BENVENUTI A BALTIMORA, AMERIGO VESPUCCI Italy's majestic tall ship opens to visitors today

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When Baltimoreans board the Italian tall ship Amerigo Vespucci today, they'll walk sleek teak decks that stretch 333 feet from bowsprit to the captain's garden and crane their necks for a glimpse of the top of the pine mast.

They'll step around thick curls of rope that, propelled only by the muscle of men, lift the ship's sails skyward.

They'll see their reflections in brass fittings and marvel at the gilded arabesques adorning the hull.

Visitors to the Vespucci, the oldest ship in the Italian navy whose namesake explored the "New World," will feel the romance of the high seas and experience the regal splendor of the 19th century frigates that inspired its design.

What they won't have a sense of is what it took to bring this premier sailing vessel and its 35 officers, 130 cadets and 290 crew members to the west wall of the Inner Harbor where it last docked in 1986. To illustrate:

Negotiations with the Italian government that began at least two years ago, meetings with the Italian consul in Baltimore, arranging for tugs to escort the Vespucci up the Chesapeake Bay, delivering 140 metric tons of fuel once she dropped anchor in the Baltimore channel, providing sewer and telephone hookups at the Inner Harbor.

Then there was garbage pickup, parking permits for the ship's rental car, Italian dancers for today's harborside ceremonies, a visit to the U.S. Naval Academy, six bus trips to Washington, a private boat tour for corporate sponsors and their guests, dinners held by Baltimore families, a welcoming party at Harbor Court Hotel (with dancing).

And, pickup basketball and volleyball games for the crew.

"Where am I going to find basketball and volleyball?" Mary Sue McCarthy wondered aloud as she returned from a planning meeting aboard the Vespucci this weekend.

Ms. McCarthy, executive director of Baltimore Operation Sail, had planned to take the crew to the Clarence "Du" Burns Soccer Arena in Canton -- soccer, or as the Italians call it "football," is a national pastime in Italy.

Oh, well. Maybe the Downtown Athletic Club could help out. That's where downtown workers play lunch-hour basketball.

This is Baltimore's season of frigates and schooners, tall ships and submarines, a resurgence of seafaring guests buoyed by the 500th anniversary of Columbus' landing in America. Already, Op Sail, its corporate sponsors, 60 service organizations and 100 volunteers have been host to ships from eight countries, beginning with the caravels, Spain's replicas of the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria, and this week, the Vespucci, the only ship of its kind in the Italian armada.

The tall ships, with their masts piercing the Inner Harbor skyline, can draw as many as 10,000 visitors a day to the Harborplace promenade. It is for that reason, along with the cultural exchange inherent in any international visit, that Op Sail was formed 15 years ago.

But, as sagging industrial ports revitalized their waterfronts and spawned similar Op Sail groups across the country, wooing a Vespucci or Germany's Gorch Fock II -- which is scheduled to arrive next week -- to Baltimore's Inner Harbor has become a tougher sell.

"There're only 40 tall ships in the world. They receive approximately 30 invitations a year for port visits, and they only visit five U.S. ports," said Ms. McCarthy, who has led the non-profit group for four years.

And when naval attaches from around the world accept Baltimore's invitation to play host to a tall ship, a state-of-the-art submarine or hulking gray warship, Ms. McCarthy and company do everything they can to ensure they return.

Like the Vespucci.

"The hospitality here, the natural positioning of the Inner Harbor, the infrastructure here is unlike any other in the United States. Baltimore is a repeated port for that reason," said Francesco Luigi Legaluppi, the Italian consul in Baltimore.

The logistics of bringing a ship to the West Wall begin with sponsors like CSX Corp. and end with guys like Ed Maynard, the manager of the Harborview Marina and Yacht Club who rounds up yachts to ferry visitors and Op Sail staff to and from a boat free of charge.

"We work with many partners to showcase Baltimore," Ms. McCarthy said.

The work begins with a series of phone calls.

