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.
"While the weather may not have been conducive to actual sailing, it was certainly pleasant for everybody," said Capt. Jan Miles, the Pride's leader.
Even without sails showing, all of the vessels in the parade of ships contributed to the day's theatrics, he said. Uniformed personnel lined the large modern naval vessels; crews danced and sang from the shrouds of the foreign tall ships; a fire boat sprayed ceremoniously into the air.
"Every vessel delivered — unless the only thing you wanted to see was sail boats sailing," Miles said.
Within minutes of docking, the ships' crews began preparing to entertain and educate the crowds.
On the Pride, that meant stringing up explanatory signs about the parts of the ship, putting out pamphlets on the vessel's history and welcoming people aboard. On the Dewaruci, the crew came down the gangplank with drums and began performing a marching band routine on the pier.
"That was fabulous," said Carmella Diehlof Hazelton, Pa., who spent most of the day at Fort McHenry watching the ships pass by but caught the Indonesian performance when she got back to the Inner Harbor.
Diehl and her husband, Sonny Diehl, planned to spend the night in Harrisburg, Pa., and come back to Baltimore with friends on Thursday. They enjoyed their day in the city and appreciated the ease of getting around with public transit, Sonny Diehl said.
"That worked beautifully," he said.
Sailabration's debut in Baltimore was not limited to the seas Wednesday. Clifton Mansion, once the home of War of 1812 Capt. Henry Thompson, joined the festival with a re-enactment, exhibits, tours and an 80-foot-high view of the city from its landmark tower.
Visitors saw military history spanning 200 years, from War of 1812 militiamen to five Navy SEALS, who parachuted 6,500 feet to a field near the mansion grounds in Clifton Park, trailing green smoke.
Large crowds spread across the mansion's lawns and lingered on its porches. Some trekked up a winding staircase to the tower where Johns Hopkins, the home's second owner and the city's well-known philanthropist, could watch ships coming into the harbor.
"You should be able to see all the way to the Key Bridge from there," said Johns Hopkins, a distant relative who shares the name and had just made the climb with his children. "Who would not want to be here today?"
Joan Woytowitz, a history teacher at Towson University, said she had never seen the mansion. She came with her 88-year-old father, who remembered jogging through Clifton Park. The two also planned to take in the tall ships in the harbor.
"I hope this event brings history to life," she said. "I have students who don't know about the Vietnam War, much less the War of 1812."
Page Naimoli of Perry Hall said her children already were excited about Sailabration. They played small wooden flutes as they meandered through the mansion. She thought they would start the week off at Clifton Park and then visit Fort McHenry and tour a few ships.
"I want them to see as much of this history as they can," she said.
Stefan Hieken, 10, of Reisterstown, just studied the Revolutionary War and his mother thought Sailabration would give him a look at the next phase of American history.
"He is a real history fan and I just said we should learn more about it right here in Baltimore," she said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Mary Gail Hare contributed to this article.