The ships that flew across the seas during the age of sail (the 16th through the middle of the 19th century) continue to fascinate. Even a small gathering draws a lot of attention. Maybe too much attention, as was the case at the Duluth Tall Ship Festival in 2016.
The next tall ship festival in Duluth is planned for 2022.
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Exploring the Duluth Tall Ship Festival
This was the fourth Tall Ship Festival held in Duluth (the others were in 2008, 2011, and 2013), a four-day event that featured eight ships, a giant rubber duck, and an art fair. Over 300,000 tickets were sold for the event, which was held in the harbor along Bayfront and Canal parks in the heart of Duluth.
Admiring the festival’s tall ships
The Duluth Tall Ship Festival always opens with a tall ship parade into the inner harbor under the Aerial Lift Bridge.
Unfortunately, it was a dark and windy day (with the potential for a late afternoon storm), so the tall ships were moved under the bridge and into the inner harbor pretty quickly. I had the opportunity to watch from the roof of a nearby building, but I got up there a little late so only got to see the last few ships (the US Brig Niagara and El Galeon Andalucía) enter the harbor.
The festival grounds were open for the rest of the afternoon and evening, allowing visitors to see the tall ships (but not tour them) and visit the art fair.
The tall ships were either open for tours or offering cruises around the harbor on Friday (when it was hot and steamy), Saturday (cold and threatening rain), and Sunday (a perfect summer day).
I looked at the ships on Friday and Saturday, but I didn’t go on any. Instead, I watched them move around the Duluth harbor (while hoping one would head under the Lift Bridge) and imagining a time when major ports were filled with towering masts.
The most popular tall ship at the Duluth festival seemed to be the El Galeon Andalucía, a replica of a 16th-17th century galleon used by Spain to establish and maintain trade routes around the world.
Judging by the conversations I overheard, it was what most people envision when they thought of a pirate ship (pirates actually used all sorts of ships) and the line to tour it was always hours long.
I like my ships light and lean, so hulking warships like El Galeon are really not my thing. (Unless of course, we are talking about the Vasa, where the overabundance of decoration more than makes up for the ship’s overall bulk). However, my fondness for El Galeon increased dramatically once night fell.
El Galeon after dark
As the Duluth Tall Ship Festival closed for the day, most of the area around the ships was closed off to the public and the ships themselves went dark . . . except for El Galeon, which was both accessible to the public and beautifully illuminated.
A duck amid the tall ships
Despite El Galeon’s obvious popularity, she had serious competition as the festival highlight. Or maybe “serious” isn’t exactly the correct word, as the other star of this show was a 61-foot rubber duck.
While lots of people professed to hate the duck, the area around it was always packed with selfie-takers and folks just generally marveling at the silliness of it all.
Sadly, after the rubber ducky did a lap around the harbor during the opening parade it never moved again. It was clear from the conversation in the crowd that I wasn’t the only one who really really really wanted to see it “swimming” around the harbor with the tall ships and “ducking” under the Lift Bridge!
(See Duped by the Duck for the story behind this controversial rubber ducky.)
Farewell to Duluth’s tall ships
While the festival itself ended on Sunday afternoon, those of us who hung around Duluth until Monday had another chance to look at the boats and even watch them head out to Lake Superior under the Lift Bridge.
Where to see tall ships
Duluth’s festival usually occurs every few years, but there are places to see at least a few tall ships every year.
Seeing the tall ships in Duluth
The next Duluth Tall Ship Festival, now renamed the Festival of Sail, returns to Duluth in 2022.
While it was fun to see these ships, it’s hard to recommend the Duluth event, given the small number of ships and the fact that complaints about parking, lines, and event management in general seem to go unaddressed year after year. (The new name doesn’t seem to include a change of management.) Simple fixes like providing parking and regular shuttles at the edges of the city (say in Proctor, at the community college, at the shopping mall, etc., instead of just downtown), multiple entry/exit points (including allowing entry and exit at the same spot), easier access to the art show (like moving the art show OUTSIDE the ticketed area), and setting more realistic limits on ticket sales (just because you can sell 300,000 tickets doesn’t mean you should) really need to be addressed for a truly enjoyable event.
If you do go, tickets for the 2019 festival started at $10. The Fast Pass (which includes entry into the festival each day and front-of-the-line access to ship tours) was $73.
All tickets for sailing on one of the tall ships were sold out by the time the festival opened.
Lodging in Duluth will also sell out long before the festival.
- You can check your options in Duluth on TripAdvisor or Expedia.
- Airbnb may be another option. As always, if you haven’t tried Airbnb, this link can save you $40 on your first booking.
Stay outside Duluth to save on costs and spend some time exploring some of the great Minnesota State Parks in the area.
Other places to see tall ships
There is a tall ship festival somewhere every year. These range from events featuring a few ships to multi-country events that feature stops at various ports over the course of a few weeks or even months.
The Tall Ships Network has a page specifically devoted to tall ship events. This is a great resource for identifying when and where you can see a number of tall ships together.
Great Lakes Tall Ship Challenge
The annual Great Lakes Tall Ship Challenge includes stops in the USA and Canada.
Sailing opportunities are available many places
Keep in mind that the opportunity to sail on a tall ship isn’t limited to festivals like this.
Various ships around the world take passengers on cruises ranging from a few hours to a few weeks.
We’ve done this several times over the years, sailing for two weeks in the Caribbean on the Mandalay (1992) and for a couple of hours in Nova Scotia on the Blue Nose 2 (2002) and in New York City on the Clipper City (2015). The opportunity to sail on a tall ship for an hour or two is available in many port cities in the USA and around the world!