Tens of thousands of visitors traded dry land for the wooden decks of the world-famous Tall Ships in Belfast today as the city welcomed the historic fleet at the end of its epic trans-Atlantic race.
Forty vessels tied up their main sails and dropped anchor at the quayside to begin a four-day visit.
Not since the Titanic rolled down its slipway almost 100 years ago had such a crowd gathered at the city's docks. But this time it was to wave hello, not goodbye.
With the rain holding off, tourists and locals alike flocked to the regenerated dockside to step aboard for a look round the impressive triple-masted boats, which hail from as far afield as Uruguay and Brazil.
It wasn't all plain sailing at the international event, with many visitors complaining of long waits for shuttle buses to ferry them to the quay.
Bus and train operator Translink said every available vehicle was in service and asked people to be patient.
However, with nearly half a million expected to descend on the harbour during the Tall Ships festival, queues are unlikely to get any shorter.
Belfast is the last port of call for the ships that took part in the arduous voyage across the Atlantic and back, which is staged every eight to 10 years.
They left Halifax, Nova Scotia, last month as part of a loop which began in Vigo in Spain and took in Tenerife, Bermuda, Charleston and Boston in the US.
A number of young people from Northern Ireland crewed one of the boats - the Europa - on the ocean trip.
Leanne Kingston, 18, from Belfast, said it was the experience of a lifetime.
"We all stuck together and looked out for each other and made sure we were all okay," she said.
"Coming through the storms people think it would be really scary, but it was really fun, clinging to the sides and clinging to each other trying not to fall over. Half of us are covered in bruises from head to toe but we don't care because we had a good time anyway."
Belfast beat off competition from other European cities to win the right to welcome the fleet after its final leg.
The last Tall Ships Atlantic Challenge race was nine years ago and the only other occasion the ships visited Belfast was in 1991.
Lord Mayor Naomi Long predicted the festival would blow £10 million into the sails of the local economy.
"This will be the biggest event that Belfast has ever hosted and the single biggest event on this island this year," she said.
"We will have visitors from all over the world and they will enjoy the warmth and hospitality for which Belfast people are renowned.
"Lifelong memories will result from this weekend, not just for the people who live in this great city but also for the crews, particularly our own young people who have sailed across the Atlantic, and all our visitors from all over the world."
Around a dozen of the ships completed the whole race across the Atlantic with the rest joining up with the fleet for the finale.
The significance of the event was restated with the appearance of three Stormont ministers at the opening ceremony. Enterprise minister Arlene Foster, Culture, Arts and Leisure minister Nelson McCausland and Social Development Minister Margaret Ritchie all expressed hope for a successful festival.
Meanwhile, chair of Belfast Harbour Commissioners Len O'Hagan said the event provided a fabulous opportunity to showcase the city.
Dr Gerard O'Hare, chair of the Belfast Tall Ships Board said the redevelopment work at the docks would leave a lasting legacy.
"Looking around the Port of Belfast today and seeing this fantastic transformation makes me very proud and we hope that the hundreds of thousands of visitors enjoy this special experience," he said.
The festival, which is free to visit, also consists of a range of free activities and entertainment, including fireworks, continental markets, funfairs and concerts, all based around the docks area.
For more Tall Ships news go to belfasttelegraph.co.uk/tallships
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