On a firecracker-hot Fourth of July, Gretel Fitch of Perry and her family waited at the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park for their — tall — ships to come in.
A Coast Guard vessel led the Spirit of Buffalo, the first ship in the flotilla, past the Buffalo Lighthouse and into the Inner Harbor shortly before 4:30 p.m., and loud cheers went up as ship horns blared and (fake) cannons fired.
It was the start of a spectacular parade of 11 vessels that sailed from Lake Erie inside the Buffalo Harbor breakwall.
Thousands of spectators — drawn by blue skies, a chance to see history and the fanfare of a revived Buffalo waterfront — lined the Outer Harbor, Canalside and Erie Basin Marina to watch the ships arrive.
"They're fantastic," Fitch said after the first few ships sailed past slowly and regally. "I think if it were slightly cooler, it would be even better. We just need to jump in the water now."
Dubbed "Basil Port of Call: Buffalo," a dozen traditionally rigged sailing vessels from around the world, including one that did not participate in the parade, will remain in Buffalo until Sunday afternoon as part of the Tall Ships Challenge Great Lakes.
Andrea Ruminski, of Alden, was among those who came early to watch the spectacle. The reason?
"Just the whole bringing back Buffalo's maritime history," she said, showing off a Buffalo waterfront-themed coffee mug she'd purchased. "We're very lucky to have these lakes."
Some visiting boats dropped anchor Thursday morning at Canalside and the Erie Basin Marina, giving the public a sneak peek as they waited for the rest.
Sailors on the Spirit of Baltimore II, a clipper-style schooner, and the Denis Sullivan, a traditional Great Lakes topsail schooner with a 95-foot foremast, docked their vessels at Canalside. The Appledore IV and Appledore V, both gaff schooners, were moored at Erie Basin Marina. Those ships left to take part in the parade later Thursday.
Pamela Wisniewski of Clarence was among the first spectators to to claim a prime viewing spot and wait for the tall ships to arrive. She and her husband, Dennis, arrived around 9 a.m. and plunked down some chairs along the railing near the entrance to Erie Basin Marina.
“Just the idea that something like this would come to our waterfront is really amazing to me,” Wisniewski said as she sail-gated.
At the nearby Naval Park, Sharon Camizzi of South Buffalo looked forward to seeing the brig Niagara, a reproduction of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry's flagship from the Battle of Lake Erie in the War of 1812.
"I remember my grandmother giving me a story about Oliver Hazard Perry when I young, and that was really cool," Camizzi said.
Ted Elliott of Attica, who came with daughters Alee and Emma and son Ethan, said he's impressed with the many improvements made to Buffalo's waterfront.
"I think it's great. Obviously the crowds prove it," he said, before calling the ships, "a once-in-a-lifetime thing for us."
Glenn Bobeck of Grand Island came straight from a golf tournament to the Naval Park at the urging of his wife, Ann, daughter, Sophia, and son, Aaron.
"How can you not do this on the Fourth of July?" Ann Bobeck said.
Her husband works for Phillips Lytle at One Canalside and has seen the transformation of the city waterfront as events like the tall ships draw throngs to the Inner Harbor.
"Two years ago, we came out to see the big rubber duck," he said.
Jack Fox of Cheektowaga was leaning against the Vietnam Veterans Memorial when a reporter asked what brought him to the Naval Park.
Fox paused to collect himself before saying, "To honor my brother, whose name is on the wall."
Thomas J. Fox was killed in action on Nov. 12, 1965, at the age of 21. Jack Fox said his brother, who grew up in North Tonawanda, was the first person from Niagara County killed in Vietnam.
"I get very emotional," Fox said, squinting in the bright sunshine.
By 4:15 p.m., a Coast Guard boat clearing small craft from the middle of the Inner Harbor waterway led the beginning of the parade past the Naval Park. When someone on the Coast Guard vessel used a loudspeaker to say, "Happy Fourth of July," the crowd at the park responded in kind, with one woman adding "Go America!" as a punctuation mark.
Visitors stood two or three deep along the fence near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to get a good view and take smartphone pictures of the sailing ships.
Victoria Domon, 22, of Akron, who was there with her mother, Pamela, said she wanted to see the boats because she's a big history buff.
In fact, given that it was Independence Day, she quipped she was "disappointed by the lack of tea being thrown into the harbor."
Linda Schineller, a member of the Port of Call: Buffalo steering committee, said the ships got into formation in Lake Erie to prepare for the parade. The ships arrived one at a time to dock at one of three locations along the Inner Harbor, from Erie Basin Marina to Canalside.
The parade took about 90 minutes for the ships, spaced out by several hundred feet between each vessel, to make their way to their "parking spots," as one onlooker put it.
Milton Thomas of North Buffalo, who held an umbrella over his head and had his shirt completely unbuttoned to unsuccessfully cope with the muggy heat, said he was struck by the effort taken to make the ships such authentic replicas of their predecessors.
"That is awesome," Thomas said, snapping pictures of the Niagara and pointing out the rigging and other features. "I don't know how old it is, but they put a lot of detail into manufacturing it."
Basil Port of Call: Buffalo – If you go
Here's what to know if you're going to see the Basil Port of Call: Buffalo
• There's no cost to walk around and check out the 12 tall ships, which are docked at three different locations at Erie Basin Marina, near the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park and at Canalside.
• Boarding the ships requires the purchase of a Passport voucher. They cost $20 for adults, $18 for seniors 65 and older and veterans or $10 for children 11 and under and can be purchased for Friday, Saturday or Sunday.
General public ship boarding: 11 a.m.-5 p.m. each day.
Group boarding: 10 a.m.-11 a.m. each day, by appointment only.
• You can also purchase tickets for tall ship “sailaway” excursions.
• In addition, visitors will find maritime music, family entertainment, children's activities and other attractions.
• For more information on how best to get down to the waterfront, how to buy vouchers for ship boarding or excursions and answers to other questions visit TallShipsBuffalo.org.