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As tall ships sail away, one thing seems certain: They'll be back

The majestic tall ships that have graced Buffalo's inner harbor over the long Fourth of July weekend unfurl their giant sails and begin departing Monday. A few will linger another day or two before leaving port.

In fact, the replica of the Santa Maria will remain docked at the Erie Basin Marina and be open for tours for another week before it, too, leaves Buffalo.

But one thing now seems more certain: The ships will be back.

Mike Vogel, one of the lead organizers for the four-day festival that saw 12 tall ships docked from Canalside and Riverwalk down to the Erie Basin Marina, said Sunday's rebound attendance after the Saturday downpours is expected to help the tall ship festival meet its financial goals.

"We’re looking at hitting our projected attendance numbers," he said Sunday. "Our financial goal was to break even. If we do that, and I think we will, then I think we’ll have the right to host every three years."

Assuming the tall ships return on that schedule, visitors can anticipate another visit in 2022 and then in 2025, in time to help celebrate the bicentennial of the opening of the Erie Canal.

Between now and then, visitors who haven't yet seen the the ships with sails unfurled with have a final chance as the ships prepare to depart.

While long lines in oppressive heat on Friday were followed by heavy rains Saturday morning, challenging the more than 800 person, volunteer-led effort, the ship captains and crews of the wooden flotilla have heaped praise on the host city, he said.

"They’re happy with us," said Vogel, president of the Buffalo Lighthouse Association. "They’re interested in seeing us commit to another festival another three years down the road. Operationally, it’s going really smoothly right now."

Sunday brought near ideal temperatures to the last day of the tall ship festival, with long lines to get past the security gates and lines running as long 1 to 1½ hours to board some ships by mid-afternoon, according to event volunteers. The Buffalo River also experienced high boating traffic, with colorful kayaks and larger pleasure craft vying for unobstructed views of the sailing vessels from the water.

Since the Parade of Sail brought the ships into the city on the Fourth of July, visitors have come by the thousands to see them. Other Great Lakes cities have drawn an average of 125,000 visitors, and Buffalo is on track to meet that figure, Vogel said. According to Buffalo police estimates, about 40,000 came down to watch the ships sail in, followed by 30,000 people Friday and 15,000 on Saturday.

Given Sunday's pleasant weather, another 30,000 to 40,000 were expected for the last day of the Basil Port of Call Buffalo.

Karen Buntich and Kathleen West were among those present to see the ships sail in, and they returned Friday and Saturday to tour as many boats as they could. The ships arrived from Toronto and will continue on to Cleveland as part of the Tall Ships Challenge Great Lakes race.

"It was a wonderful experience," Buntich said. "I'm so glad we did it, and the Santa Maria was the best."

As Buntich and West, both from Lackawanna, sipped wine coolers at Canalside, they admired the busy waterfront. "This is what we need here," Buntich said. "Everyone's having a good time. And it doesn't have to cost a lot, either."

Though this event has been years in the making, Vogel said, it took a long time to get potential sponsors involved because many just couldn't envision its magnitude.

"Now that they’ve seen it, I think it will go a lot easier in future years," he said.

He was less sure if the boats would return to the same spots as this year, though.

"We'll have to look at it," he said.

Vogel described the event as a learning experience for everyone, including the organizers.

Tour lines had to be cut off by 4:30 p.m. or earlier, when organizers determined that visitors wouldn't make it on board before ships closed for the day at 5 p.m. With the crush of visitors and soaring temperatures Friday, organizers had to scramble to adjust security rules so that bottled water could be made available to parched ticket holders in the secure areas.

Everything was moving smoothly by Saturday, though some visitors who came Friday and Sunday were annoyed by the wait times, given the $20 daily entry fees for adults.

"Disney World is bad enough," muttered one dismayed visitor on Sunday.

Vogel said not too much could be done to address the lines. The tall ships can only hold so many people at once. But what could be adjusted to make the experience better, he said, was adjusted.

"It's like learning to draw – the first sketch you do is not going to be a masterpiece," he said.

Rick and Sandra Posa of North Tonawanda visited all of the ships at the festival Saturday and boarded most of them.

"It's an unbelievable experience to have this in Western New York," Rick Posa said.

The event also gave them a fuller view of Canalside and Erie Basin Marina.

"Very impressed," Sandra Posa said. "It makes us proud."

Many chose to content themselves by viewing the ships through the chain link fence and enjoying other Canalside activities and booths.

Though paid tickets were required to get the closest view of the ships and to board and tour them, Vogel said organizers worked to shrink the size of the security zone at Canalside as much as regulations would allow, in order to give the public the closest, free view of the ships possible. The best free viewing points were of the ships south of the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park and in the Erie Basin Marina.

For anyone disappointed at not seeing the tall ships in full sail, or still wishing to tour a tall ship, it's not too late. Sails will again be unfurled Monday morning as most of the vessels sail out of Buffalo after 9 a.m., en route to Cleveland. It's not an organized departure, in contrast to their arrival Thursday.

Four ships will remain past Monday morning for anyone who would like one last look. The Brig Niagara will depart from Canalside on Monday evening. The Pride of Baltimore will depart from Canalside on Tuesday, and Picton Castle will depart from the Erie Street Dock along the Riverwalk on Wednesday.

The Santa Maria, a replica of one of the ships that Christopher Columbus used on his first journey to the New World, will remain at the Erie Basin Marina through July 14. Visitors will be allowed to tour the boat for a fee.

With tall ships, Buffalo becomes harbor it was always meant to be

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