And if that’s not enough, this Independence Day weekend’s tall ships festival, Basil Port of Call Buffalo, is just the start of a recurring event that, six years from now, will be just a piece of an even larger celebration of the most critically important event in New York State history – the completion of the Erie Canal.
If you’re going to put your party shoes on, make sure they’re boat shoes – because Buffalo’s reconnecting to its past, in a spectacularly fun-filled way!
Twelve tall sailing ships will gather on the city waterfront from the Fourth of July through Sunday, July 7, the biggest such gathering here since the Age of Sail. Run by the Buffalo Lighthouse Association in partnership with Tall Ships America®, the festival is expected to draw more than 125,000 visitors to Canalside, the Riverwalk along the Erie Street Dock and Erie Basin Marina.
In addition to the ships, which come from the South Pacific, Spain, Canada and the United States, the festival will include sea chanties and other music, demonstrations and talks, children’s activities and more. The festival opens with a Parade of Sail on the afternoon of the Fourth, a Thursday this year, with the large ships sailing in line down the length of the Outer Harbor to an exchange of cannon salutes off Lighthouse Point. The fleet will be docked and snugged down before Canalside’s traditional concert and fireworks program takes over for the evening hours. Ship visits are scheduled for Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Boarding the ships will require a “Passport” – a keepsake booklet of ship information and pictures, with volunteers standing by with boarding stamps at each gangway. A one-day Passport is $20 for adults and $10 for children 11 and under, and a limited number of festival-long VIP passports with special boarding, hospitality and parking are available for $125. Passports are available at TallShipsBuffalo.org and participating Wegmans locations.
It’s a huge planning and financial undertaking for the small not-for-profit lighthouse association, which is restoring the historic lighthouses of Buffalo Harbor. “We’re doing it primarily because our mission includes interpreting this city’s rich maritime heritage, and reconnecting Buffalo to its story,” said Association president Mike Vogel, who is also the Association’s Port of Call: Buffalo committee co-chair. “Buffalo needs this festival as a marquee waterfront event, one that will return every three years – and grow.”
“We’re excited,” said Paula Blanchard, the Association’s Port of Call: Buffalo committee co-chair, with Vogel. “It’s an unbelievable amount of work, but we have a spectacular group of people working hard in key leadership roles and we’ve already hit our goal of 800 event volunteers. There is just a huge amount of excitement, and this will be totally worth it.”
The event’s million-dollar budget is a heavy lift, underwritten not just by ticket sales but also by grants and sponsorships. The committee now is focused on selling sponsorships for the individual ships, with costs varying by vessel.
“It’s a really good deal from a marketing standpoint,” Vogel said. “Among the perks for sponsorships are even more parties – a ship sponsor gets the right to host clients, company members or anyone else during an on-deck reception after public visiting hours. It’s an impressive way to spend a holiday evening, on a 200-foot ship on the historic waterfront.”
Even though this is a first-time event for the complete Tall Ships Challenge® racing fleet, Buffalo will host the second-largest ship rendezvous on this year’s Great Lakes port schedule. The city will be the first American port on the tour, following the fleet’s visit to Toronto, and ships will sail from here to a number of American and Canadian ports on a circuit that goes as far west as Wisconsin before leaving the lakes in September.
And this port’s fleet is spectacular. There’s the square-rigger Picton Castle, flagged in Raratonga in the Cook Islands, just back from her seventh circumnavigation of the globe under Captain Dan Moreland. The Royal Canadian Navy is sending HMCS Oriole, its 102-foot sail training ketch. Bluenose II, the iconic Canadian Grand Banks fishing schooner owned by Nova Scotia, will be the tallest of the ships with a 130-foot mainmast. Nao Santa Maria, an accurate replica of Christopher Columbus’s flagship, is sailing here from Spain.
US Brig Niagara, based down the lake in Erie, will be docked at Canalside with another War of 1812 style vessel, Pride of Baltimore II. Maryland’s Port Authority will be hosting its own reception aboard the Maryland vessel while she’s here. The third ship at Canalside will be Denis Sullivan, a replica of the large Great Lakes topsail schooners that once dominated the inland seas.
At the Riverwalk, between the Vietnam Memorial and the Miss Buffalo excursion boat dock, the 204-foot schooner Empire Sandy will be docked between Bluenose II and Picton Castle. At the tip of the Erie Basin Marina, near the observation tower, the schooners Appledore IV and Appledore V will join the Canalside-based Spirit of Buffalo in offering daily sailing excursions, and Santa Maria and HMCS Oriole will be joined by the brigantine St. Lawrence II I welcoming visitors.
Ancillary festival events at the Association’s Lighthouse Point site across the river will include the cannon salutes and Civil War reenactment camp stations on the Fourth of July, children’s activities and a Buffalo Niagara Concert Band patriotic concert on the Fourth, along with weekend-long self-guided tours, exhibits and tower-climbing opportunities.
“We’ve had a lot of positive public response and a lot of encouraging support from Canalside, the city, Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. and other waterfront groups,” Blanchard said. “And local grantmakers, like the Niagara River Greenway and the John R. Oishei Foundation, the Margaret L. Wendt Foundation and others have really stepped up. But the best part of it is the feedback we’ve gotten from people who are so enthusiastic about this event, and we’re really excited to introduce it to Buffalo.”
If all goes well, the festival will return in 2022 and again in 2025, the Erie Canal Bicentennial year. The dream then is to have a canal boat or two, like the one that will be built soon at Canalside, rafted up against a typical schooner or two – something that was once common, but hasn’t been seen on this waterfront in more than a century.
“That would really help reconnect this city to the harbor that built it,” Vogel said. “We started out just to save the historic lighthouse, but that story got richer and deeper the more we worked on it. Now we’re hoping to make that symbol of the city not just a light from the past, but a beacon for the future.”