OCEAN CITY — The replica tall ship El Galeon Andalucia will be making a return trip to Ocean City in August for the first time in three years after resort officials on Monday worked out a few issues in the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the vessel’s owner.
Special Events Director Frank Miller presented the Mayor and Council with the MOU that will bring El Galeon Andalucia back to Ocean City for roughly three weeks next month. The 170-foot, 500-ton tall ship replica is set to arrive in Ocean City on Aug. 10 and will make a pass in review under full sail down the beach front before beginning the trip through the Inlet, up the shallow bay and through the Route 50 drawbridge to its berth along the dock between 2nd and 3rd streets.
El Galeon made two successful stops in Ocean City, first in 2013 and again in 2014. It will remain moored at the dock along 2nd and 3rd streets and open for tours and special receptions until Aug. 27 and will make its departure along the same path it entered on Aug. 28. One of the last, and perhaps most significant, details to work out was the water depth in the stretch of bay between the Inlet and the Route 50 Bridge.
El Galeon draws about 10 and a half feet and the water depth in that stretch of bay is about 11 feet at high tide, leaving a very small margin of error. In addition, the vessel has about one foot on either side as it passes through the drawbridge, making its passage quite a spectacle as it is led through the span. Tow Boat U.S. and Greg Hall did the depth measurements along the stretch between the Inlet and the bridge recently and Miller said there appeared to be ample depth for the vessel to pass safely.
“Water depth is always a concern,” he said. “This year, the water depth survey came back favorable. Tow Boat U.S. is confident we can get the vessel through at high tide.”
When El Galeon Andalucia arrived in Ocean City in both 2013 and 2014, the arrangements were handled through a partnership with the National Air, Sea and Space Foundation, which acted as a middle man of sorts between the town and the vessel’s owner NAO Victoria Foundation. This time around, Miller and the town are dealing directly with the NAO Victoria Foundation on the MOU approved unanimously on Monday.
The new-found partnership could have long-term benefits for both parties including regular tour stops for the foundation’s tall ships in Ocean City in the future. For example, the NAO Victoria Foundation is currently developing a replica of the famed Santa Maria, one of three ships sailed by Christopher Columbus to the new world in 1492, which could be ready to tour as soon as next year. Miller said a strong relationship forged with the upcoming El Galeon visit in August could pay dividends down the road.
“This is a step toward getting the Santa Maria,” he said. “If we nurture this relationship with the NAO Foundation, maybe we’ll be one of the first stops when the Santa Maria is ready to tour. This will plant a seed.”
Once El Galeon is moored at its temporary home along the dock at 2nd and 3rd streets, it will be open for individual and group tours by the public and the park in the area will become a festival of sorts with ticket booths, vendors and informational signs about the vessel. In addition, just as it was the last time around, El Galeon will be a popular destination for school groups and summer campers. El Galeon will also offer special events such as sunset receptions, for example.
The MOU approved on Monday includes a comprehensive revenue-sharing plan between the Town of Ocean City and the foundation that should result in a new break even for the resort. Adult tour tickets this time around will be $12, down from the $16 charged by the vessel the last time around in 2014. Similarly, the tour ticket price for children will be $6 this year, down from the $10 charged for kids in 2014.
The town will get $2 per adult ticket and $1 per children’s ticket. In addition, the town will get a 30-percent share of special events such as sunset receptions on the replica tall ship.
Miller said based on El Galeon’s last visit three years ago, the anticipated revenue share for Ocean City should come in around $16,000, while the town’s expenses including in-kind services, extra manpower, marketing and promotion and lost parking revenue is anticipated at around $21,000, resulting in a net difference of about $5,000 in expenses for the town. However, Miller said those revenue and expense estimates were conservative and it is likely the town will break even or perhaps earn revenue from the tall ship’s visit.
For example, the revenue estimates were based on 9,500 people visiting El Galeon during its roughly three-week stay. However, during its first visit in 2013, 15,000 people paid to tour the ship and 13,000 people paid to tour the ship during its second visit in 2014. Miller said he went ultra-conservative on the revenue and expense estimates to be certain the town at least broke even and did not lose money by El Galeon’s visit.
