Brigantines, barks, schooners, and more waft a city back in time

AS the majestic tall ships take their bows in Boston, spectators are set adrift in the romantic past. These are storybook vessels, adventure-movie ships. They remind us of a time when man, not machine, did most of the work.

This week in Boston, millions saluted some of the world's most spectacular ships under sail, gathered to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's joining "of two different worlds," as Giancarlo Schiavoni, captain of Italy's Amerigo Vespucci, put it. The flotilla, consisting of 225 vessels from 35 nations, was one of the largest such gatherings in modern times.

For the ships, the spectacle is not so much a drift into the past as a reaffirmation of the present. Some of the ships serve as training vessels for navies: The weeks at sea, and especially the regattas are good practice for crews. The ships are colorful ambassadors for their countries, as well.

Besides, the ships need to be seen almost as badly as people want to see them. "It's important to maintain budgetary support by showcasing these vessels," says Al Raine, executive director of Massport, which was responsible for much of the Boston Harbor event.

It's not a question of preserving the tall ships, as one would preserve something for a museum, it's maintaining them, comments Charles Mason, executive editor of Sail magazine. "These ships are being maintained, and will be long into the future ... as long as young people want to go to sea and there are experienced seamen to teach them."

"The main thing is to keep her afloat, keep her sailing," says Captain Dag Frigstad of Norway's flagship, the Christian Radich, winner of the first leg of the regatta.

Saturday's "Grand Parade of Sail" kicked off six days of festivities here in Boston.

Led by the U.S.S. Constitution, the promenade cruised slowly into Boston Harbor, flanked by hordes of spectator boats - from huge pleasure crafts and yachts to one-man kayaks and rowboats. On land, some people camped overnight to get a prime viewing spot on the soon-packed islands and piers.

Looking like maritime dinosaurs, the graceful ships contrasted with the city's skyscrapers and the spectator boats. Sails full and flags waving, they carried their proud crews past cheering throngs.

On Chile's Esmeralda, cadets stood elegantly on the ship's bowsprit. Russia's Sedov, the largest (385 feet long) of all the tall ships here and one of the largest in the world, drew gasps. Italy's Amerigo Vespucci showed off its ornate gilding; Germany's Alexander von Humboldt was easily recognized by its bright green hull and sails. The 26 "class A" ships, measuring from 170 to 385 feet long, made for a tall-ship purist's dream.

Before coming here, some of the ships visited ports associated with Columbus's journey - Genoa, Italy; Lisbon. They all met in Cadiz, Spain, for the first leg of a transatlantic "Grand Regatta." The race took them from Cadiz to San Juan, Puerto Rico, via the Canary Islands. From San Juan, the ships cruised to New York for a July 4 celebration, then north to Boston. Many now are under full sail to Liverpool, competing in the final leg of the regatta.

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