Harbor hustles to welcome ships
By ALICIA CALDWELL, Times Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG -- It has been a challenge, no question about it.
Organizers of Americas' Sail 2002 tall ship festival, scheduled to begin Thursday, have had six months to turn a small commercial port into a waterfront party place.
They're polishing, painting, spreading mulch and planting flowers. More than 900 feet of floating dock have been installed to accommodate the seven tall-masted ships that will tie up in Bayboro Harbor. They've planned for power and water, as well as waste disposal for the 300 people living aboard the ships during the four-day event.
And then there has been the massive law enforcement effort, by land and sea, that is necessary to secure the parade route, direct traffic and ensure visitor safety.
"I'll tell you, six months out, I had reservations," said Michael Perez, the St. Petersburg port director. "It's coming together. I'm confident now."
It is the first major public event for the port, which usually accommodates working tugboats and U.S. Coast Guard cutters.
"This is our new front door," said Jack Glasure, the president of St. Petersburg Events, the group formed to organize the festival along with the Downtown Partnership. "We want this to look good."
Looking good isn't the only challenge. Before the party begins, those who make their living on the seas will have to protect, guide, tug and steer the ships to their berths.
Boats from the U.S. Coast Guard, the Florida Marine Patrol, the St. Petersburg Police Department and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will be on patrol to ensure security and to make sure that pleasure boaters stay at least 500 yards away from the tall ships as they make their way to Bayboro Harbor, said Lt. j.g. Sara Platt, a Coast Guard spokesperson.
One of the ships arrived Saturday. The six others are to arrive Wednesday and go through customs near Egmont Key. The seven ships will regroup on Thursday, then sail into Tampa Bay for a parade.
Several Tampa Bay harbor pilots have volunteered their expertise in assisting the captains of the various ships in navigating the Egmont shipping channel. They'll get on the ships near the entrance to the channel to do a job many of them have been doing for decades.
The big difference, said Capt. Steve Cropper, is the sails. The channel is relatively narrow for ships operating by wind power.
"There's not a whole lot of leeway to work with," he said.
Depending upon the weather conditions, the ships may have to put down their sails and use motors for the voyage through the bay.
At the end of the trip, tugboats from Seabulk Towing, based in Tampa, will help the ships through the harbor to the docks.
"Once they slow down, they lose their mobility," said John Collins, the operations director for Seabulk. "That's where we come in."
The Tampa and the Canaveral, two tugboats that sport 6,000- and 3,600-horsepower engines, respectively, will gently push and pull the ships to their spots along the V-shaped dock fashioned for the event.
The larger of the sailing ships draws 18 feet of water, which means the bottom of the boat's hull is 18 feet beneath the surface. The harbor, which underwent a maintenance dredging project in 2000, is generally 24 feet deep, said Perez, the port director. About 51/2 feet of silt was removed from the harbor in that project.
By today's cruise ship standards, Perez said, the harbor isn't very deep, but there is plenty of water for the tall ships.
They will dock at the port and along temporary docks that workers installed next to the sea wall in Bayboro Harbor, near the intersection of Eighth Avenue S and First Street. The linear footage along the docks was more of a concern than the depth. As it is, the seven ships will be closely docked. It's a good thing there only seven, Perez said.
"It's pretty much all we can handle," he said. "We've measured and remeasured to make sure we can get all the boats in here. It's going to be tight."
Workers installed 920 feet of temporary dock to accommodate the seven ships. Cranes lowered the floating docks into the water last week. Those driving along Third Street S may be able to see the tops of the ships over the USF buildings.
The docks will be served by temporary electrical hookups fashioned by an Orlando company that did work on the 1996 summer Olympic games in Atlanta, Glasure said. A volunteer installed 400 to 500 feet of PVC pipe to carry water from the USF campus to the ships and to provide water for festival goers.
Glasure said the event would not have gotten this far without the help of hundreds of volunteers. And, despite the efforts, certain aspects of the event remain problematic.
Street parking is going to be very limited, said St. Petersburg Police Maj. Brian Stickney. Traffic approaching the port will be stopped at Sixth Avenue South. The majority of festivalgoers will have to use the shuttle bus system that organizers have devised.
That means a $5 daily parking fee at a downtown parking garage, a shuttle bus ride and then a walk. The walk from the and of the shuttle bus ride to the free tour of the U.S. Coast Guard Eagle is about a quarter mile.
It costs $10 a day for adults to get into the festival or $20 for an adult pass including ship tours. Those purchasing tickets in advance receive a $2 discount. Once festivalgoers arrive, they'll find a variety of food and drinks for sale, as well as shade and running water. All of it, Glasure said, took an immense effort to install.
"No one has ever done an event at the port before," Glasure said. "We are creating our own camp site and we love it."
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