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Come sail away: Tall ships in Tacoma

Published on: June 01, 2008

The Puget Sound region has a love affair with boats. Tacoma offers an opportunity to view and tour 30 unique ships when the city sponsors the second Tall Ships Festival, July 3–7.

Tall shipTall ships are traditional sailing vessels with two or three masts (the vertical pole that holds the sail) and square-rigged sails (four-cornered sails that are carried on horizontal poles attached to the mast). They look like pirate ships from the movies. There are many types of sailing ships, ranging in size from 40 feet to nearly 200 feet and used for commercial or military purposes.

 The American Sail Training Association, a nonprofit group that coordinates sail-training activities to demonstrate different aspects of seamanship, is associated with bringing the ships to town. The association gathers traditional sailing vessels — from historic military vessels to merchant ships to cargo ships — to show visitors the importance of these sailing vessels to our history.

The festival begins with the Parade of Sails on July 3, when hundreds of private boats join the large sailing vessels to sail into the Thea Foss Waterway with full sails blowing in the wind.

Once the larger boats dock along the waterway, they are open for tours until July 7. Walk around the boats to see differences in classifications of ships — larger Class A (square-rigged ships 120 feet or longer), and smaller classes B and C. Learn how sailors live and what it takes to keep a sailing vessel going.

What might you see? The Coast Guard is bringing its 295-foot Eagle, the only active-duty sailing vessel in the fleet. This three-masted, square-rigged vessel, used for training Coast Guard cadets, is free to tour. Check out the historically accurate replica of Christopher Columbus’ ship, the Nina. It is a sailing museum, giving visitors the opportunity to experience a 15th-century vessel. If movies fascinate you, the HMS Bounty, built for the 1960 movie “Mutiny on the Bounty,” will be a favorite vessel. The Kaisei, a 151-foot brigantine vessel (two masts with at least one square rigged), is operated by Ocean Voyages Institute to teach about maritime arts and sciences.

One well-known ship — the 112-foot Lady Washington, built in Aberdeen — is a Class B full-scale replica of a freight boat used during the American Revolution. Sailing as its companion vessel is the 103-foot Hawaiian Chieftain, a replica of a late-1700s merchant trader. This smaller vessel is designed to enter small ports with shallow water.

Although the ships are the prime draw for the festival, there’s dockside entertainment as well. Along the waterfront, there are three themed villages set up: the Northwest Passage (near the Museum of Glass), the Tradewinds, and the Treasure Cove (near the three larger Class A vessels). There are children’s activities at each village as well as food, musical entertainment, and vendors.

Museums in the area also host special activities during the festival. The Working Waterfront Maritime Museum, right on the dockside, is reopening in time to host an exhibit on Tacoma’s tall ship history. The Washington State History Museum, just a short walk away, features a permanent display on ship building in the state and a June family program about maritime history (see sidebar). On Friday, July 4, from 1 to 4 p.m., local artist Diane Kurzyna leads a pirate- and mermaid-themed community workshop at the Museum of Glass.

Janice Lovelace, parent of two, is an outdoor enthusiast and avid photographer. A nationally published author, she frequently writes about traveling with children.

Tall ships events now

Can’t wait until July to experience the excitement of the tall ships? Sound Experience, which operates the 1913 schooner Adventuress, offers free dockside tours and public day sails ($20–$40) through October from ports of call all over Puget Sound. A three-day family sail for families with kids ages 8 and older is scheduled for August 8–10 (adults $350, children $225). Visit to register. On Saturday, June 14, at 11 a.m., the Washington State History Museum hosts a family program titled “Ships, Sailors and Sounds of the Sea.” The Shifty Sailors perform traditional sea shanties; author Chuck Fowler talks about his book Tall Ships on Puget Sound; and children’s book author Deb Lund presents Dinosailors. Visitors also can tour the Sea Scout ship Odyssey from 1 to 5 p.m. Program is free with admission.

— Kris Collingridge


Tall Ships of Tacoma Festival: July 3–7. $10 admission to all ships except for the three Class A vessels; $20 admission to all ships. 253-272-5650,

Working Waterfront Maritime Museum: 705 Dock St., Tacoma. Free admission during festival. 253-272-2750,

Washington State History Museum: 1911 Pacific Ave., Tacoma. Adults $8, ages 6–17 $6. 1-888-238-4373,

Museum of Glass: 1801 Dock St., Tacoma. Adults $10, ages 6–12 $4, ages 6 and younger free. 1-866-4MUSEUM,

City of Des Moines: Take an Argosy water taxi from the Des Moines Marina to the Tacoma waterfront to see the Tall Ships Festival, July 3–7. Adults $19, children $15 round trip. The Des Moines Marina will also have two tall ships docked there for viewing. Call 206-870-6527 to reserve tickets.


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