Baltimore lobbies for tall ships, naval vessels to fill Inner Harbor

The sales pitch to 46 uniformed men was simple: Welcome to Baltimore. Next time, bring a tall ship.

City and state officials and the nautical community have begun a marketing drive aimed at filling the Inner Harbor with majestic sailing vessels and gray-hulled warships for the War of 1812 commemoration finale, Sept. 6-14, 2014.

On Wednesday, they pitched military attaches from 40 countries, including Canada, Mexico, Turkey and Sri Lanka.

Navies begin planning their sea exercises and courtesy calls about a year in advance, and there's a lot of jockeying among East Coast seaports to secure the biggest and best ships for summer events.

"Everyone — New York, Miami, Norfolk, Boston — wants tall ships. It's very competitive and the best man wins," said Nan Nawrocki, president of the nonprofit Sail Baltimore, sponsor of Wednesday's get-acquainted tour. "There are a number of ships we're interested in, and we hope to have 10 or more lined up by the time we're done."

Last June, the group was successful in bringing more than three dozen ships to Sailabration, the kickoff of the war commemoration. The ships, in turn, attracted 1.5 million people — some 435,000 from out of state — that generated $166 million in economic impact in the metropolitan area, the Maryland War of 1812 Bicentennial Commission reported.

With the Volvo Ocean Race choosing Newport, R.I., over Baltimore for its sole U.S. stopover in 2015 and the Grand Prix of Baltimore not on the schedule yet beyond this fall, the Star-Spangled Spectacular could be the biggest downtown event in the next two years.

The Navy's Blue Angels will be back next year, reprising their crowd-pleasing shows of last summer over Fort McHenry and downtown. Re-enactments will dot the weeks leading up to the finale, and a fireworks display will cap the 10-day commemoration.

But launching a maritime event without sailing vessels is like opening a zoo without animals. So there was a sense of urgency in lobbying the attaches.

After a quick breakfast on the observation deck of the World Trade Center, the attaches took a daylong tour that included stops at the USS Constellation, Camden Yards and Fort McHenry. A crab cake lunch during an Inner Harbor cruise ended with another pitch from Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

At Fort McHenry, Ranger Vince Vaise, chief of interpretation, led the group in naval maneuvers on a sidewalk map of the Chesapeake Bay, complete with small replicas of 1812-era British and American warships.

"Anyone here from the United Kingdom?" Vaise asked.

"They refused to come today," replied Capt. Michael Setzer of the German navy to great laughter.

For some of the Washington-based officers, the tour was an introduction to Baltimore. Australian Commodore Stephen McDowall said he was struck by the sense of civic pride, the spotlight on sports teams and the waterfront.

"You're proud of where you are, where you've come from and where you're going," he said. "I'll be bringing my family here for a visit."

For other attaches, it felt like old-home week.

"We find Baltimore very friendly. There's lots to see and do," said Capt. Bjorn Egenberg of the Norwegian navy, which took part in Sailabration with the 437-foot frigate HNoMS Thor Heyerdahl. "We hope to bring a tall ship next year and a gray hull, too. That's my aim."

Several officers acknowledged the tug of war between cities.

Col. Jorge Correia Da Silva of the Portuguese army said his government had received a formal invitation from Gov. Martin O'Malley's administration for NRP Sagres, a 292-foot, three-masted barque that is used as a training vessel.

"It has been around the world several times, and it's invited to go a lot of places every year. It could be between California and Baltimore, and they will have to choose where to go," Da Silva said. "But I think it would be a good idea to come here. Baltimore has a beautiful harbor."

By the end of the day, everyone agreed the city's pitch was perfect.

"I think everybody's selling Baltimore quite well," said New Zealand navy Cmdr. Matt Williams.

"I don't think we have a choice," joked Egenberg. "I think we all have to send a ship."

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