Amid a flurry of international flags, thunderous fireworks and rowdy pirates Tuesday, Baltimore invited the world to its star-spangled salute to the bicentennial of the War of 1812 that starts next week.
State and local officials gathered to publicize Sailabration, a maritime and air festival that begins its six-day run in the city on June 13. The city will welcome 18 tall ships and dozens of Navy vessels to its harbor and all will be open for free tours throughout the festival. The Navy's celebrated Blue Angels will perform shows over Fort McHenry and numerous activities for all ages are scheduled throughout the city and at Glenn L. Martin Airport in Baltimore County.
"Baltimore is providing a depth to the events like we will see in none of the other ports," said Jose Fuentes, chairman of Operation Sail Inc., which has organized the ships' visits in partnership with the U.S. Navy. "Get on board, talk to the sailors and learn their different cultures."
The ships, which have already been to New Orleans and New York, will sail to Baltimore from Norfolk, Va.
The event pays homage to the sailors, Marines and Coast Guardsmen who fought in the battles along the Chesapeake Bay 200 years ago, in what many consider America's second war for independence, said Rear Adm. Gregory Nosal. The visit will bring about 4,000 current-day sailors to the city.
"This will be an opportunity to meet the young men and women who wear the cloth of our nation and protect our way of life," Nosal said. "Their mission — to deter aggression — is as important today as it was in the War of 1812."
Just as Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake took to the podium, the Fearless, a replica of a pirate ship, entered the harbor with its boisterous crew.
"A nest of pirates," she said. "Just when we thought the war was over."
Several seventh-graders from the city's Francis Scott Key Magnet School presented the flags of the participating nations and handed out 19th-century versions of America's flag.
"There are only 15 stars, just like it was in the War of 1812," said Kristina Covahey.
Tyasia Rolon, who held Colombia's yellow, blue and red banner, said she planned to return to the harbor next week.
"The ships are coming here on our last day of school," she said. "That will be a great way to celebrate summer."
Officials recounted the history surrounding the state's role in the war and spoke of the battles at North Point and Fort McHenry, which inspired Francis Scott Key to write what became the national anthem.
"The eyes of the world will be on Baltimore," said Gov. Martin O'Malley. "The war began in 1812 and we finished it here in 1814 … in these waters and on these hills. It is a powerful story that the country needs especially now."
Organizers expect as many as 1 million visitors to the area. Many in the crowd said they remembered when the first tall ships came to the city in 1976 to mark the nation's bicentennial.
"Sailabration will make the next generation proud of being here in Baltimore," said Rawlings-Blake.
As O'Malley concluded his remarks, a barrage of multicolored fireworks went off.
"That would be the bombs bursting in air," he said. "But the British are outnumbered this time around."