An international fleet of tall ships - sails billowing and flags flying - will parade through Boston Harbor June 2, launching a five-day Spirit of Massachusetts Festival.
Already, planners are busy shoring up festival preparations. The celebration coincides with the 200th anniversary of the opening of the China Trade and will commemorate New England's Golden Age of Sail, the period between 1850 and 1900 when the region reached its apex in commerce and trade.
''The tall ships represent a very colorful, cooperative, peaceful exchange between cultures. Seagoing heritage is something all countries recognize,'' says Robin Travers of New England Historic Seaport, a nonprofit, educational organization that is sponsoring the tall ships festival.
A tall ship is any vessel that has a main mast about 100 feet tall and whose deck measures 100 feet or more. Many tall ships are owned by governments of various countries and are used by naval or merchant navies, marine academies, corporations, and schools.
This year, the Bay State will have its own tall ship to lead the Parade of Sail.
The SSS Spirit of Massachusetts, now nearing the end of its construction in the Charlestown Navy Yard, is to be launched on Saturday. Cranes will hoist the 125-foot, two-masted, 19th-century Fredonia-style Boston/Gloucester fishing schooner - under construction since last June - into the water. After christening, the Spirit will receive about a month's worth of finishing touches, and then she'll greet and lead the other tall ships as they parade through Boston Harbor.
About 75 vessels, including the tall ships and privately owned vessels, are expected to participate in the festival. To enter the Parade of Sail, a vessel must be a sailboat and auxiliary-powered, says Henry Dormitzer, chairman of the board of the New England Historic Seaport. A sailboat must meet one or more of the following criteria:
* A deck length of 100 feet or more.
* An unique, old-time design.
* Have carried sail trainees, regardless of design.
About 1 million people are expected to watch the parade.
''The public gets so much out of it (the festival),'' Mr. Dormitzer says. And ''it's an economic advantage for the city of Boston and the commonwealth,'' he adds.
But Dormitzer, a retired electronics executive who saw the tall ships come to Boston in 1976 for the Bicentennial and again in 1980 for Boston's 350th birthday, says there's more to holding a tall ship festival than meets the eye.
''You're trying to make sure everything goes well,'' he says. ''There are a great many details that have to be taken care of. Ships have to be accommodated.'' He cites a few examples: tugs must be provided to turn the big ships around, and work boats will be needed for the smaller boats.
In addition, the Office of Business and Cultural Development is coordinating Boston's role in the festival planning, says Olyce Moore, a Seaport coordinator. Police, fire, traffic, and parking are a few of the departments involved with the planning. And the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, the US Coast Guard, and the National Park Service are also planning for the event, she says.
Along with the Spirit, some vessels that are expected to take part in the festival are the USS Constitution, which will be reviewing the tall ship parade; Cisne-Branco, a cadet training vessel of the Brazilian Navy; Cuahtemoc, a 297 -foot square rigger representing Mexico; Pride of Baltimore, a 90-foot wooden schooner; and Regina Maris, a 76-year-old marine research vessel of Boston.
Each tall ship will be welcomed by a booming salute from the cannons of the USS Constitution. Then the vessels will dock on Boston's Army Base Pier, where the Spirit of Massachusetts Exhibit will be open to the public. The display will portray the Spirit's construction and her role in Massachusetts' commerce and development.
The exhibit - as well as the festival - will also spotlight shipbuilding days of old, featuring the work of 19th-century shipwright Donald McKay. Out of his East Boston shipyard, McKay designed and contructed some of the swiftest clipper ships in 19th-century America.
His first ship, Stag Hound, was launched Dec. 7, 1850. Flying Cloud, his second ship, holds the record for sailing the fastest voyage, 89 days, from New York to San Francisco. And Lightning, another McKay clipper ship, logged 21 knots on a voyage to Australia, a record that is still standing today.
A number of cultural and recreational activities will be held during the five-day festival. The Boston Ballet, at the Hatch Shell June 1-3, will perform a number of dances with a seafaring theme. Three pieces in the repertory are ''Sea Alliance,'' ''Stars and Stripes Pas de Deux,'' and ''Sailin' Away.''
The ''Ship Channel Sprint,'' a pulling boat (a type of rowboat) race, will be held June 3. The eight-mile race for rowing and ocean paddling craft begins at Windmill Point in Hull, moves into Nantasket Roads, through the Narrows with the tide, and up the old ship channel to the USS Constitution in the Charlestown Navy Yard.
The festival will close June 7 with the tall ships race from Boston to Halifax, Nova Scotia. The prize will be a sterling silver trophy, a replica of McKay's Flying Cloud, and will become a perpetual trophy for the race.
When will the tall ships next return to Boston?
''I'd guess they might come back in two years,'' Dormitzer says. They've been invited to New York for the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty in the United States, he says. ''If they go to New York, we'll try to induce them to come up here.''