David Berson has made his living on the water. As the captain of the Glory, a solar-powered educational tour boat based in Greenport, he spends a lot of his days around the village’s docks.
So on the first day of the 2015 Greenport Tall Ships Challenge, when Mr. Berson — the master of ceremonies of the festival’s opening ceremony — reflected on what the village and its maritime history mean to him, his statements came from the heart.
“It’s a very special place, the way it is, because of that connection to the sea,” he said of the village. “Greenport is in a constant state of flux, trying to hold on to its maritime history, while at the same time morphing into what is necessary in order to survive in the 21st century. I side on not necessarily tradition, but on the acknowledgement of where we come from, lest we forget and just become another place.”
This past weekend, when tens of thousands of visitors came from across Long Island and beyond to experience the six ships docked in its harbor, Greenport was far from “just another place.” It was a place to celebrate the village’s connection to the sea with the flair of a 21st-century festival replete with food and drinks in the streets and — as has been the custom for several years by the water — dancing in the park.
The event was viewed as a showcase for Greenport businesses, but the village itself was the biggest star of all.
“Overall, Greenport looked really great this week,” said Mayor George Hubbard, deferring credit to the many festival volunteers who gave up four full days to help out. “An event like this puts us on a national, even international, stage.”
Greenport Business Improvement District president Peter Clarke said he met people who traveled from as far as Texas and California to attend the festival. And with crews from ships like the Sagres, a Portuguese Navy training ship, and France’s Hermione, the village had an air of international flavor throughout the event.
Mr. Clarke said that aspect really struck him after the arrival of the Hermione, when hundreds of people, many of them French-Americans, waited on the dock for the ship’s arrival. He recalled seeing one Southold resident who emigrated from France 50 years ago waiting in a wheelchair, holding a small flag of her native country.
A replica of the French Navy frigate that carried the Marquis de Lafayette to the aid of General George Washington during the American Revolution in 1780, the Hermione is considered one of the most historically accurate reconstructions ever built. It launched for the first time this spring and Greenport is the smallest port on its maiden voyage.
“We are welcoming a part of history,” said Cécile DeLannes, a French-American who lives in Greenport. She arrived early Monday with her friend Marie-José O’Keefe, a fellow French-American, to witness the ship’s arrival.
Bertrand Lortholary, the consul general of France in New York, attended the welcoming ceremony for the ship Monday, as did Hervé Blanché, mayor of Rochefort, France, where Hermione’s reconstruction took place over the past two decades.
“We don’t often get state dignitaries in Greenport, so this is a real honor,” Mr. Clarke said. “It’s a Herculean effort for us because we’re only a village of 2,000 people.”
The Tall Ships event was thought of by many as a major gamble after it was scheduled for the Fourth of July weekend, already one of the village’s busiest times of the year. Concerns over parking, traffic and emergency access were expressed by many. And while traffic jams were steady from Friday until the event’s final day on Tuesday, no major traffic incidents appeared to be directly related to the festival. Mr. Hubbard said the only significant public safety issue was the number of emergency calls the Greenport Fire Department had to respond to, which he said eclipsed 30 in the four days of the event.
“I can’t say enough good things about these fire department volunteers,” he said. “They sat by the firehouse all weekend and responded quickly every time.”
Another concern heading into the event was the fact that it expanded from three days and a $190,000 investment by the village in 2012 to four days and $275,000 this time around. While the BID committed to raise $100,000 through sponsorships and fundraising efforts, the village banked on ticket sales covering the difference.
Mr. Clarke said Tuesday evening that it has been estimated that ticket sales went as expected, covering the cost of the event.
Mr. Hubbard would only say that sales appear to have been better than in 2012.
Just how many people came from near and far to the festival is not yet known. The event’s total attendance has not yet been released and, after a controversy regarding the number of tickets sold and the amount of money raised through sponsorships marred the 2012 Tall Ships event in Greenport, it might be a while until this year’s numbers are made available.
“We are going to audit, re-audit it and then double- and triple-check everything,” Mr. Clarke said.
As for local businesses, several boutiques and restaurants anecdotally reported record sales during and even before the festival as people came to see the ships in the days leading up to the actual event. Still, some merchants told organizers they were hurt by the festival, mostly due to street closures that cut off access to their shops or because regular customers were avoiding the crowds.
“Ultimately, I want to thank everybody [who was negatively impacted] for being patient and tolerating it,” Mr. Hubbard said. “Some stores hurt more than others, but we had to close the streets for safety.”
Mr. Hubbard said part of the ultimate goal of an event like this is that many of the past weekend’s visitors will return to Greenport at a less-crowded time and experience many of the other businesses they didn’t check out this time around.
The road closures also provided an opportunity for many businesses to serve their food and sell their products from booths set up on the sidewalks and in the streets.
Restaurants like Noah’s and Salamander’s reported major business increases. Lucharitos owner Marc LaMaina could be seen feverishly making guacamole by hand outside his restaurant at a crowded table selling his specialities.
“We’re off to a great start. We’ll see how long we can go until we pass out,” he joked Saturday.
Blue Duck Bakery owner Nancy Kouris was able to enjoy a view of the ships from her Front Street establishment as she served a table outside the bakery, selling cold drinks and baked goods.
“We had a great day yesterday and today’s another good day,” she said Saturday. “I have the best seat in the house. From here, you can see the ships, you can see everything.”
It’s the ships that ultimately brought people to the village.
“I went to see the Tall Ships as a little kid and I have fond memories of it,” said Scott Simmons of Bellport, who visited with his wife, Dale, and their baby daughter, Charlotte.
Andrew Anselmo of Peconic said his young daughter, Polina, wanted most to see the cannons on the ships.
“It makes me think of how the ships used to be under attack,” she added.
Al Hanes and Debbie Pelletier of Shirley, who attended Greenport’s last Tall Ships event in 2012, chose Greenport over Coney Island for their 2015 Fourth of July celebration and were glad they did.
“This is a nice change of pace,” Mr. Hanes said. “There are a lot more vendors, a lot more stuff going on. I think it gets bigger and better every [time].”
It wasn’t just paying customers who appreciated Greenport this weekend. Captain Jesse Briggs of the replica oyster schooner the A.J. Meerwald, which made the short trip from its home port in New Jersey, marveled at the accessibility of the host village.
“It’s our first visit to Greenport. We’d heard a lot of good things about it and it’s all true,” he said. “We’ve never been to a port that has a grocery store two blocks away. It’s usually more like two miles away. And there’s a laundromat and everything’s right there on the water and it’s so nice to see that and not a whole row of condos. So it’s nice to have a waterfront like this.”
Hermione captain Yann Cariou, who embarked on the longest voyage to Greenport, also expressed an appreciation for the village.
“It’s a big travel and a big adventure, and a reminder of our history,” he said. “It is a great honor for us to be here.”