A flotilla of more than 40 ships representing a dozen nations glided under the Key Bridge and into Baltimore Harbor to launch the commemoration of the conflict that gave the United States its anthem and expelled the British military from American soil once and for all.
"The War of 1812 never got its due," said National Park Service Ranger Vince Vaise, chief of interpretation at Fort McHenry. "This two-year event will establish a legacy so that people will remember the war and appreciate the anthem and the flag more."
People carrying chairs, blankets and coolers streamed into the fort to catch a glimpse of the passing fleet. The National Park Service estimated that more than 5,000 people walked the grounds and lined the sea wall.
First under the Key Bridge, the 426-foot Canadian destroyer HMCS Iroquois roared a 21-gun salute as spectators at Fort McHenry applauded. The fort's cannon crew responded with its own salute.
Arlene Corby, a retiree who splits her time between Frederick and Florida, marveled at how sailors aboard the naval ships and those watching on shore traded salutes.
"It's so impressive," she said. "It shows respect."
Between the fort's cannons and the ship's, more than 400 rounds were fired in peace, said Navy Cmdr. Chris Hill, a military liaison for the event.
"That's the most we've seen at these events in quite a while," Hill said. "It's quite extraordinary."
One by one, the naval vessels powered by, each flying a blue Sail Baltimore banner. After a brief lull, the amphibious transport dock USS San Antonio, the event's flagship, led the afternoon parade followed by the Pride of Baltimore II and the 610-foot dock landing ship USS Fort McHenry.
Gun crews on the Fort McHenry let loose with a bombs-bursting-in-air barrage worthy of the national anthem that brought whoops from the crowd and a smile to the face of former U.S. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, who christened both the Pride and the McHenry.
Later aboard the Pride, deckhand Frank Bell packed smokeless gunpowder and flour into the ship's four cannons as the ship approached Pier 1, in front of Harborplace's Pratt Street pavilion.
When Bell fired the Pride's first thundering blast, hundreds of spectators turned away from the already docked and dazzling Indonesian tall ship Dewaruci — which entered the Inner Harbor with its crew dancing to Abba's "Fernando."
"Welcome Home Pride!" the crowd shouted in unison as the 157-foot ship, a replica of the Baltimore clippers used during the War of 1812, neared the dock.
Maintaining the cannons is time-consuming and tiring work, Bell said, but "it validates the cannons' existence" when people turn and pay attention to the Pride.
Baltimore resident Bill Garrison rode the Pride into the Inner Harbor, ending a 24-hour stint as a guest crew member on the ship's trip north from Norfolk, where it was docked earlier this week. He called Sailabration one the grandest events he's seen at Baltimore's harbor.
"This is about as monumental as the opening of Harborplace, which was a defining moment. But this is the biggest event I've seen," Garrison said.
Gusty winds prevented the tall ships from keeping their sails unfurled as they approached the innermost parts of the harbor.