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Tall Ships expected to draw big crowds to Duluth

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Tall ships visit Duluth in 2010.
Tourists crowd the piers along the Duluth Ship Canal as tall ships visit the city Thursday, July 29, 2010 in Duluth, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News 2010

Eight giant ships of yore, their sails unfurled, are expected to glide underneath the Duluth Aerial Lift Bridge Thursday afternoon during the "Parade of Sail" to kick off Tall Ships Duluth 2016.

Organizers expect up to 300,000 people in Duluth for the four-day event. Tickets to sail aboard four of the vessels sold out nearly a year ago, but others can board the ships when they're docked or get an up-close view from shore. 

The star vessel of this year's festival is expected to be the 170-foot, 495-ton El Galeon Andalucia, the world's only replica of a 16th-17th century Spanish galleon that was part of Spain's West Indies fleet. 

"It's a huge ship, it's going to be pretty magnificent sailing into the canal underneath the Aerial Lift Bridge," said Craig Samborski, executive producer of the festival.

Not making the voyage to Duluth is the Draken Harald Harfagre, billed as the world's largest Viking ship.

The vessel was scheduled to take part in the Duluth festival, but turned around following a festival in Green Bay, Wisc. after failing to raise the money required to pay U.S. pilots to guide the ship through the Great Lakes. 

This is the fourth Tall Ships festival in Duluth in the past decade. The first in 2008 featured only three ships, but still drew 125,000 people. Additional festivals followed in 2010 and then 2013, which drew an estimated 250,000 people, and generated $15 million in economic activity, according to city tourism officials. 

They estimate this year's event will give Duluth a similarly sized economic jolt. 

Samborski said the ships are on something of a regular circuit now, where they return to the Great Lakes every three years, with trips to the West and East Coasts in between. And they only seem to be growing in popularity, he said, with the romanticism and history they evoke.

"This is one of those few events out there that I think appeals to every demographic," he said. "And because we're only in Duluth once every three years, it keeps demand very high."