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The media hype over the Fourth of July weekend extravaganza in Beaufort was exceeded only by the frustration of thousands who went--and found they were the victims of corporate piracy.

Aaaaaaaaarrrgh! 

Tall ships, long lines a made-for-TV fiasco

The media hype over the Fourth of July weekend extravaganza in Beaufort was exceeded only by the frustration of thousands who went--and found they were the victims of corporate piracy.

Once again, the good people of Beaufort have survived occupation by privateers. But unlike 1747, when the scurvy dogs had to be persuaded to leave by a show of arms, the 21st-century crews merely packed up their semis and flatbeds and sent their fleet of charter buses home.

They took with them untold booty, but a simple run of math tells you that ticket sales at least were well over $1 million--40,000 at roughly $30 a pop. That would be great if every one of those 40,000 ticket holders, lured by a made-for-TV romantic image of tall ships sailing into a historic seaport, got what they paid for.

Standing in Sunday noon heat in a line that snaked out of the parking lot and on down Turner Street were a lot of people who wanted to believe they'd get to see what they came for. They dutifully lined up and stayed patient when the transportation volunteers said the venues were temporarily shut down to more visitors.

From their description, the wait just to get in line to see the largest ship, the Brazilian Navy's 249-foot Cisne Branco, at the state port in Morehead City would be at least two hours. But the buses to the Old Beaufort Seaport, where a half-dozen ships were moored, would start running in a half-hour.

Forty-five minutes later it was another half-hour. Then came word events were closed "indefinitely." It was 85 degrees and humid, the heat index was in the mid-90s. Someone found an older woman a chair. Her husband leaned on the fence. A man kept a portable fan on his baby most of the time. You could see couples and groups deciding what to do, peeling off the line in frustration especially when the wait shifted to "indefinitely." The transportation staff, many of them buff young fellows from nearby military bases, shrugged repeatedly. They were sympathetic but as caught up in the breakdown as those in line. They kicked requests for comments up the chain of command, but smiled that FUBAR smile. The trees that shade historic Beaufort were never more appreciated.

Joyce Fitzpatrick, a Pepsi America's Sail spokesperson, cheerfully tried to explain by telephone that the buses would be running soon, and that there was a little problem at the state port, but it was only temporary. "The good news is that thousands have come out to see the tall ships." Although there were some lines and glitches, the event, she said, was a smashing success--a theme that was dutifully echoed by most of the media and dignitaries attending the festival.

And it probably was a pretty good time if you had VIP passport, a media tour or sponsor's badge. For the people in steerage, though, it was a mixed bag.

"All of 'em" was the way Maurice Depas of Raleigh responded when asked how many ships he'd hope to see after springing for tickets and a trip to the coast. Stranded in line, his expectations were low and his anger raised. "They're just badly organized. They have no alternative plans."

From a variety of press reports, rough estimates are that Pepsi America's Sail turned away about 4,000 ticket holders on Saturday and another 2,000 on Sunday. Those who did see the ships endured an average wait of two hours. Though not as busy on Monday, it was racing day and most ships were out of port.

Saturday's backup exacerbated the situation on Sunday. A common story heard was that after waiting for hours and being turned away on Saturday, ticket holders were told they could come back on Sunday when the lines would be shorter.

One local captain, who operates a state vessel in the area, said the breakdown was simple logistics. "There weren't enough ships for all those people," he says. Of the 14 ships that showed up, only 10 were open for tours. At 10,000 tickets a day, there was no way everyone would get a chance.

But even as the event wound down, the Pepsi Sail Web site still featured a page encouraging advance online ticket sales and promising in somewhat stilted English: "This is the recommended way to purchase your tickets as there will be no long lines to wait on at the event because your tickets can be mailed to you."

Not everyone endured the wait for the tours, and a stroll around downtown Beaufort probably did entice some people to consider returning when the town wasn't being turned upside down.

If you were a pirate--not the people who overbooked the boats, but one of 60 or so pirate re-enactors brought in for the event--the shutdown at the ports meant a bang-up business for the pirate encampments and the conveniently located Budweiser beverage tent nearby.

In what looked like impossibly warm clothing for the weather, the rogues scattered around the encampment alternated between charming the little ones with doubloons and offering to buy them from their parents. When one mother replied "free" when asked to name a price for her over-heated son, John Thornton of Charlotte of the Devil Men of the Cape Fear stopped polishing his knife and raised his hand in a stop motion. "No, no, something's wrong--the price's too low."

Even a pirate knows you gets what you pay for. Well, sometimes, matey.

Pepsi Sail is offering refunds through Etix at 252-728-4110 or 252-728-7471 ext. 102.

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