A seven-ship salute
By JON WILSON, Times Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG -- The first one glided quietly under the Sunshine Skyway shortly after 8 a.m, its sails down and its hull gleaming white.
Stretching nearly the length of a football field, the Brazilian navy ship arrived in St. Petersburg's harbor Saturday as a tantalizing glimpse of a seafaring show to come.
Thursday, the 295-foot U.S. Coast Guard trainer Eagle, followed by the Cisne Branco, will lead five other classically designed sailing vessels into the harbor. The arrival will kick off a four-day maritime festival that will salute centuries of seagoing tradition in Tampa Bay. Shipboard cannons will blast as the flotilla cruises the downtown waterfront during a special parade of sailing ships.
The festival is expected to draw tens of thousands to St. Petersburg's waterfront.
At the port on Saturday, Sharon McMurry was among the first to check out the Cisne Branco after it docked. McMurry and her husband, who live in Dallas and store their 42-foot sailboat in St. Petersburg, said they timed their visit around Americas' Sail 2002.
"It's a draw for us because we're sailors, and it's part of the history of sailing," McMurry said Saturday as she watched the crew of the Cisne Branco clean the ship. "Everyone we know is excited about it, but everyone we know is into sailing."
Bernardo Jose Pierantoni Gamboa, captain of the Cisne Branco, said his crew will spend the week preparing the ship and make time to explore the Tampa Bay area and the Pinellas beaches. Then it will head back out to Egmont Key to join the other ships in Thursday's sail parade.
"We are here to show our flag and show our friendship," the captain said.
In years past, thousands of spectators would gather to watch graceful Southern Ocean Racing Conference yachts maneuver before starts of races from St. Petersburg to such ports as Fort Lauderdale and Havana.
But those were a different breed of boat, many set up specifically to race, and race well.
Coming from as far away as Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and Cape Cod, Mass., this week's visiting vessels form an eclectic squadron, including the military ships, a pirate schooner and one that looks like a Chinese junk. They will dock in Bayboro Harbor after the sail parade, which launches the festival.
Among the five privately owned ships are the Meka II, skippered by pirate impersonator Horatio Sinbad -- his legal name, by the way -- and the Wolf, billed as the flagship of the Conch Republic in Key West.
Some of the boats represent millions of dollars of owner investment. One, the 120-foot Insulinde from Curacao, recently had a $3.5-million mast system installed, said Don Shea, the festival's general chairman.
On its Web site, the Compass Rose, a 55-foot schooner, is offered for sale for a relatively modest $335,000.
The ships will be the feature attractions at Americas' Sail 2002, which is open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday through Sunday at the Port of St. Petersburg, 250 Eighth Ave. SE.
Nautical exhibits, entertainment, vendors and food booths also will set up at the port and at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg next door.
Tickets are $8 in advance, $10 on site. An $18 ticket ($20 on site) buys tours of the ships. However, touring the Eagle is free and requires no festival ticket.
This is the third in a series of festivals put on every four years by Americas' Sail, an organization of maritime enthusiasts based in Glen Cove, N.Y. St. Petersburg's part of the event is coming together after just six months of planning.
"When you look at what they had to do, it's just mind-boggling," said D. Douglas Brown, Americas' Sail executive vice president. St. Petersburg Events, a nonprofit organization formed for the festival, is the organizer. More than 200 community volunteers are doing much of the work.
Curacao and Jamaica, where some of the ships raced before heading here, had four years to plan their festivals earlier this month, Brown said. St. Petersburg took on the challenge when plans in Tampa didn't pan out.
The event here is the "prize leg" of the Caribbean Sea races held this month. Americas' Sail will present awards at a black-tie ball Saturday at the Don CeSar Beach Resort and Spa.
The St. Petersburg government is providing support and some free backup services. But it is not financing the $750,000 event, which has more than 50 sponsors. Many are downtown businesses, including the St. Petersburg Times, which is donating advertising space.
But there is no title sponsor. That's not a big deal, say organizers and others who have put on large events.
"I don't think having a name sponsor is the end-all, be-all," said city marketing director Anita Treiser, noting the event has several "cash partners" that have chipped in more than $25,000.
St. Petersburg, Brown said, "is a perfect fit" for the ships before they sail for a tricentennial celebration in Mobile, Ala.
Nautical history bathes the area. Spanish explorers landed here in the 16th century, historians say. Records suggest genuine pirates prowled in the 1820s. Still later, high-masted ships hauling passengers and freight docked in the emerging towns of St. Petersburg, Tampa, Clearwater and Disston City, eventually named Gulfport.
Capt. James McKay, running his Scottish Chief out of Tampa, slipped past the Union's Civil War blockades. And a 169-foot wooden replica of HMS Bounty, built for the movie Mutiny on the Bounty, was moored on St. Petersburg's pier approach for years.
Capt. Steve Cropper, chairman of the Tampa Bay Pilots Association, whose members guide big vessels to port, recalled his experience a few years ago aboard a Spanish vessel 370 feet long.
The Juan Sebastian de Elcano unfurled its canvas as it sailed away from Egmont Key, using separate sets of whistles to signal each sail movement on each of four masts.
"It was an absolute eerie experience," said Cropper, whose organization will pilot the festival boats for free.
Organizers in St. Petersburg say they expect up to 100,000 people to see the sail parade and visit the festival. It sounds like a lot, but events such as the Mainsail Arts Festival have drawn 50,000 during two days; and the X Games Trials held here four years ago drew about 75,000 over three days, Treiser said.
Weather will be an important factor because it will affect ticket sales.
As of Saturday, no tropical storms were brewing that could threaten. Forecasts call for typically hot days with the usual chance of summer thunderstorms late this week, according to the National Weather Service.
-- Times staff writer Amy Wimmer contributed to this report.
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