Two tall ships sailed into Spud Point Marina in Bodega Bay on Tuesday, bringing with them one big unknown: How many people will show up through Sunday to see, board and sail on the historic vessels?
"We really can't even begin to estimate what kind of response there will be. You just never know," said County Supervisor Efren Carrillo, whose 5th District includes Bodega Bay.
Last year, crowds who visited the Hawaiian Chieftain and the Lady Washington -- which saw duty in the 2003 film "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" -- were so large that people grew frustrated at the wait. Many were turned away.
Management of the tall ship tours is handled by the vessels' owner, the nonprofit Grays Harbor Historical Seaport Authority, of Aberdeen, Wash. But with the ships' return this year, county parks officials have taken steps to ease crowding.
"We learned some lessons last year," said Sonoma County Regional Parks spokeswoman Meda Freeman, who characterized last year's response as "overwhelming."
This year, new signs were installed. More staff is on hand. Food trucks and vendors are on site. Alternative activities are also scheduled, from tide pooling to bird watching to a whale watch and lecture.
"We're absolutely better prepared this go-around than we were last," Carrillo said.
Certain factors also were at play last year that won't be this time around.
The 2012 visit coincided with the 200th anniversary of the founding of Fort Ross and was heavily promoted. This year, the Rancho Bodega Historical Society did not publicize the tall ships event.
Also, one scheduled public tour of the Hawaiian Chieftain was canceled last year because the historic replica topsail ketch had been booked as a private charter sail.
This year, no charters have been arranged in advance, which means the likelihood of one taking place is slim, said Joe Follansbee, spokesman for the Grays Harbor Historical Seaport Authority.
On the other hand, Follansbee said that tickets have been selling well and that "could be an indicator again that we're going to be really popular."
Also, he said, a measure of self-monitoring on the part of visitors will help.
Walk-on tours, during which visitors can walk around the ships and talk to the crew, do not have a time limit. Being willing to leave a ship in order to let others on will make a difference to the event.
"We want to find a balance between giving everybody a good experience but also giving everybody a chance to visit," Follansbee said.