As many as 1 million people — far more than fought over Fort McHenry 200 years ago — will cram Baltimore's waterfront and squeeze their boats into narrow crannies around the harbor this week to welcome Navy vessels and tall ships, kicking off the state's commemoration of the War of 1812.
There will be no shortage of cannon salutes, screaming jets, period ditties and bonnet-wearing, gun-toting re-enactors for what is called the Star-Spangled Sailabration. But there will be a dearth of open spaces, restaurant tables and, quite possibly, patience.
"This event is the Baltimore Grand Prix times 10," said Robert Maloney, head of the city's Office of Emergency Management, comparing Sailabration to the Labor Day weekend auto race. "It covers a large area and involves three years of planning at the federal, state and local level along with the business community and nonprofit organizations."
One thing has dominated every element of planning: safety on the land and on the water, officials said.
Mindful of the St. Patrick's Day melee involving hundreds of roving teens and violence last July Fourth weekend that resulted in the fatal stabbing of one man and the wounding of a 4-year-old boy by an apparent stray bullet, Baltimore police said they will blanket the downtown, Inner Harbor and Fort McHenry with a massive show of force.
"There will be a very, very visible presence of uniformed police, in addition to hundreds of plainclothes officers, federal agents and military personnel working behind the scenes," said city police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi, adding that Maryland State Police troopers will be assisting.
Sailabration is the sum of thousands of moving parts, including five command centers, hundreds of law enforcement officers, 600 volunteers, 427 signs, 11 generators, 30 exhibits, 21 cooking demonstrations and 75 live concerts.
The city's waters will be decorated with 46 visiting ships filled with 4,000 sailors, 700 of whom have signed up to lead community outreach and education programs.
"An event of this size would not be possible without the dozens of partner organizations, the hundreds of volunteers, and the support of our private sector sponsors, the State of Maryland, Baltimore City and County," said Bill Pencek, executive director of the War of 1812 Bicentennial Commission. "We are ready and excited to showcase Maryland's Star-Spangled heritage to visitors and guests from around the world."
Officials are worried about the potentially dangerous mix of thousands of pleasure boats with tall ships, Navy vessels and commercial traffic in a small place with lots of distractions. The Coast Guard and law enforcement agencies will have more than 40 vessels on patrol and squads of volunteers at marinas and launch ramps to head off trouble.
Planners ran through 12 disaster scenarios in the years leading up to the event, everything from planes crashing into the harbor and two ships colliding to lightning striking spectators and a multi-alarm fire downtown, said Maloney.
"I think we're equal to any emergency," said Maloney. "The only thing that will be unavoidable is the traffic."
There are more than 30,000 parking spaces in garages and lots near the Inner Harbor and, in addition, the pay lots at M&T Bank Stadium and Camden Yards will be open. Transportation officials are urging people to take light rail, the subway and buses; staff will be at transit hubs to direct passengers.
Getting to Fort McHenry, the star of the Sailabration show, will take time and planning. The city Transportation Department will close Fort Avenue — the only road in — to personal vehicles June 14-17. A free shuttle bus service will run from M&T Bank Stadium, the Charm City Circulator will bring passengers from the Baltimore Visitor Center and the MTA Route 1 makes the run from Mondawmin.
The tall ships will start arriving at 8 a.m. on June 13 and begin departing at dawn on June 19. Many of the vessels, berthed in the Inner Harbor, Fells Point and North Locust Point, will be open to the public for tours during their stays.
Maryland pilots with the assist of six tugboats will shepherd in three vessels at a time, said Capt Eric Nielsen, president of the Association of Maryland Pilots. The smaller sailing ships that don't require pilots — such as the 157-foot schooner Pride of Baltimore II — "can come in at their leisure," he said.
Crowd crunch time begins in earnest on Friday afternoon when, weather permitting, the Blue Angels will conduct their rehearsal over the water just south of Fort McHenry. Other viewing areas include MedStar Harbor Hospital and Sam's Club at Port Covington.
A no-boating zone a half-mile wide and nearly three miles long that outlines the flight path will be established in the hours leading up to the rehearsal and the weekend shows.
"The Blue Angels box essentially cuts the Inner Harbor from the river," said Coast Guard Cmdr. John Burns. "Boaters will not be able to cross the box or anchor in it. Plan ahead, pick a spot and have all you need with you."
In anticipation of the air shows, organizers say it is likely Fort McHenry's grounds will reach capacity by 10:30 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Crowds will be directed to the Inner Harbor and Fells Point, where large screens will beam the show, with Blue Angels' commentary, live.
A network of hundreds of city cameras tied to downtown command centers will provide real-time information to not only ensure that viewing areas don't become overcrowded but also to look for traffic bottlenecks and keep the peace.
Police spokesman Guglielmi said that enhancements are being made to the CitiWatch camera system, but declined to elaborate. During a tour of the center last month, police showed off a new high-definition camera and monitor that eliminated glare from flashing lights, and license plate readers attached to cameras that can pinpoint stolen cars.
The clock at the Sailabration downtown operations center starts at 8 a.m. Monday and won't be unplugged "until the last ship leaves," Maloney said. "Then we begin planning for their return in September 2014. That will be the Grand Prix times 20."