Sailing ships were the long-distance trucks of the 19th century.
The banks of the Maumee River and the waters of Lake Erie once were alive with spiky masts and groaning wooden hulls. Back then, some ships did provide for the nation's defense, such as the fleet commanded by Oliver Hazard Perry in the American victory over the British fleet for control of Lake Erie in September, 1813.
Most of the ships, however, simply were transportation - a way to haul cargo and travelers from one port to another, tarry hulks guided through the Great Lakes by scruffy sailors who spoke their own sort of English.
Today, sailing ships are pure romance. They're cleaner, faster, and safer, playthings for the very rich or expensive public-relations reps for cities, corporations, or sailing clubs.
Tall Ships Toledo is bringing 17 of these vessels back into the Maumee River harbor, and each has its own colorful story.
The Red Witch is not the biggest or most remarkable ship in the lineup, but it's on the top of many lists: It's the official Flagship of the Ohio Bicentennial and the only Ohio-based sailing ship in the parade. Commanded by Sandusky native Capt. Karl Busam, the Red Witch, along with the topsail schooner Appledore IV, will offer visitors to the festival the chance to purchase day-sail trips of 90 minutes each.
Almost all of the ships participating in Huntington Tall Ships Toledo fly the U.S. or Canadian flag.
“We tried for European ships, but with coastal trade laws, crew laws, and the particular skills a pilot needs to sail the Great Lakes, the costs were just too high,” said event coordinator Kelly Rivera.
That's not to say the festival won't have some international intrigue. The INS Tarangini, a barque that belongs to the Indian navy, is among the scheduled participants.
Biggest ship honors at the festival go to the barquentine Caledonia, 245 feet long and 145 feet tall - so tall the mast must be lowered to clear a cable stretched over the Maumee.
The Canadian brigantine Pathfinder is scheduled only for the opening Parade of Sails. Its crew is made up of youths and teens spending their summer learning to sail through the American Sailing Training Association.
“Goodwill” boats representing particular places include the Edward M. Cotter, a fireboat from Buffalo, named after a longtime firefighters' union president.
Other ships, such as the Pride of Baltimore II, are meant to promote tourism and harbors along the Chesapeake Bay as well as places such as Port Huron and Traverse City, Mich.
Some of the participating ships have been movie stars.
The HMS Bounty was built for MGM Studios in 1960 for its Mutiny on the Bounty production; it also appeared in Treasure Island and Yellowbeard.
But it's not all wind power. The Maumee River Yacht Club is hosting 13 steamboats from the Mid West Steamboats Association.
The steamboats, which will be docked near the Owens-Illinois building and COSI Toledo on the downtown side of the river, will join the Associated Yacht Clubs for a “Salute to the Fleet” water parade honoring the ships at noon on Saturday.
The Toledo Rowing Club also will present demonstrations of their muscle-powered crafts.