Scarlet Sails is the name of an annual celebration that takes place on Vasylievskiy Island and the Palace Square. It always happens at the end of June on the day when all of high school seniors from all secondary schools of St. Petersburg graduate. Lots of tours, specific to this celebration, are organized across St Petersburg. Importantly, this celebration has been included into the register of the events for the international tourism.

Nowadays, Scarlet Sails is a show that year after year gathers more spectators from around the globe and thus becomes increasingly international. One needs to keep in mind that the celebration is dedicated to the graduating students and thus it mainly focuses on them, their parents and teachers. The graduates receive a special invitation for 2 people, so that they could bring a date along.

Scarlet Sails Festivities take place in 2 locations: on the Split of Vasylievskiy Island and the Palace Square. They are connected by a video-link and people from these 2 different locations can see each other on large screens placed around them on each location. In order to enter the Palace Square one has to have the sent-out invitation, while nothing special is required to get onto the second location — the Split of Vasylievskiy Island – and thus locals and the guests of the city usually go here. On the night of the celebration, no boat traffic is allowed on the Neva River.

Scarlet Sails Ship

What is the etymology of the name Scarlet Sails?

The name Scarlet Sails takes its origin from the title of a children’s book/novel by Alexander Grin. Interestingly, this piece of writing was initially titled “Red Sails” and the events in the novel took place in revolutionary Petrograd. However, the author made a couple of changes: the red color of the sails was changed to scarlet and the story took place in wondrous Grinlandia, in the village located on the seashore and called Kaperna. Grin was fascinated by and adored the concept of a marine city; he found it to be the most romantic and luring.

This author didn’t have an easy life. On the opposite, his fate was quite complicated.

However, no matter how many bad things happened to him or how many misfortunes he had to bare, Grin never lost hope and until his last breath believed in staying strong. These concepts in particular are highlighted in his novel that the celebration is titled after. It doesn’t come as a surprise that the scarlet sails, which were used on the galiot “Secret” in the novel, have become the symbol of the graduate’s celebration Scarlet Sails. The festivity for people that are about to embark on a new path, and only hope and expect the best from the future.

The 50th jubilee of the celebration

The Scarlet Sails celebration is dedicated to the graduates of secondary schools and is celebrated in St. Petersburg yearly. As a rule of thumb, it takes place on a Saturday, closest to the longest white night (approximately between 18th– 25th of June). You wouldn’t be able to find a prototype of this celebration anywhere in the world even if you tried really hard. This is the case because it was specifically implemented to create one of the biggest amphitheaters known to date. During a magical white night you can observe a beautiful stage that the widest part of the Neva river turns into. Almost a 3-kilometer (1,9 miles) long amphitheater is formed out of the city-center of St. Petersburg that includes palaces, embankments, bridges, the split of the Vasylievskiy Island, and Peter and Paul Fortress.

In 2018 the celebration will be held for the 50th time and will therefore be a custom that has been followed 50 years in a row. The first celebration took place in Leningrad in 1968 and was only 3 hours long (from 11 pm of June 27th until 1 am of June 28th).

In 1968 around 25,000 high schools and community colleges graduates gathered to celebrate. Whereas in 2017, Scarlet Sails was attended by 80,000 people that received a special invitation (graduates, their parents and teachers). The gross number of attendees to watch the concert and see the fireworks, and the performance on the water totaled in over 2 million people. Moreover, another 13 million streamed the celebration live.

Celebration of Scarlet Sails

How Scarlet Sails celebration is conducted

There are two main parts of the graduate’s celebration Scarlet Sails: a massive concert with elements of theatrical performance on the Palace square (it begins at 8pm, a special invitation is required for admission) and an incredible lights and fireworks multimedia show that is accompanied with music and takes place in the water area of the Neva River (starts at 12:40 am, free admission).

Nowadays, Scarlet Sails is a multimedia show on the open water that involves the usage of the last technological advancements and the multimedia technologies. The working space of the Neva water area is a square that is 1,8 kilometers (1,1 miles) by 800 meters (0,5 miles). The space where the main part of the show takes place is subdivided into linear areas that each represents a mobile background stage set. Floating platforms (hopper barges and floats) are precisely located on a Cartesian grid that is highlighted in the performance space, and limited to a specific route in such a way that the number of blind spots that the surrounding audience will have is minimized. This well-planned configuration allows for the creation of an image of multimedia architecture, every fragment of which becomes an irreplaceable part of the total created virtual space.

The main components consist of the light show and the fireworks. Supplementary components include the water show, the fire and fountain walls. The entire performance is synchronized with music. This celebration is one of the largest performances that take place on open water.

The emergence of an elegant ship with scarlet sails in the Neva water area signifies the climatic point of the festivities, fireworks and of the water show. This is one of the most spectacular, touching and romantic parts of the celebration. Not only the ship used needs to be elegant, beautiful and outstanding but it also needs to be able to maneuver. Moreover, an experienced, friendly, effective crew under the leadership of a talented captain is required. With the Neva water area being very narrow and the constantly changing winds, the plan and thus the appearance needs to be followed with a precision to a second. According to Sergey Timoshlov, a brig expert: “Today there 100 times more people present that have been to spaces, compared to the number of individuals that could navigate such a ship. Moreover, since during the celebration the ship should move in accordance (sync) with the music, at a certain paste and with precise intervals, tasks that generally would require 20 minutes need to be completed by the crew momentarily.”

