The plan, cooked up by local leaders 40 years ago, was to draw a few tall ships to Baltimore to help celebrate the nation's bicentennial.
It worked so well, they never stopped.
The Juan Sebastian de Elcano, a four-masted barque schooner used by the Royal Spanish Navy for training, glided into Fells Point on Tuesday morning — the first of three tall ships to visit the city over the next several days.
The Gazela Primeiro, a Portuguese barquentine now owned by the Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia, is due Wednesday. The ARA Libertad, a school vessel of the Argentine Navy, arrives Friday. The Japanese Coast Guard training vessel Kojima is also coming, on Sunday.
All will bring crews and tourists to the city.
"This will be one of our biggest weekends this year," said Laura Stevenson, the executive director of Sail Baltimore, the nonprofit that has been bringing tall ships from around the world to the city for four decades.
Within an hour of the arrival of the Juan Sebastian de Elcano, Stevenson was on board with pamphlets to telling crew members about what to see and do in the city. A city police officer waited to give a security briefing, and city crews made sure the ship had access to city water and sewage.
Sail Baltimore has brought 700 ships from 38 countries to the city, drawing 5 million tourists and generating $300 million in for the area economy, the organization says.
"It's still a great way to highlight our maritime history in the city, and to remind people where we came from," Stevenson said.
Local leaders started the program in 1976 to draw crowds to the Inner Harbor, before there were attractions such as Harborplace.
Bob Hillman, chief financial officer of Sandy Hillman Communications, chaired Operation Sail 1976. The city hosted 13 tall ships during the bicentennial.
"We did a lot of work to drum up interest," Hillman remembered. "We got this tremendous response."
Crowds descended onto the newly laid brick of the Inner Harbor's west wall. Food vendors and portable toilets had to be brought in to accommodate the crowds.
Programs for the event sold out the first day.
"We had been having events at the Inner Harbor because we knew it was part of the future of Baltimore," Hillman said. "People were getting used to coming to the Inner Harbor. It really established the Inner Harbor as a place for Baltimoreans."
Hillman said he never imagined the tall ships would continue to sail into the city. Stevenson said it has been a good way for visitors to learn about the wider world.
"It's been about bringing all the ships from all over the world, tourism, cultural exchange, and also really educating the public and the youth about other countries," she said. She wants to expand education efforts to bring more schoolchildren down to the ships.
Stevenson said Sail Baltimore is always working to attract new ships to the city. Every few years, the organization hosts naval attaches from foreign countries to show them the berths and sell them on Baltimore.
"You really have to keep front and center to remind them why they are here," Stevenson said.
Competition has been growing. Some cities have begun to pay ships to visit.
Stevenson said Sail Baltimore pitches the city's hospitality and the central location of the piers.
In some cities, ships dock at isolated marine terminals. Crews visiting Baltimore can walk all along the Inner Harbor and explore neighborhoods from Fells Point to Federal Hill.
The city also promotes its proximity to the Naval Academy and Washington.
The most recent tour of naval attaches in Baltimore was less than a week before the unrest of April 2015. Stevenson said some expressed concern about visiting.
"It made our job more important to sell Baltimore and what a great destination it is," Stevenson said.
Once crews arrive in Baltimore, she said, they appreciate the accessibility to city neighborhoods, and the chance to meet more residents and visit neighborhoods throughout the city.
Sometimes they want to see the Orioles or other attractions. Stevenson has helped organize a soccer game between the crew of the Libertad and local players at Latrobe Park in Locust Point.
Victoriano Gilabert Agote, the captain of the Juan Sebastian de Elcano, said he's looking forward to his first visit to Baltimore, and is hoping to make a side trip to Gettysburg.
"This morning we have a salute to the flag when we pass close to Fort McHenry," he said. "It was very nice."
In response, he said, his crew raised the scarlet-and-gold Spanish flag.
"It's a nice way to say, 'Hello, we are here. Thank you very much for receiving us.'"
Juan Sebastian de Elcano
Arrived Tuesday: Broadway Pier, Fells Point
Visiting hours: Wednesday 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 4 to 7 p.m.; Thursday 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.; Friday 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 4 to 7 p.m.; Saturday 4 to 7 p.m.
Arrives Thursday: West Wall, Inner Harbor
Visiting hours: Thursday and Friday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Arrives Friday: West Wall, Inner Harbor
Visiting hours: Saturday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday noon to 4 p.m.; Monday and Tuesday 2 to 7 p.m.
Arrives Sunday: Broadway Pier, Fells Point
Visiting hours: Sunday 2 to 4 p.m.