DULUTH -- About halfway through Duluth’s 2008 tall ships festival that brought three sailing vessels to the city, Visit Duluth President Terry Mattson said “I need more ships.”

Two years later he got them - nine ships in total - and an estimated 250,000 spectators. Mattson expects at least as many visitors for this year’s festival, which starts Thursday when 10 ships enter Duluth in a Grand Parade of Sail.

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The parade will include vessels familiar to the Duluth-Superior, Wis., area - the US Brig Niagara and Pride of Baltimore II, replicas of ships from the War of 1812; and the schooners S/V Denis Sullivan and Zeeto, both of which would have been at home on the Great Lakes in the 1850s - and vessels paying their first calls - including the Peacemaker, built in Brazil, and the S.S. Sorlandet, a full-rigged, three-mast ship from Norway.

Advance ticket sales have been brisk, exceeding expectations, Mattson said. People from 42 states and four Canadian provinces bought tickets for the 2010 festival. By the middle of last week, people from 46 states and every Canadian province had bought tickets.

“Tall ships were so popular in 2010 that fans can’t wait to come back,” Mattson said. “For many people this is a once-in-a-life experience. There is something magical about it.”

People are not flocking to Duluth to just see the ships. Fans wanting to sail aboard a tall ship quickly snapped up the approximately 2,600 tickets available for day sails.

Offering an additional vessel to see is not the festival’s only change. Another is that Harbor Drive and Bayfront Park will remain open until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday so visitors can stroll by and view the ships after onboard tours end at 5 p.m. The festival grounds open at noon Thursday and 9 a.m. Friday, Saturday and July 28. People needing to enter earlier for a day sail will be allowed in.

Ships are not the festival’s only attractions. A range of entertainment - much of it maritime-themed - will be offered each day.

“I think we came up with a good lineup,” promoter Craig Samborski said. “We tried to schedule for a wide range of demographics.”

Duluth puts on a wonderful festival, said Patti Lock, director of the Tall Ships Challenge series of events.

“There is so much there for people to enjoy it becomes a very full day,” she said. “I know they go the distance to see it.”

There was a time on the Great Lakes when the sight of several sailing ships was anything but special. In 1870, there were 2,000 sailing ships on the Lakes. Ports such as Chicago and Milwaukee could see 100 sailing ships arrive in a day seeking shelter when storms threatened. The Twin Ports probably saw days with 60 to 70 sails in harbor. Advancing technology, however, doomed sailing ships, with clouds of black smoke replacing billowing white sails.

A romanticized view of the age of sail and their novelty makes tall ships popular attractions. Lock likes to ask people what they like about tall ships.

“Pretty much everyone says, ‘We really don’t know, but they are so beautiful. We wish there was something like this when we were growing up,’ ” she said. “I think people live vicariously through the crew, the 24-7, 365 dynamic. They are intrigued by it.”

The nonprofit Tall Ships America organized the 2013 Great Lakes Tall Ships Challenge - which Duluth is part of - and the Tall Ships 1812 Tour. More than 25 tall ships are taking part in the challenge and the tour, with appearances in 22 ports expected to draw millions of visitors. Festivals already held have had strong attendance, Lock said.

There is a lot of additional interest in tall ships in Ontario and on the eastern lakes because of the bicentennial of the War of 1812, which lasted from 1812 to 1815. In an average year, Toronto might be the only Ontario port hosting a tall ship festival. This year 17 Ontario ports are participating.

“For them, the War of 1812 established Canadianess,” Lock said. “1813 was the year that the war came to the Great Lakes theater, so there are a lot of activities” commemorating the war.

The events include the bicentennial of the Battle of Lake Erie, fought near Put-in-Bay on Sept. 10, 1813. In that battle nine American vessels, including the original Niagara, defeated and captured six British vessels. The battle gave America control of Lake Erie for the rest of the war.

The battle will be commemorated with events from Aug. 29 to Sept. 10. Seventeen tall ships, including several that will be in Duluth, will participate in the bicentennial.

Lock said she expects this year’s Canadian interest in tall ships will extend into the future.

“I think now that they’ve had a taste of it, they are going to want to be on the list when we come back in 2016,” she said.

The tourism impact of tall ships can last long after a festival ends.

Mattson estimates that Duluth’s festival will bring in $15 million, as well as giving Duluth a priceless amount of publicity. Overall, tourism inquires to Visit Duluth are up more than 30 percent this year.

“It’s due to the tall ships,” he said.

Steve Kuchera | Duluth News Tribune