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A crowd watches from shore as the U.S. Brig Niagara sails through the Duluth Ship Canal toward the Aerial Lift Bridge during Thursday's Grand Parade of Sail. (Derek Montgomery / For the News Tribune)

Ships ahoy! Thousands crowd waterfront to welcome armada

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Ships ahoy! Thousands crowd waterfront to welcome armada
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At full sail and with cannons firing, a long-anticipated contingent of tall ships glided gracefully into the Duluth harbor on Thursday afternoon as thousands eagerly watched.

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While eight ships entered on schedule in the Grand Parade of Sail, a ninth ship didn't make the grand entry that began at 2 p.m. The S/V Denis Sullivan, which was held up by storms in Michigan's Upper Peninsula on Tuesday, arrived shortly before 6 p.m.

The arrival of the nine vessels, including replicas of 1812 warships, is said to be the largest contingent of tall ships to visit Duluth since the late 1800s.

As each tall ship approached the Aerial Lift Bridge, heads turned and smiles erupted among the hundreds lined along the canal. With cameras in hand, arms shot up to take pictures. Behind the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center, those with paid passes watched as the big vessels eased into dock.

Duluth police estimated that 75,000 to 100,000 people converged in the Canal Park area for the ships' arrival, according to Officer Brad Wick.

That compares to the 125,000 people drawn to the waterfront for the duration of the event when three tall ships were part of the Duluth Maritime Festival in 2008.

Led by a group of escort boats on Thursday, the tall ships came in three groups, with a fleet of smaller sailing boats, motor boats and cruisers tagging along. First the HMS Bounty and Roald Amundsen arrived. They were followed by Barque Europa, Roseway and U.S. Brig Niagara, then the Pride of Baltimore II and the smallest ships, Zeeto and Coaster II.

The ships will be open for public tours today through Sunday.

David M. Johnson of Monticello, Minn., who had never seen tall ships before, was busy taking pictures as they docked.

"There's always a fascination with boats," Johnson said. "Adding the word 'ships' makes it even more magical and intriguing."

Julie Wirtzfield of Blaine, Minn., among those lined up along the canal, searched for the right word to describe the ships and found it in "majestic."

"It was wonderful," she said. "To be that close and see them sailing is just

awesome."

But for the ships, traveling through the canal and under the Aerial Lift Bridge is a challenge.

"The entry way to get under the bridge is fairly narrow," said Peter Berkcout, first mate on the HMS Bounty, who was focused on maneuvering the ship rather than the crowds as they entered the Duluth harbor. "I've been to other ports that are more wide open, like Cleveland."

An enthusiastic Aaron Miatke of Duluth brought his wife and three young children with him to see the ships' arrival.

"It's great, I love it," he said. "It's fun to see this event grow. For the community, it's a fun summer venue. And it's fascinating to see the connection between shipping of yore and what comes through here now."

Terri Rannetsberger had a front-row seat, comfortably seated along the pier in a lawn chair, and shielded from the hot sun by an umbrella.

"It was so fantastic, it was worth taking a day off from work for," she said.

Traveling down from Silver Bay, the sight that greeted her when she reached Brighton Beach took her breath away: Five tall ships in full sail and the former Coast Guard Cutter Sundew headed for Duluth beat the sight of the staggered arrival of the ships.

"It was incredible," she said. "It was pretty amazing."

Audrey Williams of Little Falls, Minn., who came up with friends Thursday morning, hit stop-and-go traffic in Duluth, thanks to road construction on Interstate 35. Still, they made it in time to see the ships' arrival.

"You are gorgeous," said Williams as she looked at the moored HMS Bounty. Actually, she was referring to a crew member poised high on a mast who reminded her of Johnny Depp, star of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" series.

In fact, there were several Johnny Depp lookalikes around, willing to take pictures with visitors who asked. A dead ringer for Depp posed for pictures behind the DECC. In Canal Park, Anthony Urgo not only looked like a pirate but had convincing props: a conch shell he sounded like a horn and two tropical birds (a blue and gold macaw and a white cockatoo).

He was there at the request of the Amazing Grace restaurant to add ambience for visitors to the Tall Ships Duluth festival. After he and his birds posed for pictures with people, he cheerfully warned them to watch out for the mermaids and pirates.

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