There are surefire spoilers that summer is coming to a close. The nights get cooler, and the sun rises later. Schools reopen, and vacationers begin their journeys back from whence they came.
In this region, one of the most indelible hints of advancing autumn is the Gloucester Schooner Festival. The festival, which this year will bring 30 schooners to Gloucester Harbor, dominates its Labor Day weekend spot on the annual schedule of events like no other jewel in the city’s golden crown of summer attractions.
Throughout the weekend, Gloucester will be awash in the very vessels that first made it a revered international player and a schooner-fishing giant known in ports throughout the world.
The fishing schooners no longer sail out of here for the Grand Banks, but the Gloucester Schooner Festival has helped keep the traditions of the golden era of sail alive and relevant in America’s oldest seaport.
This year, the sleek and imperial 145-foot Columbia will return to Gloucester for the 35th annual festival. Other schooners include Gloucester’s holy trinity — Adventure, Thomas E. Lannon and Ardelle — and a slew of popular boats such as the 92-foot American Eagle out of Rockland, Maine; Salem-ported Fame; Gloucester’s own 33-foot Green Dragon; Essex’s 31-foot Lewis H. Story and 32-foot Redbird; the 94-foot Harvey Gamage out of Portland, Maine; the 112-foot Roseway out of Boston; and the 78-foot Lynx out of Nantucket.
“Now, after all these years and all of these other events and activities that take place here every summer, you get a sense of the incredible amount of energy and activity in Gloucester,” said Daisy Nell Collinson, chairwoman of the festival committee. “The city has really become a destination.”
Michael DeKoster, executive director of Maritime Gloucester, said that the festival has a truly regional appeal and estimated that as many as 8,000 to 10,000 people could travel to Gloucester this weekend to revel in the beauty of the extraordinary vessels and take part in the litany of activities that operate under the festival’s banner.
“Saturday is by far our busiest day,” DeKoster said. “But go out on the water on Sunday, as the Parade of Sail begins, and the harbor is just a madhouse of boats and Stacy Boulevard is just lined with people. It’s hard to estimate how many, maybe 5,000. It’s really incredible.”
“I’m expecting huge crowds,” Collinson said. “It’s become such an expected event, embedded in the calendar as one of the bookends of summer.”
It wasn’t always thus.
The first Gloucester schooner festival, in 1985, was viewed as a vehicle to conjoin — at least for one event — the American Schooner Association and the Nova Scotia Schooner Association.
It wasn’t even a festival. Organizers from the Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce described it as a “rendezvous,” and it appeared much earlier in the summer calendar.
DeKoster and Collinson said that this year’s edition of the festival will continue building on a theme of community engagement, with a goal of providing as much access to the schooners to as many people as possible.
The best example of that, begun last year, was the installation — with the financial assistance of the Dusky Foundation and the Beauport Hospitality Group — of the temporary schooner docks along the waterside of the city-owned I4C2 parcel on Rogers Street, where many of the schooners tie up.
The docks have provided unparalleled access, allowing patrons to get an up-close view of the majestic ships and even provide the chance of a deck tour.
“Last year, we had about 2,000 visit the schooner docks,” DeKoster said.
The schooner docks will be open all day Saturday. Maritime Gloucester will also hold its annual Maritime Heritage Day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., featuring schooner sails, schooner deck tours and a lineup of exhibits.
Maritime Gloucester also will demonstrate how its marine railway works around 11 a.m., using the schooner Sylvina W. Beal, which is on exhibit there. The Essex-built schooner will be lowered down the railway, dipped into the water and hauled back up.
“It’s really old technology that really works,” Collinson said. “It’s an incredible method that has been around for a couple hundred years and is an integral part of the city’s maritime heritage.”
That will be followed by a lobster bake at The Gloucester House restaurant, the annual live concert on Stacy Boulevard, the Boat Parade of Lights and fireworks.
On Sunday, the Parade of Sail brings the schooners past the Fisherman’s Memorial on Stacy Boulevard and out to the start line off Eastern Point for the Mayor’s Race for the Esperanto Cup and the Columbia, Ned Cameron and Betty Ramsey trophies.
“The best thing about it is the race is a real race, a spectators’ race,” Collinson said. “We’ve changed the course so that all of the boats can see each other during the race. That way, everybody with a spot on the boats can see all the other boats.”
Schedule of events
FRIDAY, Aug. 30
All day: Arrival of participating vessels.
6 to 10 p.m.: Gloucester Block Party, on Main Street from Pleasant to Washington streets.
SATURDAY, Aug. 31
All day: Viewing and deck tours at schooner docks, I4C2 lot off Rogers Street.
10 a.m. to 4 p.m.: Maritime Heritage Day, Maritime Gloucester, Harriet Webster Pier, 23 Harbor Loop. Free; admission to museum is half-price.
4:30 to 8:30 p.m.: Gloucester House Public Clambake, 63 Rogers St. $17 for lobster, corn and cornbread.
6:30 to 10:30 p.m.: Concert on Stacy Boulevard. Live music and light effects with a break during the fireworks.
7 p.m.: Fireworks Viewing Party at Beauport, the Sleeper-McCann House. Bring blankets, chairs, picnics and mosquito spray. Candles are prohibited. For adults and children over 12. $20. Registration required. 978-283-0800.
7 p.m.: Boat Parade of Lights, begins at Jones Creek on the Annisquam River, travels down the river, under the drawbridge and into Gloucester Harbor, ending in Smith’s Cove.
9:15 p.m.: Fireworks display over Gloucester Harbor (time approximate).
SUNDAY, Sept. 1
10:30 a.m. to noon: Parade of Sail; schooners proceed from Inner Harbor, past the Fisherman’s Memorial on Stacy Boulevard, to the race starting area off Eastern Point.
10:30 a.m.: Parade of Sail Viewing Party at Beauport, the Sleeper-McCann House. Coffee and light breakfast available on a first-come, first-served basis. Bring blankets and/or chairs and other refreshments if preferred. $15. Registration required. 978-283-0800.
11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.: Shuttle bus to Eastern Point Light, from Eastern Point Gate (Eastern Point Boulevard at Farrington Avenue) to watch the start of the Mayor’s Race. Free, courtesy of Cape Ann Transportation Authority.
1 p.m.: Mayor’s Race, off Eastern Point.
For more information, visit www.gloucesterschoonerfestival.net.