Little boats will vie for space during Sailabration

For folks who want to partake in Sailabration by water this weekend, expect tight quarters.

"An unprecedented number of boats are anticipated. We could have thousands of recreational boaters all trying to come to one location," said Coast Guard Cmdr. John Burns, who has been part of the planning team for the War of 1812 commemoration.

Here's what the armada will find: Big sections of Baltimore's harbor will be off-limits to pleasure boats, and many others are too shallow and debris-filled, too deep to anchor or too far from the action. Docking at any of the city-operated piers might be a mission impossible. And if you break down and you're not a member of the nautical equivalent of AAA, a tow could cost up to $1,000.

That said, the Coast Guard and Natural Resources Police want everyone to have a good time.

"We spent two years planning this. Of course we want people to come," said Capt. Mark O'Malley, the Coast Guard's captain of the port. "It will be congested. It will be busy. We want people to be considerate, be mindful and practice defensive aquatic driving."

Ships are scheduled to start arriving at 8 a.m. Wednesday, and there will be eight 21-gun salutes between the arriving vessels and Fort McHenry. The Coast Guard cutter Eagle — one of two tall ships in theU.S. military — and two other vessels will arrive Thursday.

The 40 vessels officially participating in Sailabration — a mix of tall ships and naval vessels from eight nations — will be berthed in the Inner Harbor, Fells Point and Locust Point.

The biggest obstacle for boaters is the Blue Angels safety box measuring a half-mile by nearly three miles just south of Fort McHenry. It will be in place from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Sunday for the practice sessions and weekend air shows.

"The box essentially cuts off the Inner Harbor and Northwest Harbor from the Patapsco River," Burns said. "Boats will not be allowed to cross the box or anchor in it. If you don't plan ahead, you may find yourself stuck for up to six hours where you might not want to be."

White foam buoys will mark the edges of the box, and Coast Guard vessels and Naval Academy patrol boats will guard the perimeter. Other restrictions include a 100-yard safety buffer around each tall ship and naval vessel and a 200-yard safety zone Saturday night around the fireworks barge off Fort McHenry.

Meanwhile, commercial vessels will be arriving and leaving the port and cruise ships are departing Thursday and Sunday. Those channels and turning areas will remain open for that traffic.

"Baltimore is a working port and it will continue to work," Burns said.

Most of the Inner Harbor bulkhead has been given over to the visiting ships, and the finger piers have been allocated to the dinner and tour boats, said Fran Knauff, the city's dockmaster.

"That doesn't leave much," Knauff said. "It will be limited, very limited, and it will be first-come, first-served. Boaters can call the dockmaster's office on channel 68 to ask about availability."

A major worry for the Coast Guard and Natural Resources Police are occasional boaters who will fill their boats with neighbors and friends for impromptu cruises only to break down or begin sinking.

"That's a distinct possibility, and it's not a good recipe," Burns said. "We will have search-and-rescue units available and a command center staffed 24/7."

Tow boats will be stationed around the harbor to respond to assistance calls, said Dale Plummer, who works with TowBoatUS, an arm of the Boat Owners Association of the United States.

"But we only have so many tow boats, and members have priority," he said. "If you're not a member, a tow is going to cost $250 an hour. The worst part of my job is telling people the bill's going to be $600, $800, $1,000, depending on the problem. They think I'm crazy, but that's reality."

In addition, police and Coast Guard auxiliary volunteers will be checking boats at marinas and patrol boats will be conducting inspections.

"If you have children riding on the bow, if you look like you don't know what you're doing, if you look impaired, if you don't have life jackets, you will get our attention," said Natural Resources Police Capt. David Larsen.

Where to watch from land

The tall ships will arrive Wednesday, beginning at 8 a.m.

Sailabration organizers suggest these viewing areas:

Fort McHenry, 2400 E. Fort Ave.

Canton Waterfront Park, 3001 Boston St.

Fort Armistead Park, 4000 Fort Armistead Road

Fort Howard Park, 9500 North Point Road

Starting Wednesday, the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum and Renaissance Productions are offering tours depicting the role of African-Americans who fought as part of the Maryland militia that helped save Baltimore from British invaders. Tours begin at 10 a.m., through June 19, at the museum, 1601 E. North Ave. Cost is $40 per person. Information: 410-728-3837.