OpSail came about when Frank Braynard of the American Merchant Marine Institute and Nils Hansell, IBM’s art director, got together to discuss the possibility of inviting all the remaining tall ships in the world together in New York City for a parade of sails.
In 1961, when Braynard and Hansell first discussed the idea, it had been just ten years since the last sailing vessel brought cargo to New York. She was a three-masted schooner named The City of New York, and she carried timber. After that, the sea belonged to container ships and tankers powered by fossil fuels.
Tall sailing ships were replaced by steamships beginning in the early 1800s, and then by ships running combustion engines with diesel fuel or bunker fuel. Sailing ships continue to offer a grace and elegance unmatched by modern cargo ships, though, and many tall ship devotees joined Operation Sail.
The Coast Guard helped to identify remaining tall ships to be invited. Ambassadors helped to secure the participation of historic ships from their nations. Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, agreed to be a patron.
In 1963, President John F. Kennedy endorsed Operation Sail, writing that “sailing has given me some of the most pleasant and exciting moments of any life. It also has taught me something of the courage, resourcefulness and strength required of men who sail the sea in ships. This, I am looking forward to Operation Sail.”
July 14th, 1964 was set as the date for the first Operation Sail event. President Kennedy had died, but his family attended the event. Thousands of people saw the parade, and thousands visited the ships, attending balls onboard and taking the opportunity to explore the tall ships.
The Eagle, an American ship, welcomed more than 17,000 guests. Her skipper explained the continuing value of sailing ships. “Under sail,” he said, “we can test a cadet’s courage, physical fitness, nerves, and ability to act quickly in difficult circumstances.”
Each ship produced a birthday cake for New York City, then celebrating its 300th anniversary, and the City honored the ships with a traditional ticker tape parade. The New York World’s Fair took place at the same time.
Altogether, the 1964 event was such a success that it was natural to prepare another OpSail event for the nation’s Bicentennial celebration in 1976. Additional events took place in 1986, 1992, 2000, and 2012.
OpSail continues to support sail training and goodwill among nations.