Capt. Wayne Walters can’t quite put his finger on why crowds of people are willing to wait in line to set foot on the wooden deck of the Bluenose II.

Whether it’s the nostalgia that runs deep for the iconic schooner or the influence of Hollywood movies, Walters says there’s something captivating about tall ships — especially when dozens are berthed in Halifax harbour.

Tens of thousands of people are expected to descend on the port city’s historic waterfront next month as between 40 to 50 vessels sail into the harbour for the Tall Ships Nova Scotia festival.

“There’s the whole Pirates of the Caribbean and Master and Commander and all that kind of stuff — the romantic tale,” says Walters, director of operations for Bluenose II, which calls Lunenburg, N.S., its home port.

“But you can’t really define it, why thousands of people would line up for hours and hours just to walk on deck and look at these ships.”

Vessels from as far away as Denmark and Uruguay will arrive in Halifax July 16 to kick off the 17-day festival, before some visit other ports throughout the province. The event is typically held in Halifax every few years. The next festival is set for 2012.

Organizers estimate this year’s event will attract some 800,000 visits to Halifax’s timber-frame boardwalk, which hugs the harbour for 3.8 kilometres and is surrounded by shops, pubs and restaurants. That doesn’t necessarily mean 800,000 visitors, however, since many are expected to visit more than once.

This will be the fourth time Halifax has hosted the gathering since 2000 and Colin MacLean, whose company runs the event, attributes that to the deep, ice-free harbour itself, which he calls a “natural blessing.”

“It’s just a glorious harbour, it’s known worldwide by many different types of mariners,” says MacLean, president of Waterfront Development Corp. “It’s just a beautiful piece of geography that’s so good for shipping and boating of all kind.”

He plays down any impact a faulty sewage treatment plant could have on the festival. Last year, the harbour opened to swimming for the first time after decades of closure due to high coliform counts. In January, the system failed and untreated waste again flowed into the harbour.

MacLean says the festival always attracts droves of people, though he concedes it will be “nice” when the system is fixed.

As for this year, he jokes there’s only one real challenge when it comes to pulling off a festival with so many ships: where do they all berth? Being surrounded by so many tall ships, with their soaring masts and international flags, looks like being in the middle of a forest, says Walters.

“It makes for so much more excitement when you’ve got a whole large group of sailing ships and you can almost imagine what it must have looked like 100 or 200 years ago,” he says.

“Halifax has always been one of the most popular ports because it has a history of being a sailor’s port from the early days, even still today with the Canadian navy being based there.”

The tall ships will stay in Halifax until July 20, when some will move to other ports, including Sydney and Lunenburg.

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 says the event generated about $27 million in economic activity when it was last held in 2007. Officials estimate this summer’s festival could generate $45 million provincewide, he adds.

Though there’s a fee for some things, including boarding the vessels, anyone can walk along the waterfront and see the tall ships for free.

The festival coincides with a trans-Atlantic regatta that began in Vigo, Spain, and will finish in Belfast. Halifax is the last stop before the final leg to Ireland for those ships taking part in the regatta.

Walters says beyond meeting thousands of Bluenose II fans, part of the allure for the schooner’s crew is the camaraderie with other sailors.

“It’s always exciting when you can participate in events with your peers,” he says.

“It’s not just about seeing these vessels, it’s the interaction between the crews on the different ships from other countries, to see how they do things and they see how you do things.”

Good to know
Dates: The festival runs from July 16 to Aug. 1.

Locations: Vessels arrive in Halifax harbour July 16. They depart July 20 during the parade of sail, bound for various other Nova Scotia ports.

Boarding passes: Passes to board the vessels are available at individual ports. In Halifax, daily boarding passes start at $10. There are also special rates for multiple-day visits, seniors, families and groups.