"Tall Ships Friday" always follows Labor Day weekend, and for South Orange County beach bums, it's the true first day of summer. Road-trippers have left the state, school-age children are back in class—at least until late afternoon. The beach is empty and the sun and water are as warm as they are in August. All afternoon vessels that seem to have sailed in from the past appear on the horizon to spend the afternoon roaming the ocean and test-firing their cannons until they line up to parade into Dana Point Harbor at sunset to open the Ocean Institute/Toshiba Tall Ships Festival.
Sit under your umbrella and watch the show unfold. There will be the usual year-round cast of characters: the Woman with a Sack who roams up and down, changing direction with no discernible purpose; the Lost Man, who seems never to know where he parked his towel; the middle-aged woman who kicks a colorful supermarket ball down the beach not caring who or what it hits. Amidst that human parade, the once-a-year maritime show starts. The twin ships appear, named for a married couple; the red-sailed one upstages the rest. It's the one beach day of the year to bring your best camera, lots of food, and a hoodie so you can stay on the sand as long as possible. If you are on Doheny, Capo, Poche or the north end of San Clemente, hold your position for the whole day. If you are parked on Strands or Salt Creek beaches, you can watch the lineup disappear one-by-one, looking as if they were going to shipwreck on the cliffs jutting into the sea.
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Once they disappear, you have plenty of time to pack up and scramble to your car to observe the parade from a higher elevation make its way to the mouth of the harbor. Stake out a spot near the Headlands Trail, Cannons restaurant, or any of the cliff-top parks that overlook the harbor to the south. Then with your hair still reeking of seaweed from your swim in the uncrowded waves, you can head into the harbor to greet the fleet and get drunk at the inaugural Sails n' Ales Kickoff Party.
The Toshiba Tall Ships Festival itself has numerous other activities for the whole family. You can go aboard for tours at anchor or sail out for the mock cannon-fire battles, with the proceeds all going to benefit the Ocean Institute. One year, the battle was halted because a whale had appeared and all aboard wanted to get a closer look and take pictures. But for the beach-addicted, the best part is spending all of Friday on the beach until it gets dark. The weather promises to be perfect this year: 75 and sunny, waves 3-4 feet, water temp 68 degrees. See you there!