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Halifax waterfront to step back in time as port city welcomes tall ships

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HALIFAX - The wooden boardwalk that stretches three kilometres along Halifax's waterfront will soon look more like the bustling port it once was during wartime, centuries ago.

The city is gearing up for the return of dozens of tall ships this summer and is tying the event to Halifax's role during the war of 1812, when flotillas headed out of the mouth of the harbour to fend off American marine attacks.

Colin MacLean, president of Waterfront Development Corp., says a range of activities on the boardwalk will give visitors a taste of what life was like during the war, while climbing aboard replicas of vessels from the time.

"We're going to recreate a period of time that doesn't exist anymore, in and around the ships," he said from his office that sits along the popular boardwalk.

"If we get it right, they can walk through a wharf and feel like it's a wharf back in the 1800s with individuals dressed in that period of time and then get on ships that are replicas of that period of time.

"It's like going to a good museum and you can feel like you're stepping back in an exhibit. But this is a living exhibit."

The ships, mostly from Canada and the United States, are due to arrive in port on July 19 and stay until July 23, before splitting off to go to various ports throughout the province.

Their journey began last week when ships from the U.S., Canada and France set sail from Savannah, Ga., as part of the Tall Ships Challenge-Atlantic Coast 2012 Race that will take them to stops along the eastern seaboard and end in Halifax.

The development corporation, which runs the event in Halifax, hasn't announced its schedule of events yet, but MacLean said they expect to include venues along the boardwalk that will feature Nova Scotia food, music and art.

George's Island, a national historic site normally closed to the public, will also open for tours through the remnants of Fort Charlotte and tunnels that snake through the island and were used to store ammunition, cannons and the soldiers' sleeping quarters.

"A visitor gets the full experience — it's not just the ships," he said. "It's getting a chance to almost step back in history and say, 'Wow, so this is what it was like at that point in time.'"

Parks Canada is also planning activities, including a roving press gang, musket and cannon firings, demonstrations of naval discipline and walking tours of 1812 sites between the waterfront and Citadel Hill.

A parade of sail as the vessels depart Halifax harbour will give spectators a chance to see the vessels with their rigging out and crews working.

MacLean said the hundreds of young crew members on the sail training ships will add a vibrancy to the city by taking visitors on board and educating them about the ship's history, their voyage and how they operate the aging vessels.

One of the ships now en route to Halifax has a special connection to the port city.

MacLean says the U.S. privateer ship, the Lynx, was captured by the British in 1812, sailed into Halifax and reflagged as a British ship and fought on the side of the Brits for the rest of the war.

It's not clear how many people are expected to descend on the waterfront when the tall ships arrive, but the province said there were roughly 94,000 out-of-province visitors and 600,000 visits last time they were in port in 2009.

He estimates that brought in $32 million, something city officials are hoping to match or best this summer with the 25 or so vessels expected to participate.

"It's a really big event," MacLean said, adding that this is the fifth time Halifax has played host.

"Interest in this never wanes. It's in our DNA — this hearkens back to the golden age of sail."

Visitors will also be able to see the ships in Port Hawkesbury, Pictou, Shelburne, Pugwash and Lunenburg, where they might be able to sneak a peak at the work on the Bluenose II.

Wayne Walters, director of operations for Bluenose II, said simply that "people are fascinated by sailing ships." He said the fabled Nova Scotia schooner, which has been undergoing a major refit, won't be back in the water until later this summer.

Michael Noonan, spokesman for the Department of Communities, Culture and Heritage, said there is no set date for the launch but that they are in the final stages of the $15.9-million project.

"It's approaching the end of the construction phase," he said. "The hull has been completely constructed, the deck is down and now the work inside in the interior is taking place."

MacLean said people should take advantage of the chance to see the ships before their numbers dwindle. They are costly to maintain, are aging and are expensive to run, he said, suggesting that the days of tall ship festivals could be numbered.

"These are expensive vessels to operate and they are truly old wooden ships ... and there will probably come a time when there will be fewer and fewer of them around," MacLean said.

"But until then we're going to take full advantage of all of the opportunities that exist."

If you go . . .

Dates: The festival runs from July 19 - 29.

Locations: Vessels arrive in Halifax harbour July 19. They depart July 23 during the parade of sail, bound for other Nova Scotia ports. Various locations will be posting their events in the coming weeks.

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