Ships again from July 3 to 7, 2008.