Shortly before 5 p.m. Friday, the phone rang in Francesco Legaluppi's Charles Plaza office. Capt. Giancarlo Schiavoni, commandante of the Vespucci, was on the phone.

The ship was en route up the bay, escorted without charge by members of the Association of Maryland Pilots, and should arrive in the outer harbor by 8 a.m. Saturday.

The consul then telephoned Ms. McCarthy, and the two arranged to meet the ship the next morning.

"Arrival times are really important, because we key off lots of things from that," Ms. McCarthy said.

Like fuel delivery. If the ship wasn't refueled Saturday, it would have to be done today, thereby postponing the opening day ceremonies. Plus the ship needed a day or two to wash, clean and paint before being ready to welcome visitors.

Despite the gray persistent rain, Ms. McCarthy and Mr. Legaluppi met Saturday morning to motor out to the Vespucci, which was anchored off the Dundalk Marine Terminal. The Italian consul earlier had stopped at the airport to pick up a sealed, diplomatic pouch for the ship's captain. They boarded the 38-foot Semper Fidelis for the 15-minute cruise to the Vespucci.

"I get goose bumps," Ms. McCarthy said, as the cruise boat passed the towers of Lehigh Cement in the industrial section of Canton, "all this coordination becomes reality when we turn this corner and the ship's here."

As the Semper Fidelis pulled alongside the Vespucci, Ms.

McCarthy practiced the smattering of Italian she would use to greet the captain: "Buongiorno. Benvenuti a Baltimora. Buongiorno. Benvenuti a Baltimora."

The morning meeting in Captain Schiavoni's ornate mahogany and walnut conference room focused on the details of the week's stay: phone numbers to reach the executive officer, garbage pickup by the city, the list of VIPs who would come aboard, the number of gifts the captain would need to present, which anthem would be played first at the opening ceremonies.

"It's very important to time the visit. About 1,000 people come pTC aboard per hour. We have to be ready for that," said the captain, as a white-suited steward served frothy cappuccino and strong-smelling Italian coffee to the ship's guests.

At times, Mr. Legaluppi would translate for Ms. McCarthy. Other times, host and guest would converse in English. Ms. McCarthy brought up the hospitality visits.

"This is more for fun, for the crew, to take them home for a good American meal," Ms. McCarthy said. "We have a very strong hospitality group here."

It would be arranged, the captain assured her.

"Anything more?" Captain Schiavoni asked. "An aperitif? A little wine?"

*

"We get toothache problems. We take people to the dentist. Op Sail and our volunteers are the ship's lifeline," Ms. McCarthy is saying, as James "Paz" Pazourek motors the Semper Fidelis back to the Harborview marina.

The lifeline can extend far and wide: helping the Uruguayan ship purchase 15 refrigerators and 500 pairs of shoes, arranging for the Dutch crew to play rugby with Mr. Pazourek's club, treating British sailors to their first crab feast.

That lifeline also can be pulled mighty tight.

"Some guys have gone on leave and do not come back and the police have found them enjoying themselves immensely," said Ms. McCarthy. "I got a call in the middle of the night when the Russian ship was here, that two people defected."

In that instance, Ms. McCarthy referred the matter to immigration officials.

During her tenure at Op Sail, the 37-year-old former New York public relations executive has added 40 foreign words to her vocabulary. She's learned the hard way that the captain of the Portuguese tall ship has a passageway reserved solely for him.

Perhaps the one thing common to all the crews, she said, is when the ships sail off, "there's a lot of broken hearts" left behind.

Visiting hours

The Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian tall ship docked at the Inner Harbor's West Wall, opposite Harborplace, will be open for public visits until its departure Aug. 25:

Today, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Tomorrow, 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Wednesday, 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Thursday, 10 a.m. to noon.

Friday, Closed.

Saturday, 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Sunday, 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Monday, Aug. 24, 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Tuesday, Aug. 25, Departs 9 a.m.

Information: 837-INFO.

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