ABOARD THE COAST GUARD CUTTER SLEDGE — The party's over.
Just after dawn Tuesday, the naval vessels, with hulls as gray as the morning, slipped from their berths and headed for open water. Later, as the sun broke through, the stars of Sailabration — the tall ships — gathered up their good-time vibe, unfurled their sails and followed the same path.
Maryland's Star-Spangled commemoration of the War of 1812 ended Tuesday morning after a week filled with fireworks, screaming jets and hundreds of thousands of visitors to the Inner Harbor, Fells Point and Fort McHenry. Merchants filled cash registers and maritime buffs loaded up camera memory cards.
"We had a terrific experience. This really resonated with people," said Bill Pencek, executive director of the Maryland War of 1812 Bicentennial Commission. "But this was just a dress rehearsal for September 2014, when all eyes will be on Fort McHenry and the celebration of our national anthem."
Before city workers flooded downtown, sailors were busy preparing their vessels and themselves to get under way. Mexican cadets did push-ups on the deck of their training vessel, the Cuauhtemoc, then ran laps on the promenade. Music poured from below decks as crewmen aboard the Cisne Branco, the Brazilian tall ship, stowed lines and gear.
For some vessels, the next assignment is maneuvers at sea. For others, the next stop is Boston's Fourth of July celebration.
At 7:45 a.m., the hulking, 610-foot USS Fort McHenry was eased from its berth at North Locust Point. Monday night, it played host to a reception for former U.S. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, who christened the ship. It followed the USS San Antonio under the Key Bridge and then turned south.
The smaller naval vessels came next.
By mid-morning, the sea wall at Fort McHenry was filled with thousands of people waiting for one final spectacle. They waved signs and flags. Sailors lining the rails of their ships saluted and waved in return.
The parade of tall ships began shortly after 11 a.m., led by the Pride of Baltimore II. The ship fired several volleys before turning east and heading toward the outer harbor.
Patrol boats buzzed in the Sailabration safety zone, while pleasure boats of all sizes sounded horns as the tall ships moved past, sails taut in a light breeze. Many boats turned and followed the fleet.
The Cuauhtemoc fired a salute and then broke out festive music. Not to be outdone, Indonesia's Dewaruci turned up the volume and sailors danced high in the rigging.
The city Fire Department is still compiling and analyzing crowd counts from the weekend, said Chief Kevin Cartwright. Pencek called the turnout "powerful" and an enticement to get an even bigger flotilla of visitors in 2014.
There's little doubt that Baltimore is a sucker for sailing ships. Since the baseball All-Star game in 1993, the city's largest draws have involved maritime festivals, from the Whitbread Around the World Race in 1998 to OpSail 2000.
"When you walk along the promenade and can see the masts of the ships, it's the coolest sight you can imagine," said Lee Tawney, executive director of the National Sailing Hall of Fame in Annapolis. "It reminds us of what the harbor is and what it was. It's magic."
The magic worked on the visitors as well. As it left Baltimore, the German frigate Hessen raised its nation's flag. Tucked behind the bridge, the warship flew an extra set of colors: an orange-and-black Orioles banner.
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