Tall ships cruised the lakefront before making their grand entrance on Thursday, patiently waiting for what is poised to be a weekend to remember in downtown Kenosha.

Nearly 15 months of anticipation and picture-perfect weather could attract huge crowds for the Tall Ships of America’s Tall Ships Challenge, which opens at 10 a.m. today and runs through Sunday.

Tickets are $18 for adults, $9 for kids (ages 6-17). A family pass is available for $45.

The three-day festival returned to Kenosha for the first time since making back-to-back appearances in 2003 and 2004. The event, which now takes place in the Great Lakes every three years, relocated to Chicago before Kenosha successfully won its bid to host this year’s event.

“It’s very much a celebration,” said Kris Kochman, city community relations liaison. “Our city is so patriotic. Fourth of July and the parade is a really big deal. People come out in droves every year, and it never gets old.

“This is something new. We haven’t had an event like this for more than 10 years. People are excited to see the ships and the festival that goes along with it.”

Kochman said attendance could easily top the original 30,000 estimate.

General admission tickets are available at the gate or can be purchased online at www.kenoshatallships.com. Those tickets include access for boarding the ships as well as entrance to the art fair, food court, children’s area and the Miller Lite Music Stage. A limited number of sail-away tickets, ranging from $55 to $75, are still available.

“I noticed the sail-away tickets ramped up quickly in the past week,” Kochman said. “We went from 600 tickets sold to 1,000 in the snap of a finger. I think those remaining tickets are going to be sold out.”

American English, a Beatles tribute band, performs 7 to 9 p.m. Friday. Tickets to the concert are $20 or included for anyone who purchases a general admission ticket before 4 p.m. Friday.

Seven ships

Seven ships are taking part in the festival in Kenosha, one of 11 Great Lakes ports of the Tall Ships Challenge. The ships set sail from Green Bay on Tuesday and began arriving in Kenosha on Wednesday.

Ships docking in Kenosha include the Barque Picton Castle, Bluenose II, S/V Denis Sullivan, U.S. Brig Niagara, Appledore IV, Pride of Baltimore II and Kenosha’s own Red Witch.

Appledore IV and Red Witch are offering 80-minute excursions from the Kenosha Sailing Center and Yacht Club, 5130 Fourth Ave.

Boarding is allowed on the five other ships docked on the south side of the harbor. Crew members will be available to answer questions during the self-guided tours.

Taking a tour

Touring the ships adds an entirely different perspective from watching them sail.

The U.S. Brig Niagara, which is 198 feet long and 120 feet high, is a replica ship from the War of 1812. It includes a sub-deck complete with sleeping quarters and a wood-fired stove.

“You haven’t had the full experience until you’ve gone on board,” Kochman said. “They’re all very unique. People will want to explore them and stand at the ship’s wheel for a picture. It’s kind of the iconic thing to do.”

Chicago initially committed to host this year’s tour and canceled due to ongoing construction at Navy Pier. Kenosha gladly obliged to take over and will have priority to host the event again when it returns to the Great Lakes in 2022.

“The mayor (John Antaramian) wanted this event to come here in the worst way,” said Patricia Lock, the city’s tall ship festival consultant. “It’s good for Kenosha. It’s good for tourism. It’s a great way to showcase the city. When we had this event in 2003 and 2004, the people who came downtown said they had no idea it was this nice down here.”