This weekend, more than a dozen tall ships will enter Portland Harbor to take part in a festival the likes of which the city hasn’t experienced in 15 years.
The event – its official title is “Iberdrola USA Tall Ships Portland Festival 2015” – is the brainchild of Alex Agnew, a local business owner and sailing enthusiast. Agnew is the president of Navigator Publishing, which publishes several maritime-focused trade magazines, such as Ocean Navigator and Professional Mariner, out of offices in the old Portland Co. complex on the city’s eastern waterfront.
While the event is significant in its own right – the U.S. Coast Guard in January designated it a “Marine Event of National Significance” – it also marks the birth of a new Portland-based nonprofit. Sailing Ships Portland will be officially launched at an event Thursday night. Its goal is to provide at least 50 scholarships a year to Maine high school students so they can spend a week learning about sailing on some of the roughly 15 tall ships that will be visiting Portland this weekend. In fact, the organization has already provided scholarships to 17 students who are training on tall ships headed to Portland now.
Agnew expects tens of thousands of people to watch the Parade of Sail on Saturday, and the actual festival will take place Sunday and Monday. The festival – the first of its kind since OpSail Maine 2000 – will include tours of the vessels along the city’s waterfront. Tickets cost $15, and Agnew said the organization hopes to sell 30,000 tickets to the two-day event. It has already sold 3,000 advance tickets. Iberdrola, which owns Central Maine Power Co., is the festival’s chief sponsor.
Agnew talked about the event, sail training, and the future of his nonprofit in this edited interview.
Q: Why did you want to organize this event?
A: I got into this because I love sail training. I love sailing. But also, the price of used cruising sailboats is falling and the number of new boats being built is falling – those are bad indicators for our business. People are not going cruising under sail as much as they used to. Cruising under sail was growing and very successful into the 1970s, ’80s and doing pretty well in the ’90s, and now participation has been declining. I identified that as something we need to solve in our (publishing) business so I came up with two program ideas, one of which is tall ship-focused. I think getting people down to the tall ships and by really experiencing them, they’ll make the connection with their own cruising adventures of the future. So we’re planting seeds of the future here. We have 17 kids out sailing right now. They’re doing one- and two-week trips. Even if those kids never sail again, their lives will be transformed by this experience.
Q: What do you like about tall ships and sail training?
A: I like that each one is a school and that you’re forced to work as a team, your cellphone doesn’t work and you don’t get to select your work hours, you don’t get to negotiate anything. You’re part of a watch, you’re told when to stand that watch, you’re told what to do and you’re told exactly how to do it, and everyone’s safety revolves around your ability to absorb that information and perform. No one gets left out, everybody performs a role and it’s minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day. If you’re on watch when the ship is underway you’re making sure you’re not hitting anything. If you’re on watch when the ship is at anchor, you’re making sure the ship doesn’t drag. But you have a role to play, and everyone else is depending on you because they can’t go down below and sleep if they can’t trust that you’re doing your job on the helm or on the watch or whatever your job is.
Sail training is a growing industry. And we have evidence that it’s a really good and efficient way of educating people in leadership. It’s good for at-risk youth, it’s good for disadvantaged youth, it’s good for the advantaged. It actually takes the advantaged down a peg and puts them on equal footing with kids from all walks of life. It doesn’t matter if your parents have no money or if your parents are millionaires. You’re all put in the watch system and it’s a meritocracy. You get more responsibility as you show you’re worth it.
Q: When did you begin lining up these tall ships to come to Portland?
A: I went to Philadelphia (in February) for this Tall Ships America conference and I put up a sign for Portland. I had nothing … nothing. But I put up a sign and I got there at 5:00, I was set up by 5:05 and by – not kidding – 6 o’clock we had our four Class A’s signed up to come to Portland. Class A’s are the big square-riggers. The big four are the Eagle, the Perry, Picton Castle and El Galeon. Any one of them would have been enough for an event. We have four in Portland, that’s 10 percent of the world fleet of big sailing ships. It’s a really significant event.
Q: Tell me about the logistical challenges of getting more than a dozen tall ships situated in Portland Harbor.
A: It is very difficult to organize a tall ships event in Portland. Fortunately, we had a very enthusiastic partner in the city of Portland. The city required that we cover their overtime and out-of-pocket expenses during the festival, but they’ve been very supportive in changing the pier so it works for us. The Coast Guard has also been an absolutely phenomenal partner, Tall Ships America has been an amazing partner, the ships have been amazing. This thing just fell into place and part of the reason it did is people love Portland and want to be here. The city is a magnet, an attraction in itself.
Q: Is your plan to make this a reoccurring event?
A: Canada’s 150th birthday is in 2017, so there’s a big rendezvous planned for the birthday. They’ve been planning it for like 10 years. So the ships come over, they visit Bermuda in June. They’re going to Boston for a nice event in June and to Quebec in July. We would be in a good position to invite them back here in August of 2017. These events bring attention and they help us fund our school program, so it’s kind of a triangle.
Q: What aspect of the event areyou looking forward to the most?
A: When you’re running an event like this, you just hope things go well, so I don’t think I’ll have any time to enjoy this event myself. But I will say the thing that gets me the most excited is seeing these kids, meeting them and hearing their stories. Those 17 kids. That first night out at sea they had no idea what they were getting themselves into. I just want to ask them, “What did they think that first night out?” For me, that’s really what it’s about.