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Fleet fluctuates with the times

• Tight ship security becomes new Rose Festival tradition • Small fleet leaves some wishing for the good old days

The fireboats still shoot up water dyed red, white and blue, but Fleet Week isn't what it used to be.

Whereas past Rose Festivals used to draw dozens of big ships and thousands of sailors, this year's event has brought Portland just 10 vessels, eight of them tied up downtown.

And that's if you count the buoy tender Bluebell, a U.S. Coast Guard cutter stationed on Swan Island Ñ making its voyage to the downtown sea wall a mile long.

Security is tight for the festival's Fleet Week for the second consecutive year, and the list of restrictions is long. The Navy vessels are docked behind a long chain-link fence with barbed wire on top that stretches from the Burnside Bridge to the Steel Bridge.

Rather than simply walk on board, visitors need to sign up in the morning for afternoon tours. Tours are limited and may be canceled without notice. No bags are allowed on board.

And just in case the public needed more reminders of the effort to make the homeland more secure, there are the highly armed antiterrorism squads Ñ trained to handle chemical, biological and radiological attacks Ñ patrolling the Willamette 24 hours a day via gun-mounted jet boat.

'It's such a shame, all these changes,' said longtime festival attendee Arlene Garman, who waited four hours in the sun Wednesday for a glimpse of the first of the big ships. 'But you can't blame them. There's terrorism going on all over the place these days.'

Navy officials have stepped up their security efforts the last two years for obvious reasons. In addition to the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, there were the 17 sailors who died aboard the USS Cole in October 2000 in Yemen.

The Navy now requires a heavily patrolled 100-yard 'exclusion zone' around all docked ships.

Visitor numbers drop

Last year, 10 vessels tied up to the waterfront sea wall for five days, attracting about 3,000 visitors. Festival officials expect a similar turnout this year. In 2001, more than 25,000 people took the free tours when 14 vessels docked at the waterfront.

Capt. Ed Weiss, commander of the Naval Reserve Training Center on Swan Island, said the new restrictions do detract from the tradition of Fleet Week.

'But that's what the Navy's given us, and that's what we have to live with,' Weiss said. 'Hopefully, it'll be relaxed sometime soon.'

World events also have taken their toll on the numbers of ships and sailors visiting Portland, Weiss said. Many Navy ships were deployed overseas for six months or more for the war in Iraq, and visits to domestic festivals are not as high on the priority list as in the past.

The Navy has also put an end to the annual Host a Sailor program, which used to enable Portlanders to show visiting sailors around town during the Rose Festival.

That tradition already went through one image-updating transition in 1989, when it lost its suggestive 'Dial a Sailor' title. Now it has fallen prey to new restrictions.

A winnowed welcome

The problem with all of this vigilance, of course, is that it can sap the fun out of a festival. Navy ships have been congregating at the harbor sea wall for Fleet Week since 1907, and in 1990, more than 80,000 people freely toured 28 visiting ships downtown.

But crowds were sparse along the waterfront Wednesday as the first ship, the Coast Guard cutter Steadfast, steamed under the Steel Bridge and into the festival.

It was a reserved welcome for the 210-foot-long Astoria-based vessel, which has survived hurricane-force winds and seized more than 1.6 million pounds of marijuana at sea in 35 years of service to the United States.

The three Navy ships arrived downtown Thursday: USS Elliot, a destroyer; USS Lake Champlain, a light cruiser; and USS Ford, a frigate. There also are three Canadian vessels docked downtown: HMCS Vancouver, HMCS Brandon and HMCS Yellowknife.

Two other Navy ships, the USS Coronado and the USS Howard, are tied up at Swan Island because they are too tall to slip under the Steel Bridge.

The number of ship visitors certainly won't match those who went aboard in 1990, but Executive Director Dick Clark of the Portland Rose Festival Association has dreams that the good days aren't over.

'We hope that one day we'll be able to return to what we had before 9-11,' he said.

'It depends on what's going on in the world,' Weiss added.

Contact Ben Jacklet at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..