he beauty and grace of the visiting Tall Ships that have drawn throngs to the Boston waterfront belie the grittier story of the cutthroat battle to bring the vessels to the city and the lingering ill will over who will profit from the extravaganza.
The Boston festival is the culmination of a six-year effort marked by fierce local and international rivalries, political maneuvering at the highest levels, and intense competition.
To lure the Tall Ships, Boston organizers for the first time paid ship captains up to $75,000 to bring their vessels to the city and paid $200,000 to a British sail association that, in turn, promised the arrival of 60 boats.
Those efforts are considered by organizers of events in other cities to be a crass breach of maritime etiquette and contrary to the spirit of Tall Ships visits, which traditionally have promoted goodwill between countries and the importance of sail-training programs.
What also makes Boston different is who stands to profit.
While the event, on paper at least, is run by the nonprofit Sail Boston 2000 Inc., the operation is managed by Conventures Inc., a for-profit Boston events company, and its president, Dusty S. Rhodes.
In fact, if Sail Boston 2000 turns a profit, Rhodes stands to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars in management fees, according to Sail Boston officials. At a minimum, she will be paid $1.2 million in what she says are expenses her firm has incurred.
While Rhodes, a 51-year-old mother of six who lives in Weston, technically works for Sail Boston, she does so largely in a legal sense, not in practice.
''Dusty is Sail Boston, not the board and I,'' said Patrick Moscaritolo, the president of Sail Boston 2000. ''No matter which way you try to slice and dice it, she is Sail Boston.''
Even the ubiquitous Sail Boston logo, which appears on everything from T-shirts to clocks, is owned not by the nonprofit, but by Rhodes's company. Sail Boston lawyers are in the process of returning the logo ownership to the non-profit, but Rhodes will be given the first option to repurchase the name once the 11-day event is over.
The management of Boston's Tall Ships festival, operating with public subsidies of about $7 million, differs from those of many other cities hosting similar events this summer.
In Baltimore, for example, a volunteer board managed the event but received no reimbursement. The public subsidy of the event was minimal, and the nonprofit Sail Baltimore Inc. owns the trademark on the event logo.
''As I understand it, Boston is operated primarily by a profit-making organization,'' said former CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite, the honorary chairman of Operation Sail Inc., a nonprofit group that wanted to stage its own Tall Ships event in Boston. ''That is contrary to all the other [Tall Ship events] in the country. The others don't do that. Ours has always been a community affair, and no one makes a dime out of it.
''We came open-handed to Boston to participate,'' he continued. ''It should have been a big cooperative effort.''
Instead, he said, his group was spurned, and the affair ''gave the whole US invitation an unfortunate little black mark.''
In the battle to win the right to bring the Tall Ships to Boston, Rhodes wasn't afraid to be blunt, a practice that has made her several enemies.
Boston public relations executive George Regan, who had a long-running quarrel with Rhodes and represented a company pushing the Operation Sail bid to come to Boston, calls her the ''Bobby Knight of Tall Ships,'' a reference to the University of Indiana basketball coach known for his temper and insults.
Regan made peace with his former adversary earlier this year and has been hired by Sail Boston to oversee public relations for the event.
Rhodes portrays herself as a risk-taking speculator, saying the only way she will make money on the Tall Ships is if Sail Boston 2000 Inc. makes a profit. When it comes to collecting a check at the end of the event, Rhodes said she will be last in line.
As of right now, she said, ''No one believes this, but we are doing this for the goose,'' clasping her finger to her thumb to create a zero for emphasis. ''I'm totally motivated by doing it and doing it well. I'm totally not motivated by money.''
Her supporters point to the success of the 1992 Tall Ships event, which Rhodes also ran in boosting the local economy and tourism.
This year's event exceeded projections and has already drawn an estimated 7 million visitors, the same as in 1992, Sail Boston officials said.
Rhodes said Boston is no more or less a commercial event than those of other cities and noted that Boston doesn't charge a fee to walk the piers or tour the boats as some other cities do.
Nonetheless, Sail Boston's president, Moscaritolo, said the current way of managing the festival needs to be changed.
Moscaritolo, who also is president of the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau, was recruited by Rhodes in 1997 to serve as president of the newly formed Sail Boston 2000 Inc. But he said a more permanent nonprofit group with its own staff needs to be created to oversee future events. He said such an organization, which exists in other cities, could spend more time raising money from private companies and individuals and also could oversee other large events.
