Boston, a city born of the sea, welcomes back the tall ships May 30 to for its 350th birthday party. But instead of a mariners' homecoming viewed by spyglass or from widow's walks, this parade of wooden masts and white sails will be greeted by the clatter of clicking shutters and the whirl of helicopter blades.
Like Operation Sail during America's 1976 Bicentennial, it is a moment to capture as well as experience. Long camera lenses are selling like hot dogs at Fenway Park, and almost every helicopter this side of New York City has been rented for the city's biggest anniversary spectacle.
"It will be wall-to-wall snapshooters," says Ellen Birrel of Underground Camera, a large photography store.
Every vantage point, from quay to skyscraper to an estimated 10,000 spectator boats anchored in the harbor, will be filled with an expected 2 million vicarious buccaneers, landlubbers, and old salts -- with cameras in hand.
As the 55 or so world windjammers sail past the nation's oldest lighthouse, a nearly equal number of helicopters loaded with photographers will be circling overhead like a flock of ravens. It will resemble a Cecil B. De Mille production.
"We've had 5 to 15 helicopters over the Boston Marathon, the Kentucky Derby, the Indy 500, and Mt. St. Helens. But this may surpass them all," says William Cook, a flight coordinator with the Federal Aviation Administration.
To keep order in the skies, the FAA has asked police and military helicopters to fly at 200 feet, private helicopters at 500 feet (counterclockwise), and banner-towing aircraft at 1,500 feet (clockwise).
The lofty and lovely square-and fore-and- aft rigged vessels from more than a dozen nations will curvet into harbor at 10 a.m. Friday in the pink of condition -- their brass winking bright, the decks holystoned and varnished, the ratlines squared, and every part put in correct order. The ships will be manned by more than 7,000 crew members, who will be given a hail of welcome to the fleet parties and sporting events by the city that was home to the Tea Party and a once-thriving China trade. On June 4, after a few days of dockside viewing by landlocked admirers, the gathered armada will race the Atlantic to Kristiansand, Norway.
The US Navy, which had 10 cameramen check out their strategic photo spots more than a month ago, has provided camera and television platforms on the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy, several frigates and destroyers, and on the 1794-built USS Constitution, the parade's flagship -- which will be under tow rather than sail. "It's a massive photography event," said Lt. Comdr. Jack Gallant.
The spectacle may also hint at the comeback of sailpower in an oil-short world and the romantic desire, as penned by poet John Masefield, to go "down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky, and all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by, . . . ."