On July 3, 2008, more than two dozen Tall Ships -- among them topsail schooners, brigantines, and gaff-rigged schooners -- sail from Quartermaster Harbor on Vashon Island into Commencement Bay for the second Tall Ships festival in Tacoma, which lasts through July 7. The festival is part of the Tall Ships Challenge on the Pacific Coast, an event put on by the American Sail Training Association (ASTA) in which the ships race between ports beginning in Victoria, British Columbia, and ending in San Diego, California. During the Tacoma festival, a crowd of 400,000 visits the grounds on the Port of Tacoma's Thea Foss Waterway, touring the traditionally rigged ships, watching mock pirate battles in the harbor, and wandering through the nautical-themed villages on shore. The many festival sponsors include State Farm, the City of Tacoma, and the Port of Tacoma. The first Tacoma Tall Ships festival was held in June and July 2005, and there are hopes for yet a third return in 2011.
Miles to Go
The 31 ships that took part in Tacoma's 2008 Tall Ships festival were large and not-so-small, from near and far. The 83-foot topsail schooner Amazing Grace, built in 1991, hails from Gig Harbor, just around the corner from Tacoma, while the giant 295-foot CGC Eagle, a three-masted barque, has its home port in New London, Connecticut. The Eagle, German-built in 1936 and commissioned into the U.S. Coast Guard in 1946, is the only active sailing vessel in the Coast Guard. It has 21,350 square feet of sail and more than five miles of rigging.
Movie-star ships were also a draw at the Tacoma festival. The square-rigged Nina, a replica of Christopher Columbus's fifteenth-century ship, starred in the movie 1492. The HMS Bounty was built in 1960 for the movie Mutiny on the Bounty, starring Marlon Brando; more recently moviegoers saw the Bounty in the 2006 feature Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. (In October 2012 the Bounty sank off North Carolina, with the loss of its captain and a crewmember, following an unsuccessful effort to sail around the massive Hurricane Sandy.)
The Lady Washington, the Hawaiian Chieftain, the Lynx, and the Amazing Grace livened up the festival with booming mock battles in Commencement Bay three times daily. Pirates and privateers packed gun powder into cannons and vied for the biggest bang. After one round, Lady Washington's gunner Sam Riggs told the Tacoma News Tribune, "I thought the boiler blew up. You could feel the concussion coming through the hull" (Merryman, "Explosives").
The Tacoma Tall Ships festival was not only visited by thousands -- it was made possible by thousands more. Though organizers had hoped for 4,000 volunteers, the 2,000 recruited were able to fill the 10,000 actual shifts needed to run the five-day event.
Site preparations were thanks to hundreds of union members from a laundry list of trades: asbestos workers, boilermakers, bricklayers, cement masons, elevator constructors, glaziers, ironworkers, painters, laborers, millwrights, operating engineers, pile drivers, plasterers, roofers, sheet metal workers, sprinkler fitters, and Teamsters.
Union plumbers laid nearly 4,000 feet of pipe for handwashing stations and pumping sewage from the docked ships. And workers from the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union Local 23 handled moorage duties.
The Past or the Future?
Though the 2008 festival crowds were estimated at 400,000 visitors -- down from the 700,000 in 2005 -- Tacoma organizers were hopeful for a 2011 repeat. Jonathan Harley of ASTA, which organizes the Tall Ships Challenge races, told the Tacoma News Tribune that the 2008 event "far surpasses what [the organizers] did in 2005" (Hagey and Fontaine).
In their nineteenth-century heyday, sailing ships carried all manner of goods -- lumber, wheat, coal, tea -- up and down the West Coast, around Cape Horn to the East Coast, and across the Pacific to Asia. Some think there may be a commercial use for sailing ships again, long since rendered obsolete by oil-powered vessels. Rising oil prices in 2008 prompted a French shipping company to transport 30,000 bottles of wine to Ireland on the 108-year-old Kathleen & May, which last saw cargo in 1960.
Such a resurgence would take skill and crewmembers -- the U.S. Coast Guard's Eagle that wowed visitors to Tacoma's Tall Ships festival in 2008 has a permanent crew of 61 that maintains the ship and manipulates the 200 lines needed to maneuver the massive vessel.