''Dusty wouldn't like to hear this,'' he added, ''but maybe that kind of structure could have its own events producer or put out to bid the process of who manages and produces the events.''
With at least $7.4 million in public money being spent to support the Tall Ships visit, the issue of who manages and profits from the event is one that concerns some state officials, who say they have insisted on several financial safeguards to make sure taxpayer money is spent appropriately.
The concern stems largely from Rhodes's management of the 1992 Tall Ships visit.
In 1994, State Auditor Joseph DeNucci criticized Rhodes for taking a $99,000 payment for her company from Sail Boston 1992 Inc. while a $733,000 debt to the Massachusetts Port Authority went unpaid. DeNucci also said he was refused access to Sail Boston's books.
The Massport board of directors later voted to absorb most of the bill and not seek payment from Sail Boston.
Last week Rhodes called the DeNucci audit ''hysterical'' and dismissed it as ill-informed.
However, both state officials and Moscaritolo have insisted on more stringent controls on the spending of public money. Moscaritolo said he met with DeNucci to make sure that the mistakes from 1992 were not repeated.
''We hope everyone has learned a lesson from last time,'' said Glenn Briere, a spokesman for DeNucci.
Rhodes began planning for an encore of 1992 almost as soon as the last event ended.
She put up $200,000 of her own money to guarantee that Boston would be the official port of a trans-Atlantic race sponsored by the London-based International Sail Training Association. That move guaranteed at least 60 boats would show up for the Tall Ships event.
By striking a deal with the British group, Rhodes was locked into certain dates for the event because the ships involved in the race were on a tight schedule.
In 1997, Operation Sail proposed its own sponsorship of a Boston Tall Ships event with different dates. OpSail, based in Washington, was founded by President John F. Kennedy. It staged the New York City Tall Ships event on the Fourth of July and similar events in other East Coast cities.
OpSail also scheduled a competing event for New London, Conn., on the dates Rhodes was proposing for Boston. To further complicate the situation, a Boston special events company that competes against Rhodes hired Regan to promote the OpSail event - a task Regan took on aggressively.
Despite the controversy that followed her management of the event in 1992, Rhodes was able to call on influential politicians, including several she supported with fund-raisers, to back her bid.
Among the first she asked for help was US Representative J. Joseph Moakley (D-South Boston), who was eager to assist.
''I really got involved when I found out that Boston was getting cut out of the whole thing and Dusty was hanging there by herself,'' Moakley said. ''I know Dusty to be an honest, industrious, and hard-working woman. I went to work on this thing. She was getting screwed and the city was getting screwed.''
Moakley even talked to President Clinton, asking him to intervene and nudge OpSail organizers to back off on their plans. He said he doesn't believe Clinton ever acted on his request.
But it was Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino who took the most important stand backing Rhodes. In 1997, Menino publicly declared Rhodes would run the 2000 event. Other politicians quickly lined up behind Menino, and OpSail's efforts were effectively dead.
''This other group was from New York and Washington,'' Menino said last week of his decision to back Rhodes. ''I didn't see them having a viable interest in what the city is all about.''
The fight with OpSail was costly, however. Some sponsors were leery of committing to Sail Boston because of conflicting stories of where the Tall Ships would be going. And several Tall Ships that might have come to Boston instead went to New London.
New London attracted 15 Class A vessels - the largest of the Tall Ships; Boston had 24.
Sail Boston did get a boost from US Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who persuaded the Navy to dispatch the aircraft carrier bearing his brother's name to Boston.
Rhodes said the politicians backed her not because she raised campaign money for them, but because she has a proven track record. She said she got caught up in a larger, international fight between the London-based ISTA and OpSail, who are vying for future Tall Ship events in the United States.
For Gregg Nourjian, the 34-year-old owner of Millennium Events Corp., a Back Bay company who supported the OpSail bid for Boston, the battle over the Tall Ships was a painful lesson in Boston politics.
''There was another option, and no one looked at it because of political allegiances to Dusty,'' he said. ''It's a case of Old World politics getting in the way of a new company like mine ... This is the only city in the US that has a private entity directing what is happening.''
Despite the criticisms, Rhodes said she expects to be involved in the city's next Tall Ships event.
''What the heck,'' she said, ''it goes with the territory. You can always tell the pioneers by the mud on their face and the arrows in their back.''