There may be no War of 1812 bicentennial to celebrate this year, but that won't stop Baltimore from throwing a big-time party — complete with a fleet of warships taking over the Inner Harbor and beyond and the Navy's high-flying Blue Angels storming their way through the skies.
Beginning Saturday and running through Oct. 17, the water and skies around the Inner Harbor, Fells Point and Locust Point will play host to Maryland Fleet Week & Air Show Baltimore. About a dozen U.S. and Canadian naval vessels will be dropping anchor at the city's ports, along with some 3,000 sailors. In addition, more than two dozen aviators, including the ultra-modern Blue Angels and a squadron of vintage World War II aircraft, will be in the skies over Charm City on Oct. 15 and 16.
"It's really a big deal," says Christopher Rowsom, executive director of Historic Ships in Baltimore, which maintains the Constellation, the submarine USS Torsk and the USCGC Taney, and is one of the driving forces behind the festivities. "It's wonderful for us, and it's a great honor to have the Navy here."
Many of the scheduled events, as well as the overall atmosphere, should remind Baltimoreans of the two War of 1812 celebrations held here — one in 2012 to commemorate the bicentennial of the start of the war, the second two years later to mark 200 years since the Battle of Baltimore and the writing of the "Star-Spangled Banner." Both celebrations proved tremendously successful, with a combined attendance of more than 2 million.
Like those events, the Fleet Week and Air Show will include ships' tours and aerial displays, as well as a festival atmosphere centered on the Inner Harbor (the official Fleet Week Festival is set for Oct. 13-16). In fact, the differences between the earlier celebrations and this year's is only a matter of scale — the 2012 celebration, for instance, attracted 19 tall ships and numerous other vessels from several countries — and of focus. In 2016, after all, there's no patriotic bicentennial to celebrate.
"It's not quite on that grand scale," acknowledges Rowsom. "We don't have a fireworks show, we don't have a nationally broadcast concert and things like that. But anybody who comes down to the harbor to see the ships and just enjoys that type of thing, they're just going to have a great time."
Indeed. And the air show, organizers promise, will be the biggest such exhibition Baltimore has ever seen. For many people, just seeing the Blue Angels and their precision aerial acrobatics is cause enough to venture outside. But this air show will include the Royal Canadian Air Force demonstration team, precision fliers from the Air Force (with modern and vintage aircraft flying in formation) and a search-and-rescue demonstration by a Coast Guard helicopter. The Geico Skytypers will fly in formation, showcasing maneuvers and utilizing aircraft from World War II and the Korean War, while Scott Francis Airshows will thrill spectators with solo acrobatics.
On the water, the Fleet Week designation makes official the Navy's appreciation of Baltimore and how well its ships and sailors were treated during the two earlier celebrations, says Edward C. Zeigler, public information officer for Naval District Washington.
"The Navy was honored to be invited to participate in two historic commemorations in Baltimore in 2012 and 2014," Zeigler writes in an email. "Those tremendously successful events laid the groundwork for the Maryland Fleet Week and Air Show Baltimore we are about to experience."
In some cities, including New York and San Francisco, Fleet Weeks are an annual tradition, and have been for decades; New York's, for example, dates back to at least 1984. Other cities hosting Fleet Weeks this year include San Diego, New Orleans, Seattle and Hampton Roads, Va.
"Baltimore has some of the best public access of any port in the nation, public access to the waterfront," says Rowsom. "It's also very close to Washington, so it's a good opportunity for the folks at HQ to get close to their ships."
Adds Zeigler, "The Navy and Maryland share a great deal of history, going back as far as the War of 1812 and the Battle of Baltimore. And we train our future leaders right down the road at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, so Baltimore is a natural for us."
As much as the public enjoys Fleet Week, it's just as much a treat for the visiting service men and women, Zeigler said. They take advantage of the chance to wander around town, take in the sights and meet the public. (There's a "Selfie with a Sailor" event planned for next Friday at Power Plant Live, for example.)
"It's an opportunity for us to introduce the Navy to the American people," he said.
