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  • Mike

The Tall Ships celebration in Bay City, Michigan. (Part 1, watching the ships arrive.)

Every three years in the city of Bay City, Michigan, a very special nautical event happens. "Tall ships," are defined as large, traditionally-rigged sailing vessels . Every three years Bay City is host to the Tall Ship Celebration. This year the celebration happened from July 18th-21st. Bay City is also a host port for the TALL SHIPS CHALLENGE® which is a series of races across the Great Lakes in which these tall ships compete.

On the 17th of July, a day before the event started, I stood with my camera and tripod among a large crowd on the wooden deck of the Third Street Bridge Memorial in downtown bay City. Everyone was eagerly looking down the Saginaw River as far as they could see until a bend in the river blocked their view. It was 1:00 PM and the boats were scheduled to arrive at 2:00 in order to beat the storm. Several people chatted with me as we waited. I could tell how excited everyone was. Questions like "Does anyone know when the ships are going to get here?" Kept echoing through the crowd. I had on good authority that the ships would start arriving at two because of an impending storm in the bay, however many people gave contradictory times covering a wide range. No one knew for sure when the first ship was to arrive, and that only added to the excitement. Even though it was overcast and threatening to drench the crowd with a peppering of rain drops, the crowd only grew thicker as more people came to stand as far out into the water as they could on the wooden pier.

Just after 1:30 the first boat that looked like it might belong to the sailing fleet arrived. It wasn't a sailing ship, but it looked official. Shortly thereafter the crowd began to gasp and people began shouting something about the bridge.

Less than 20 minutes before the first ship was to arrive the east span of the Liberty Bridge, which had been stuck open for almost a month, began to lower. There was a steady stream of small pleasure craft flowing through the channel, almost as if they were a parade leading the first ship in , and they could easily fit under the bridge. But everyone knew that the bridge was broken, and I've seen that bridge move before, it wasn't supposed to move that slow. Fear grew in the crowd, everyone knew that if that bridge got stuck again there would be no tall ships.

The bridge eventually began to raise very slowly at 1:47, everyone was anxious. At exactly 2:02 PM on July 18th, the first sailing ship appeared around the bend. Oh the crowd was excited, there was a sort of sickening race on between the now raising bridge, and the ship that would need to thread the needle between the spans. That ship, the USS Niagra, would slide between the spans of the Liberty bridge as the east span was still opening.

Note that the bridge is still not vertical.

Once the Niagra was through she glided upstream and hovered in the center of the channel flying a colonial flag and Oliver Hazard Perry's personal battle flag which reads "DON'T GIVE UP THE SHIP" in white letters on a navy blue background.

It was beautiful and it would have been all the more graceful if not motoring under power with two diesel engines churning and sputtering away. The ship maintained speed to match the current of the river and slowly moved towards the dock. There was little time to watch this as the next ship was already approaching.

The S/V Denis Sullivan was already through the bridge and moving alongside the Niagra to take up position on the east side of the channel.

The two ships would then float side by side as the last ship in the batch of three coming at a time came upriver.

The beautiful NAO Santa Maria, a scale replica of the Santa Maria, looked so out of place in the river. However everyone around me was enthralled by this beautiful wooden boat. There were many remarks about how beautiful the ship was. It did indeed look good with it's giant Spanish flag and obvious anchor on the side.

The Dennis Sullivan arrived as I made my way down to the docks and I was able to catch her as she made her approach to her docking assignment. It was beautiful how these skilled crews were able to fight the wind and even use it to their advantage to ever so gently glide into their spots along the riverside. In the short time it took me to catch up to the ships, several had slipped by in another group of three.

Bringing up the end of the parade of visiting ships was the beautiful Pride of Baltimore. She sat in the center of the channel for a few minutes before firing off two of her cannons. A loud "Boom!" With a gut vibrating, deep shockwave was followed by a giant cloud of smoke being blown behind the ship. It was a very thematic end to the ships journeys.

It was also very interesting to see how many people had come down during work hours on a Friday to come see these ships simply dock. You couldn't even get close to the ships as a barricade along the dock was set up, however as you can see from this photo, quite a lot of people were spending the $10 fee just to get in and watch the ships dock.

Stay tuned for part two of this story of the tall ships visiting Bay City.

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