In terms of the lost parking revenue, Miller explained the tall ship’s visit will result in the loss of 12 paid parking spaces, or roughly $3,400 in lost parking revenue over the 20 days. However, he said there are more paid parking spaces with CALE machines in the park area then there were when the tall ship arrived three years ago, which could result in a net gain on that side of the ledger.
In addition, there was some question about the cost-sharing plan for fueling the vessel for its departure. Miller explained because of the water depth concerns, El Galeon will come into Ocean City light and will need to refuel when it departs. The working estimate of fuel costs for the departure spelled out in the MOU is around $9,000, of which the NAO Foundation is seeking some assistance from the town.
“Just this morning we learned the cost of refueling the vessel could be as high as $9,000,” said Miller. “They are coming in light and will need to refuel when they leave. They’re looking for whatever we can do to assist them with that so they’re not on the hook for the full $9,000. The thing to note with this is that estimate is based on cost of refueling the last time around in 2014 and we know the cost of fuel has gone down since then. Cropper Oil said the cost of refueling El Galeon for its departure could be as low as $6,000.”
Councilman John Gehrig praised the El Galeon’s visit, but questioned whether the cost of refueling for her departure was part of the cost of doing business for the foundation.
“It’s an amazing event and it sounds like we’re a partner in this now,” he said. “As long as we’re breaking even, it’s a nice event for our residents and visitors. I’m just not sure we should be paying to refuel them to go home. They’re making money from this.”
Gehrig suggested adjusting the town’s share of the ticket sales to around 17 percent, which could be used to offset the cost of refueling the vessel. He made a motion to alter the revenue-sharing plan, but it died for lack of a second.
“We’re either going to account for our expenses every time or we don’t,” he said. “We can’t have it both ways.”
Miller pointed out apart from the revenue generated by the tall ship visit, El Galeon offered another free, value-added special event for visitors and residents that could not be enumerated.
“This really is a value-added event and there are a lot of free opportunities associated with it,” he said. “They’re going to do a pass in review down the front of Ocean City under full sail, which could be quite a spectacle, and tons of people just walk up and look at the ship and enjoy all of the other things associated with it in the park.”
Councilman Wayne Hartman said the tall ship’s visit is exactly the type of event Ocean City should be trying to attract and retain.
“This is a family event,” he said. “This is what Ocean City should be all about. I’d like them to commit to having another ship coming back next year. If they’re building that Santa Maria, maybe we can be one of the first stops. I think we should be forward-thinking and working with them so we’re out in front of having another tall ship visit.”
With the direct partnership with NAO Foundation, part of the town’s responsibility will be marketing and promoting El Galeon’s visit, a point not lost on Councilman Dennis Dare. Dare said the revenue estimates were based on a low number of paid tours at 9,500 when the ship attracted 13,000 visitors the last time around. He said an increase in the number of visits could offset any of the town’s expected costs associated with the event.
“We’re going to do the marketing and the number of people who tour the boat will be the direct result of our advertising efforts,” he said. “What if we fund up to $9,000 to top their fuel off as long as it doesn’t exceed our break-even point for the event? That way, we don’t have the possibility of losing money, but we do have the possibility of earning money if we market it real well.”
The council voted unanimously to approve the MOU, paving the way for El Galeon’s visit in August. Mayor Rick Meehan pointed out the ship’s arrival comes at a time when the resort is trying to attract visitors in mid- to late-August with the new post-Labor Day start for schools in Maryland.
“This is a great event for Ocean City,” he said. “I really like the time period at the middle and end of August because we’re expecting more visitors at that time because of the change in the school start.”
Meehan also pointed out El Galeon’s arrival date comes in the middle of the White Marlin Open, although the timing shouldn’t have any impact on the tournament. Miller said the high tide on the August 10 arrival date is at 11 a.m., which will not have any impact on the WMO.
“That is the week of the White Marlin Open and we’re hearing the high tide on that day is 11 a.m.” said Meehan. “That means your window for getting the ship through there is 11 a.m. to noon which won’t interfere with the tournament. The boats go out early in the morning and come back later in the evening.”