Baltimore's Fleet Week & Air Show kicks off unofficially at noon Saturday with the Historic Ships in Baltimore Constellation Cup regatta, an Inner Harbor race featuring more than 40 yachts and visiting schooners. The finish line will he set up between piers one and three (home to the Constellation and the Torsk).
Navy stealth ship USS Zumwalt, originally scheduled to arrive Monday, will get to Baltimore on Friday because of Hurricane Matthew. The Zumwalt will be commissioned Oct. 15. (Sorry, but admission to the commissioning ceremony is by advance invitation only.)
The official start of the festivities comes Monday. Schooners set to participate in next Thursday's Great Chesapeake Bay Schooner Race will be dockside in Canton.
A welcoming ceremony featuring remarks from Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan is scheduled for 4 p.m. Wednesday at the Inner Harbor Amphitheater, Light and Pratt streets. Tours of the participating ships are set for 1 p.m.-6 p.m. Oct. 13-16 — the same hours as the Fleet Week Festival at the Inner Harbor. And Air Show Baltimore, taking place in the skies over Fort McHenry and Middle Branch, is slated for 1 p.m.-4 p.m. Oct. 15 and 16.
(One caveat organizers stress: Visitors should keep in mind that the Baltimore Running Festival is set for Oct. 15, meaning that traffic in the Inner Harbor and Fort McHenry area, with both Fleet Week and the Baltimore Marathon attracting crowds, could be close to nightmarish. "We just ask people to be mindful of their transportation plans on that day," Rowsom says. "We're trying to say, 'Use your feet to see the fleet.' And use public transportation, certainly, on that day.")
All that may sound like a lot to take in, but organizers are confident the crowds will come. So confident, in fact, that they're already planning a Fleet Week 2018.
"Baltimore, even though we're way up here at the top of the Chesapeake Bay, has a huge Naval history," Rowsom says, "from the building of the first Constellation back in 1797 to the building of all sorts of Navy ships here, certainly during World War II and I'm sure during World War I."
That sort of heritage certainly deserves at least a biennial celebration.
"Dates for 2018 still are not set, but we are working on that, have been working on that for the past three months as well," Rowsom says. "Before you end one, you start another."
Maryland Fleet Week and Air Show Baltimore is set for Monday through Oct. 17 at the Inner Harbor and other locations in and around Baltimore. For more information, go to mdfleetweek.com.
Historic Ships in Baltimore Constellation Cup regatta: More than 40 yachts and visiting schooners will race through the waters of the Inner Harbor. Noon-4 p.m. Saturday, between piers one and three in the Inner Harbor.
Fleet Week Kick-off Party: Post-Constellation Cup, pre-Fleet Week revelry will be had, featuring food, drink, a silent auction and live music. 6 p.m.-9 p.m. Saturday at Pier 1 in the Inner Harbor, 301 E. Pratt St. $25-$65.
Welcome Ceremony: Gov. Larry Hogan and other elected officials will officially welcome the visiting vessels to Baltimore; the event will include a performance by the U.S. Navy Ceremonial Band. 4 p.m. Wednesday at the Inner Harbor Amphitheater, 201 E. Pratt St.
Ship tours: The visiting vessels will be open to the public for free tours from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Oct. 13-16. Various locations.
Fleet Week Festival: Exhibitors, food and drink, and more will be on hand at the Inner Harbor, between Pratt and Light streets. 1 p.m.-6 p.m. Oct. 13-16. A beer garden will be open at West Shore Park, 401 Light St., from 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Oct. 15 and noon-6 p.m. Oct. 16.
Air Show Baltimore: The Blue Angels, vintage World War II aircraft and a host of other aviators will take to the skies above Fort McHenry and Middle Branch from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Oct. 15-16.
Martin State Airport festival and open house: Get a closer look at the aircraft participating in the air show, while the planes are on the ground. Pilots will be on hand for meet-and-greet sessions and autographs, and music and food will be available for enjoyment as well. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Oct. 15-16 at Martin State Airport, 701 Wilson Point Road, Middle River.