For a few hours on Saturday, it was once again the Age of Sail in Boston.
The first masts to poke through the fog belonged to the 295-foot Coast Guard cutter Eagle. Flanked by fireboats spraying arcs of water in the air and trailing an enormous US flag, the ship rounded Deer Island with every sail set. Behind the Eagle, more bright white canvas forms and rigging soon appeared in the mist, an eerie and magnificent flotilla of 54 Tall Ships from around the world riding the wind into Boston Harbor.
This was the pinnacle of Sail Boston, a six-day celebration of the city’s long history as a center of maritime commerce and shipbuilding. The event was organized to coincide with the arrival of vessels participating in the Rendez-Vous 2017 Tall Ships Regatta, a five-month trans-Atlantic sailing race that doubles as a public showcase of the impressive vessels.
Thousands of spectators — some on their own pleasure boats and many more lining the shores of Castle Island, East Boston, and other spots around the harbor — clapped and cheered loudly as the ships came into view and fired cannons in salute. Among them were families who had traveled from other states just to witness the spectacle, which also included a flyover by Navy F/A-18 Hornet jets.
The arrival of the Tall Ships was delayed by nearly two hours because of safety concerns over the early morning’s thick fog, which later thinned. But if the gray skies slightly reduced attendance at the event, they did little to dampen enthusiasm once it got underway.
“This is the spirit of Boston,” declared Apranta Patel, a 35-year-old Braintree resident, as she sized up the passing ships and the large, diverse crowd filling Castle Island. “That there’s so many people here is really amazing. . . . Boston is an excellent harbor for them to arrive in.”
Patel wasn’t the only attendee to pick up on the event’s theme of international cooperation.
Several politicians speaking aboard a Navy ship as the parade got underway lauded the symbolism of dozens of vessels flying different national flags, gathering in one place to share in a mutual passion for the sea.
In the past, “it was the ocean that took people from one place to another and brought the world closer together,” Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker said. “The countries represented [in] this parade [are] a reminder that we are, in fact, one world.”
Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh echoed those comments, telling the crowd on board that Sail Boston would help people “understand that we truly are a global world.”
The Eagle, a white, three-masted steel barque seized from Nazi Germany after World War II and now used to train sailors, was the largest US vessel in the procession. It drew a particularly enthusiastic reaction, with spectators jumping onto their chairs or peering through binoculars for a better of view of the ship’s 22,000-plus square feet of sails.
The Guayas, a 257-foot Ecuadoran vessel, also drew cheers — and gasps — when its crew climbed rope ladders to stand stoically in formation atop the ships’ yards, the horizontal beams that support its sails.
At Piers Park in East Boston, 55-year-old neighborhood resident Sue Mundell said she was transfixed by the quiet way the large ships slipped into the harbor.
“They’re so majestic,” she said. “It’s such a contrast to today’s society, where everything is so fast and loud.”
Across the harbor on the Boston Fish Pier, 78-year-old Lynn resident Tony Ramirez said the sight of the ships brought back memories of his childhood home near the ocean in Puerto Rico. A veteran who once traveled extensively overseas, Ramirez said Sail Boston made him feel young again.
“This is beautiful, this is incredible,” he said, beaming. “I love this city.”
Following the parade, each vessel pulled into assigned docks along the Boston waterfront — at the Fish Pier, the World Trade Center pier, Rowes Wharf, and Charlestown Navy Yard. Visitors can board and tour the ships Sunday. Sail Boston Inc., a nonprofit organization, expected to spend $2.9 million to produce the event, which is being managed by Conventures.
State Police said there were no serious incidents or arrests in connection with the event. Earlier in the week, federal security officials had said Sail Boston would be one of the highest-risk types of events in the country this year. Accordingly, security around the harbor was extremely tight Saturday.
Large numbers of Boston police officers and State Police troopers were stationed at key points on both sides of the harbor, with authorities searching the bags of anyone entering official viewing areas. Police drones hovered overhead to keep watch, while large city dump trucks blocked off roads near the water that were crowded with spectators. Such trucks could prevent deadly vehicle-ramming attacks of the sort seen recently in European cities.
Residents and visitors said they felt reassured by the large contingent of law enforcement officers.
“The higher the security, the better,” said East Boston resident Irina Zinovyeva, 38, who watched the event from Piers Park with her son. “It gives you the feeling there’s less chance something will happen.”
Still, she said, because of the federal designation and recent terrorist attacks elsewhere, “it crossed my mind, do I still want to bring my family?”
For many visitors, Saturday was not their first time seeing the Tall Ships, which have visited the city before, for the 1976 bicentennial and in 2000.
Jerry Leonard, an octogenarian from Boston’s West End, said he watched the Tall Ships parade in 1976 and felt compelled to come see it again, despite the clouds.
“The parade is majestic,” he said. “The weather is fine. This is the highlight of the year.”
Miroslaw Pasiewicz, 58, of South Boston, attended the event in 2000, when he had just moved to Boston from Poland. Saturday’s event, he said, prompted him to reflect on his own journey and on how the city has changed.
“I remember everyone was coming to Boston,” he recalled. “It became, more and more, a world city.”
“Seeing the ships again, I see the melting pot that’s here,” Pasiewicz said. “Despite all the politics currently, it’s being renewed, and this event reminds me of that.”