Whether you're a nautical nut or just like to admire beautiful boats, Tall Ships Chicago will once again be docking at Navy Pier.
During the five-day event, Wednesday through Sunday, Aug. 7-11, which occurs once every three years, visitors can explore the festival grounds, view 14 Tall Ships -- including the Unicorn, owned by a Naperville native and the world's only tall ship with an all-female crew -- board a vessel for a dockside tour, get a taste of life at sea with a sail-away cruise and watch more than 100 match races.
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Tall Ships ChicagoWhen: Wednesday through Sunday, Aug. 7-11. Parade of Sail from 2 to 5 p.m. Wednesday; festival from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday through Sunday
Where: Navy Pier, 600 E. Grand Ave., Chicago
Cost: General admission is $5 with group discounts available. Dockside boarding: $25, $12 kids; lake excursions: $69-$99 or $229 for Parade of Sail.
This year, fans will get a chance to combine learning about maritime history with experiencing modern match racing. For the first time, the Chicago Match Cup, a professional sailing competition and the only U.S. stop on the Alpari World Match Racing Tour, will join the festival.
Twelve of the world's best teams will sail against each other in match race sailing, a form of head-to-head combat similar to the America's Cup. Teams are competing for their share of a $100,000 prize purse, as well as points toward the tour's overall world championship, which is worth $1.75 million in prize money -- the richest in the sailing world.
Tall Ships festivities begin with an opening day Parade of Sail kicking off at 2 p.m. Wednesday from Northerly Island and traveling to North Avenue beach before heading south to dock at Navy Pier. The event on the pier's east end is free to the public.
The international fleet includes two local ships and an international vessel from Norway, which is sailing in fresh water for the first time in 80 years. The ship, called the Sørlandet, hosts nine-month life-at-sea classroom sessions for high school students, which teaches sailing and life skills.
"The last time she was in the Great Lakes was in 1933, so she's very special to us," says Patricia Lock, Tall Ships Challenge director with Tall Ships America. "It's a beautiful ship and at 210 feet, the largest Tall Ship."
The Unicorn, from New England, is owned by Naperville native Dawn Santamaria, who is the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Sisters Under Sail. The 110-foot topsail schooner is used as a learning lab to teach young women about sailing and leadership skills.
The women have to work together to tackle sailing challenges and overcome obstacles, says Santamaria, who now resides in New Jersey.
"The sea is unpredictable like the weather," she says. "I've never known a more beautiful metaphor about teaching life skills."
The crew arriving at Navy Pier includes eight women, of which six are teenage students who are originally from the Chicago area and recipients of a scholarship from the Chicago Yacht Club Foundation, Santamaria says.
Other festival highlights include guests being able to sail on board some of the ships for 75-minute or 120-minute cruises and walk the planks of certain ships.
Festival goers also can learn about the history of the vessels and the War of 1812 maritime battles, take part in family-friendly activities and watch fireworks each night.
This summer, the Tall Ships event is visiting 22 ports of all sizes. "It has become a tourism phenomenon," Lock says.
When the event last came to Chicago in 2010, more than 1 million people visited Navy Pier during its five-day run including a record number that Saturday, she says.
Only 10 percent to 15 percent of all visitors are sailors or boaters, Lock says, while the rest "just live vicariously for the thrill and beauty of these ships."
And many guests are first-time visitors to Navy Pier.
"People come to see it in a different light," Lock says. "They're just so overwhelmed by the majestic-ness of Navy Pier. That's special for us. Navy Pier is a jewel on the lake."