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It's a trophy vessel, and Buffalo's waterfront is its mantle this weekend.

Saturday, visitors lined sidewalks at Erie Basin Marina waiting for a chance to board the schooner America and have a look at the digs on "the most famous racing yacht in history."

In it's maiden voyage to Buffalo as part of the third-annual Fleet Waterfest, the America did not disappoint.

"We drove 65 miles, and I'd have driven 100 miles to see her. I think she's gorgeous," said Dick Vantine, a Buffalo native, who now lives in North Carolina and was visiting the area. "She must have been one hell of a ship in her day."

It was not exactly this ship Vantine was talking about, but it may have well been.

The original America was built in 1851 and shocked the racing world that year by soundly defeating 14 cutters and schooners from the world-famous British fleet, but it last sailed more than a half-century ago.

Its replica, rebuilt privately at a cost of $5 million and first launched Aug. 28, 1995, is the 139-foot-long and 108-foot-tall craft that shines radiantly in Buffalo Harbor.

After tours in the Caribbean and Mediterranean the last two years, The America is sailing through the Great Lakes this summer.

"When I heard she was going to be here, I had to come," added Vantine, who is staying at his summer cottage in Lyndonville. "Don't ever get bitten by the love bug for boats or you'll never get over it."

Bob Doll of West Seneca wouldn't mind that if it meant bringing a mass of people down to the waterfront.

"Anything that draws a crowd down to the waterfront is worthwhile. Even though it's a replica, it has a lot of history behind it," said Doll, a member of the China Light Yacht Club and the Buffalo Harbor Sailing Club.

Waterfest organizers say that America is "a treat" for this year's festival visitors and goes a long way in promoting what the event is trying to accomplish.

"The whole focus is to draw attention to the Buffalo waterfront and what it has to offer," said Bob Sweeney, vice chairman of Waterfest Inc.

"The majority of people don't recognize this is a tremendous resource. There are communities across the country that would give millions for something we take for granted."

Waterfest, in its first year as a two-day event, features a variety of activities and exhibits at Erie Basin Marina and three other "ports" -- the Naval Park, Tifft Farms and the Buffalo Lighthouse. It runs from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. today. There is no admission fee.

America plans 54-passenger, 3 1/2 -hour sunset sails on Lake Erie tonight and Monday. Anyone interested should report to the dock by 7 each night. The cost is $100.

The historic yacht -- for which the America's Cup is named -- will be docked in Buffalo until Tuesday morning, when it sets sail for a visit to Rochester next weekend before heading out through the St. Lawrence Seaway, around Nova Scotia and down the East Coast in the coming months.

The yacht plans visits to Sydney, Australia, for the 2000 Olympic Games and will be the host vessel at America's Cup 2000 in New Zealand.

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