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St. Petersburg parade of ships lands 'Eagle'

By JON WILSON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 2, 2002

ST. PETERSBURG -- It's considered a coup.

With a little boost from Rep. C.W. Bill Young, the Eagle, a three-masted Coast Guard training vessel with a rich history, will join St. Petersburg's tall ships festival on the waterfront later this month.

"It's a great thing for this festival. It's a magnificent ship," said Don Shea, the festival's general chairman.

The addition of the 295-foot square-rigger brings to eight the number of classically designed sailing ships expected June 26-30 for the city's first maritime festival, called Americas' Sail St. Petersburg.

The extravaganza will include ship tours, exhibits, merchandise, crafts, an international food court, music, strolling pirates, airplane rides for youngsters and flyovers, among other elements. It is expected to attract thousands during what is usually a slow period on the downtown waterfront.

The event has come together quickly. Shea, a nonprofit organization called St. Petersburg Events, and a coalition of businesses, government and seafaring enthusiasts have been working about 4 1/2 months on a project that normally might take a year.

"It's really amazing to me. I have to keep pinching myself. I've actually lost about nine pounds," said Shea, who also is the director of the Downtown Development Partnership, a business group.

The tall ships -- so named because of their towering masts -- are expected June 26. They will anchor near Egmont Key to go through customs and immigration .

On June 27, starting at 10 a.m., the Eagle and its complement of 12 officers, 38 crew and perhaps 150 cadets will lead a nautical parade. All the ships will sail from the Sunshine Skyway along the waterfront, passing the Pier twice before heading for the Port of St. Petersburg docks. Descriptions of the ships will be called out for spectators, who will be able to watch free from several locations.

A huge fleet of privately owned boats, both motor and sail, is expected to escort the ships, which will be open for tours during the festival.

Boarding passes are part of an advance $18 adult ticket package that includes admission to the festival, a commemorative publication and discounts. The on-site price will be $20. Adult tickets for festival admission only are $8, $10 on-site.

The festival celebrates the "prize leg" of a tall ships race from Curacao, just north of Venezuela, to Jamaica, which begins June 14. Americas' Sail puts on the races periodically to spark interest in maritime history. Awards will be presented at a black-tie ball at the Don CeSar Beach Resort and Spa.

Originally, the tall ships were bound from Jamaica straight to Mobile, Ala., for the city's tricentennial celebration. That trip made St. Petersburg a convenient interim stop.

The Eagle is a late addition. It was scheduled to be in the Gulf of Mexico on a training mission during the festival, and St. Petersburg was not a port of call. But Young, R-Largo, talked with Coast Guard officials and the Eagle's participation was confirmed late last week.

Word of the possibility started getting around at least a week earlier. Eric Carlson, the Downtown Partnership's transportation director, was in New York and on the Empire State Building's 86th floor when he spied four men in uniform with Eagle insignia. Carlson introduced himself and mentioned the festival.

"They were kind of looking at each other and said, "Aren't we going to St. Petersburg?' " Carlson said.

The Eagle, whose home port is on the Thames River in New London, Conn., is the seventh U.S. Coast Guard cutter to bear the name since 1792. According to its Web site, it was built in 1936 by a German company in Hamburg, where it was christened Horst Wessel.

The United States took it as a World War II prize. With its German crew helping, Coast Guardsmen sailed the ship from Bremerhaven, West Germany, to New London in 1946.

It's now used as a training vessel for cadets, who must learn how to handle 22,000 square feet of sail, five miles of rigging and more than 200 lines that control the sails.

A sister ship is the Mircea, built in Germany at the same time as the Eagle. It sails under the Romanian flag and also is expected for the festival.

Shea is bound this week for Curacao, where he plans to get acquainted with the ships and their captains and crews. Several events are planned to honor the sailors in St. Petersburg.

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