Tall ships — and crowds — set to arrive in Two Harbors this week

Lined up ships
Tall ships line up behind the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center for the Tall Ships Duluth festival. This year's festival is taking place in Two Harbors because of construction in the Duluth harbor.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News | 2010

A fleet of tall-masted ships is set to sail in from Lake Superior to the small town of Two Harbors on Thursday — a change of venue for a festival that typically draws tens of thousands of attendees.

Since 2008, the Festival of Sail has been held roughly every three years in Duluth. This year, anticipated seawall construction in the Duluth harbor prompted executive director Craig Samborski to move the event a bit farther up the North Shore.

Samborski said the new venue provides more dock space for the ten ships scheduled to take part this year. An added bonus: giant cargo ships picking up loads of taconite pellets will pass very close to the festival that starts Thursday.

“If you're a boat lover, there's just going to be an incredible amount of eye candy to take in this weekend with all of the ships,” Samborski said. “Not just our tall ships, but the ore boats coming and going.”

This year’s festival includes some ships that have visited Duluth in recent years, including the Pride of Baltimore II and the U.S. Brig Niagara, a replica of a two-masted warship that was used in the fight against the British in the War of 1812. The present ship incorporates some timbers from the original ship.

New this year: the Nao Trinidad, a 92-foot-long replica of the flagship used by Magellan during his expedition in the 1500s that led to the first circumnavigation of the globe, confirming that the world was round.

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The ship, with a main mast stretching more than 80 feet tall, sailed to Lake Superior from Seville, Spain.

Attendees can purchase tickets to tour the ships, and even sail on some of them. Past events have drawn huge crowds to Duluth, including the 2016 festival, which attracted more than 200,000 people.

This year’s will be considerably smaller. Samborski estimates between 25,000 and 30,000 people will attend the four-day event, which runs through Sunday.

“People are looking at events differently and attending them differently” since the pandemic, said Samborski, who organizes tall ships events around the country.

He said they’ve also tried to be sensitive to not put too much strain on Two Harbors. Traffic will be diverted away from downtown to parking areas where attendees will take shuttles to the waterfront.

MnDOT is warning travelers to expect delays when traveling along the North Shore this weekend because of the Tall Ships festival, as well as the Grand Marais Fisherman’s Picnic and ongoing construction projects.