Tall Ships will bring high drama to San Diego’s Festival of Sail over Labor Day weekend

By Lonnie Burstein Hewitt

Ahoy, all you lovers of frigates and cutters and schooners! The tall ships are coming! And San Diego Maritime Museum’s got ‘em! More than 20 visiting vessels will be here for the Festival of Sail over Labor Day weekend, and there will be plenty of family fun around the North Embarcadero.

Robyn Gallant, the museum’s event planner, marketing director, and just about everything else, is having a busy month. “I’m a one-woman show here,” she said. “I do everything but the accounting. I love planning events, but this one is really labor-intensive. I have to work with the Navy, the Coast Guard, the Port of San Diego, Homeland Security, the Fire Marshall, the Health Inspector. I’m even in charge of Port-a-Potties!”

Apparently, it takes a village to stage a Festival of Sail. Gallant supervises some 300 volunteers, many of them “youngsters” in their 70s and 80s. Normally, she has about six months to organize the event. This year, because of the big “Three Voyages to Paradise” exhibition (see La Jolla Light 6/9/11) and the building of the

San Salvador

at Spanish Landing (see sidebar), she had only eight weeks.

“All hands are working this month,” Gallant said. “And we can always use volunteers. We have something for everyone around here; you don’t have to be a sailor. Anyone who asks if we’d like some help: the answer is Yes!”

The first Festival of Sail was in 1999. 500,000 people showed up to see the parade of Class A ships — all over 200 feet long. “It was incredible, and incredibly crazy,” Gallant said. “So we decided to only do it every three years, when the tall ships go on rotation, from East Coast to West. But the event is so popular that we’re doing it annually again.”

The preamble to the four-day festival begins sometime before noon on Thursday, Sept. 1, with a parade of tall ships — mostly smaller Class B ones, up to 150 feet long — led by a Navy vessel, sailing into San Diego Harbor. The parade (which should last about two hours) can be viewed from a number of locations besides the Embarcadero — like Shelter Island, Harbor Island or Cabrillo National Monument — wherever you can find parking. Or BYOBoat if you have one, and watch from the water.

“The best place to launch is the main boat ramp on Shelter Island,” said sailing pro and Maritime Museum publications editor Neva Sullaway. “Or you can launch small craft like kayaks right near the

San Salvador


The festival itself begins Friday morning, when you can board the tall ships and chat with their crews, or soak up some sounds on the


, the Museum’s 1898 ferryboat, where entertainment will run the gamut from sea chanteys to contemporary rock, mariachis, and steel drums. If you’re up for something more active, you can take part in a cannon battle at sea or sign on for a pirate adventure cruise.

And of course, you can visit the Museum, and see the “Paradise” exhibit, a celebration of the era of tall ships and adventurous men. Over 200,000 visitors are expected over the four days, so you won’t be alone, but if you come at off-peak times, you should do just fine. Tickets are needed to access the festival area, but the parade-viewing and vendor sector are free.

If you go

What: Festival of Sail

When: 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sept. 2-4; Tall Ships Parade Sept. 1

Where: Maritime Museum of San Diego, 1492 North Harbor Drive

Tickets: $10-$15, good for area access all four days; $40+ for on-water activities

Contact: (619) 234-9153


Tips: Go in off-peak hours (morning or late afternoon). Forget parking along the Embarcadero. Park in the lot across the street or consider taking the trolley to the nearby Little Italy station and walking from there.

Festival Sidelight: See shipbuilders in action. At Spanish Landing in Point Loma, where the Maritime Museum is building a full-sized, fully functional, historically accurate replica of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s flagship,

San Salvador

, the first European vessel to reach America’s West Coast. Festival tickets include unlimited visits to the newly-opened site