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  • James Barron

What’s a Semiquincentennial? You Have 2 Years to Find Out.


A group is planning a celebration to mark July 4, 2026. The occasion, for short, is known as Semiquin.


Ray Stubblebine/Associated Press Images

While you were watching fireworks last week, Christopher O’Brien was practicing saying “semiquincentennial.”


It’s the term for a 250th anniversary. O’Brien is the president of Sail4th250, a nonprofit that is focused on July 4, 2026, the 250th anniversary of the Continental Congress’s approval of the Declaration of Independence.


Sail4th250’s plans for a “once-in-a-generation celebration” include a parade of tall ships in New York Harbor with vessels from more than 30 nations.


That brings to mind the Bicentennial, in 1976, when the city was mesmerized by a flotilla that was watched by millions from the streets of Lower Manhattan and pleasure boaters on 10,000 small craft. There were so many that the Coast Guard dispatched cutters to clear the way for the schooners and square-riggers.


But about that word. O’Brien acknowledged that “bicentennial” was easier to say than “semiquincentennial.”


Semiquincentennial “takes a little practice,” he said. “It doesn’t lend itself to that instant interpretation that we got with the Bicentennial.” In everyday conversation with government agencies and military authorities involved in the planning, he said, “we abbreviate it ‘semiquin.’”


The ships paying calls in 2026 won’t all be tall-masted vessels. Sail4th250 expects the procession to be joined by the Queen Mary 2, which was the longest, tallest, widest and heaviest nonmilitary vessel in history when it went into service 20 years ago. Also taking part in the flotilla will be naval vessels from around the world, including some from countries, like Britain and Greece, that O’Brien said do not operate tall ships.


The dates for Fleet Week in 2026 will be shifted to coincide with the semiquincentennial, and an air show is being planned.


There will be fireworks on the Hudson. And if the parade of ships is not enough, O’Brien noted that a FIFA men’s World Cup game is scheduled to be played at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey on July 5.


Sail4th250 is the successor to Operation Sail Inc., the group that had planned harbor events since the New York World’s Fair in 1964, and O’Brien has been counting down to 2026 for several years. Sail4th250’s first planning session with foreign attachés took place in April 2020, a month after Andrew Cuomo, the New York governor at the time, ordered nonessential businesses in the state closed because of the coronavirus pandemic. “We were all figuring out how Zoom worked,” O’Brien recalled.


He sees New York Harbor as an appropriate place for a semiquincentennial because its role in American history predates the nation itself. The explorer Henry Hudson was looking for the Northwest Passage when he found the river that has carried his name since the mid-17th century.


A century later, the harbor had become a strategic stronghold: George Washington slipped across the East River after the colonists lost the Battle of Brooklyn. The harbor was teeming with British ships — the largest armada of warships the world would see until the D-Day invasion, according to Sail4th250.


By Operation Sail in 1976, the harbor was a much different place than it was when Washington made his getaway. The Times called it “magnificent but underused” as it described “a great Bicentennial carnival” that captivated the city.


A tall ship in the East River near the Manhattan Bridge during Operation Sail on July 4, 1976.Associated Press

It was a strikingly upbeat moment after the uncertainty of a fiscal crisis had brought the city close to bankruptcy. The tall ships sailed in eight months after The Daily News ran the immortal headline “FORD TO CITY: DROP DEAD,” about President Gerald Ford’s decision to deny federal assistance to help the city. A week after Operation Sail, the Democratic National Convention opened at Madison Square Garden and nominated Jimmy Carter, who defeated Ford in November.


Now, almost 50 years later, O’Brien is facing a question for 2026: Where to put the ships? “What pier space is available is contracted for commercial purposes like the cruise lines and the commuter ferries,” he said, adding that some piers “have been turned into beautiful parkland but can’t accept ships.”


For large ships like the Queen Mary 2, O’Brien said that Sail4th250 has been negotiating with cruise lines to use their piers. He said his group is also looking to places like Brooklyn Bridge Park, where Sail4th250 could make “temporary arrangements” for gangways and barges “on the old piers that are there.” Sail4th250 is lining up corporate sponsorships to pay for such short-term makeovers. It is also seeking grants from New York and New Jersey, as well as federal support from the United States Semiquincentennial Commission, also known as America250.

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