The Tall Ships may be majestic. But bringing them here can be a headache

Deckhand Aaron Funk worked on the Spirit of South Carolina docked in Salem Harbor in Salem Wednesday.
Deckhand Aaron Funk worked on the Spirit of South Carolina docked in Salem Harbor in Salem Wednesday.(Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)

The Grand Parade of Sail that will grace Boston Harbor on Saturday promises to be a visual delight, a slow, majestic procession of 54 vessels from around the world that pays homage to the city's rich maritime heritage.

But what a headache to get them here.

“There were a few egos involved,” said Dusty Rhodes, the big-event impresario who organized Sail Boston 2017. “Each ship has to be requested, cajoled, begged — whether it’s a foreign navy or a maritime foundation or nonprofit ownership.”

Securing commitments for some foreign vessels required serious money, and the negotiations weren’t helped by the rhetoric against refugees and immigrants that marked the presidential campaign, one Sail Boston official said.


Still, here they are, five painstaking years after the process started. That’s nearly as long as it took to fulfill President John F. Kennedy’s pledge to land a man on the moon.

“There are so many loose ends to be tied up,” Rhodes said.

Tall Ships are in big demand, and their sailing routines differ. Some belong to national navies; others are floating classrooms. Collecting the boats in one place is a logistical challenge of colossal proportions that the average landlubber does not appreciate.

“There is a lot more competition for them,” said Rhodes, president of Conventures, the company that staged Boston’s Tall Ships events in 1992, 2000, and 2009.

About 20 foreign vessels, including ships from Chile, Germany, Malta, and even the Cook Islands in the Pacific, will be part of the festivities.

David Choate, chief operating officer at Conventures, said Boston is an easy sell, compared with many other ports. It has an attachment to the sea, a downtown-accessible harbor, and a track record of massive crowds and hospitality during Tall Ships events.

But some vessels must be paid “appearance fees” from $25,000 to $75,000, said Rhodes, who would not identify the seagoing divas with price tags. Then there are the land-based costs of putting on the show for an estimated 3 million spectators over five days.


Sail Boston Inc., a nonprofit organization, is spending $2.9 million to produce the event, which is being managed by Conventures.

“You have to unlock the doors in the right order — you’ve got 61 agencies” involved, Rhodes said. “If we were in Phoenix, it might be up to the State Police or city police. I say this with kindness and appreciation, but we have agency after agency of oversight.”

For example, Rhodes said, four permits might be needed simply to put up a tent in East Boston — including for the food, for propane to heat the food, and to close the road.

“Unlike many, many cities around the country, because of our 400-year history we have a lot of bosses,” Rhodes said.

The helm of the Spirit of South Carolina docked in Salem Harbor in Salem Wednesday.
The helm of the Spirit of South Carolina docked in Salem Harbor in Salem Wednesday.(Craig F. Walker/Globe staff)

An unanticipated complication this year was the often-heated campaign debate about refugees and illegal immigrants, said one member of the Sail Boston board, who asked not to be identified.

“Signals” of concern reached some organizers from overseas, the board member said. Those worries set in motion a flurry of quiet diplomacy and soothing reassurances that Boston remained a welcoming and enthusiastic host.

Choate, who is the parade marshal, said politics didn’t come up when he courted foreign vessels. Most concerns involved scheduling and how to navigate that nautical numbers game. To help make it work, the Massachusetts congressional delegation and local officials reached out to foreign embassies, including their naval attaches. The soft persuasion paid off, organizers said.


“The average person doesn’t understand that there is a high level of diplomacy involved in this,” said Pat Moscaritolo, president of the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau. “The ships just don’t appear on the horizon and come in. There is a lot of back-and-forth.”

Deckhand Zach Harrington tightened the lazy jacks on the Spirit of South Carolina.
Deckhand Zach Harrington tightened the lazy jacks on the Spirit of South Carolina. (Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)

As a result, 2,000 sailors from around the globe will be wading into Boston’s bars, restaurants, and clubs over the next week. Jan Miles, who captains the schooner Pride of Baltimore II, is excited to talk sailing and wooden ships with like-minded mariners.

“It’s a wonderful experience to mingle with the people who actually sail these vessels, and then there’s the commitment to sharing knowledge with the general public,” said Miles, whose 157-foot vessel spent Wednesday in Salem Harbor.

Moscaritolo said Sail Boston is expected to inject $120 million into the local economy and that the ripple effects should last for years. “Here we are with this really unique opportunity to tell the world America is open and Boston is one of the most welcoming destinations on the planet,” he said.

Sail Boston has encountered some rough seas in the past.

In 2009, then-Mayor Thomas M. Menino threatened to scuttle the Tall Ships event unless he got upfront pledges to cover public-safety costs. He was still fuming over a dispute from the 2000 event, when the city was left with a $1.6 million security bill that Menino said the state had agreed to pay.


Today, organizers said, all stakeholders are aware of their obligations. The federal government is picking up some of the security costs.

Still, Choate won’t relax until all the boats are tied up and secure after the Grand Parade, he said.

It’s part of a details-inundated job in which he even has figured out the exact latitude and longitude where the ships will gather before the procession.

For the Eagle, the Coast Guard’s Tall Ship, it’s 42-23’-30’’ latitude, 70-52’-22” longitude.

Miles, the Pride of Baltimore skipper, understands why the sight of so many sails is expected to draw millions to Boston.

“There is a mystery about sailing away and going over the horizon,” Miles said. “Even in this modern era, it’s still representative of going beyond.”

Brian MacQuarrie
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