As the Mexican flag flapped in the wind high above the Patapsco River, the crew on the decks of the Cuauhtemoc prepared for the final leg of their trip up the Chesapeake Bay. Baltimore awaited them.
One sailor dabbed at a white wall with a paintbrush, giving it a final gleam. Others climbed up the masts to partially unfurl the sails. Using an electric pump, another pair of sailors pulled in the anchor, caked with black mud from the bottom of the Chesapeake.
With a few short blows from his boatswain's whistle yesterday, a lieutenant directed scores of sailors up the ship's three tall masts. They spread out along the spars and rigging, and stood with their arms spread open as the ship cruised by such landmarks as the Domino Sugar factory and Fort McHenry and docked at the Inner Harbor.
"Awesome. One word: Awesome," said Ginny Powell, an eco-tour operator from Cape May, N.J., who was in downtown Baltimore on business when she saw the ship with her companion, Ed Garrison. They rushed to the Inner Harbor to watch it dock. "I must say, they did Mexico proud the way they came in," she said.
For the Cuauhtemoc, Baltimore was the third stop since it left its home port of Acapulco a month ago. The ship, which is used to train Mexican naval officers and enlistees, arrived in Baltimore after having spent several days in Havana, Cuba. After five days at the Inner Harbor, where free tours will be available, the ship will sail to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and later to several European nations.
The Cuauhtemoc's arrival in the city is part of a tradition of tall ship visits, which are organized annually by Sail Baltimore, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting sailing and maritime tourism in the region. The group works with governments from other countries to arrange visits from ceremonial naval vessels, which are also often used in sailing competitions.
With Mexican music blaring from its speakers, the Cuauhtemoc lived up to its reputation for making grand entrances into ports around the world.
"This ship is very famous and admired in all tall ship races and festivals," the ship's captain, Mario Carbajal Ramirez, said through an interpreter.
The ship is a 270-foot-long barque with a main mast that rises 157 feet above the deck. Baltimore is its third stop on a seven-month-long voyage, starting this year's season of visits by tall ships to the city.
Over the winter, 11 tall ships visited Baltimore, and 15 more are expected to stop over the summer, according to Sail Baltimore. The world's third-largest tall ship - the Spanish Navy's 308-foot-long Juan Sebastian de Elcano - is expected to arrive in Baltimore on May 27. Ships from the navies of the United States, Uruguay, Brazil and Japan are also scheduled for visits later this summer.
The Cuauhtemoc's sailors began their journey into Baltimore about 8:30 a.m., starting anchored a mile west of the Key Bridge. With a crew of about 260, the ship bustled with activity as two Moran tugs from Fells Point positioned themselves at its side to help guide it along the Baltimore waterfront.
It was Ramirez's third visit to Baltimore. For others, it was their first time in the port. Many sailors had small digital cameras and paused to take pictures of themselves and their fellow sailors - with the city skyline in the background - as they scampered about the decks.
Lt. Rogelio Antonio Altaro Flores, a fresh-faced 32-year-old, has been in the Mexican Navy since he was 15. He enjoys being at sea but also loves arriving in ports and seeing beautiful city skylines, he said.
"La vista is always nice," he said of the view.
Bringing such a large ship into the heart of the Inner Harbor required coordination. Officers positioned on the stern and bow of the ship - and in between - communicated with each other by walkie-talkie. A bay pilot and two pilot apprentices who are familiar with the waters of the Patapsco and the harbor boarded the ship to help navigate and dock it.
With large sailing ships such as the Cuauhtemoc, "There's a lot more going on, a lot more to distract you," said Steven Germac, an apprentice pilot who stood at the bow of the ship. The vessels move more slowly, taking more time to come up the bay, he said. And with high-profile ships, "We've got to be easy with the tugboats, because you don't want to beat the ship up," he said.
The biggest challenge in piloting such a ship in busy harbor waters, Germac said, are recreational boaters. People on the water usually avoid large freighters, containerships and automobile carriers, he said. But with large sailing vessels such as the Cuauhtemoc, boaters want to pull up close for a look. "They tend to flock to it," he said.
Visit the ship
Today , 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Tomorrow, 12 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Sunday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Monday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m
Departure, Tuesday at 10 a.m.
Source: Sail Baltimore