All the way since 2009, the captain of the ship The Kronor — Alan Palmer and his crew, has successfully fulfilled this mission. The scarlet sails that are placed on a brig every year are not fake; they are very real. These sails are made the same way the regular sails, which are used in the open sea, are produced. The only difference is in the fabric; the one for the scarlet sails is thinner than the one that is used for the regular sails. In order to ensure a safe passage for the brig with the scarlet sails, there is a “hidden” fleet, invisible to the public, present in the Neva water area. It consists of a security tugboat, 2 high-speed cutter rescue boats, and up to 6 smaller cutters supply boats.

Salut over the Neva

Year after year the number of activities and events in the celebration increases and becomes more spectacular. Various performances by artists and actors, water shows, boat races and pirate wars… The organizers of the festival come up with new surprises every year but there are certain things that are always left unchanged.

The main events that are always present are as follows:

  1. The celebration is opened by a notable musical performance that includes some theatrical action and that corresponds to a given topic that can be seen throughout the entire festival. In the past years such topics were: bridges, imagining the future and etc. In the past a couple of years the concert started an hour earlier (at 9 pm) vs usual 10 pm. This was due to the increase in the duration of the opening performance. The wonderful thing is that there are several performances taking place simultaneously on different squares of the city.
  1. In the darkest hour of the white night, approximately between 12:30 am and 1:00 am, the fireworks start. It is a breathtaking light-pyrotechnical show that is accompanied by a live St. Petersburg Symphonic orchestra music, and takes place in the Neva water area between the Trinity, the Palace and the Exchange bridges.
  1. The climatic point of the festival is the emergence of the magical sailboat with scarlet sails. It cuts through the water surface in the direction from the Trinity Bridge accompanied by the music written by I. Dunayevsky for the movie “In Search of the Castaways”.

The concerts resume after the show on the Neva River is concluded, and the youth Russian bands are given an opportunity to perform.

Scarlet Sails In numbers

Preparations for the festival and its live-stream begin almost a year prior to the festival itself. A team of 300 specialists is responsible for all of these preparations. In order to give the online audience the impression of real presence, for the live stream to be memorable, bright and close to reality, about 50 video cameras are placed in various locations. There are 3 mobile video stations and over 20 different types of technology are involved. The director and the operator face a truly complicated task – 180 minutes on live TV.

As mentioned earlier, there are two main parts of the graduate’s celebration Scarlet Sails. The first one is the concert on the Palace Square. Only for the equipment delivery 60 trucks are required. Almost half of them transport the stage-parts; each of them carries 20 tons of weight.

Lighting and audio equipment requires another 6 trucks; the huge digital plasma screens and other video-related technology is delivered by 4 more vehicles; other 6 trucks are filled with generators, 10 more transport all of the stage decorations, and the rest are filled with pyrotechnics.

When setting up the gigantic stage that is 1,500 square meters (approx. 0,4 acres) in area, no less than 250 specialists are required. The Palace Square concerts takes around 2,5 hours. At least 350 performers are involved in it, including the biggest Russian celebrities. In June 2010 the Russian artists performing on the Palace Square collaborated with the famous Cirque du Soleil.

The whole celebration proves to be quite noisy, around 500 KW (kilowatts) of sound are produced. The performance taking pace on the stage is broadcasted via 26 large screens. Their total area is 1,000 square meters (10,764 square feet).

The second part of the celebration follows the concert: the fireworks and the show in the Neva water area. In order to ensure that the audience can see the big show, a month and a half before the celebration some special equipment is started to be setup. This employs over 200 people. The pyrotechnical performance itself is only 21 minutes in duration. Approximately 50,000 volleys are released in this amount of time.

The musical score for the celebration is changed every single year, however, there are two compositions that are always included and sound beautifully over the waters of the Neva River on the night of the festival. These pieces of music are the overture to the ballet “The Bronze Horseman” composed by Reinhold Glière and the Isaac Dunayevsky’s overture to the pre war (WWII) movie “In Search of the Castaways”. One of these compositions is 69 years old, while the other one is 82 but this classical music is ageless and in many ways it creates the ambience of the celebration.

The climax of the festival is the passage of the sailboat with the scarlet sails on the waters of the Neva River. Over the 50-year history of the festival 7 different vessels had been used as the “Dream boat”. Starting from 2010 the role of the galiot “Secret” (that is the name the sailboat bears in the novel) has been executed by the brig “The Kronor of Stockholm”. Notably, this is the first Swedish wooden sailboat that entered the waters of the Neva River since the North war of 1721.

“Tre Kronor” is the exact copy of the original briggs and has been built from tree types of wood: oak, pine and Siberian larch. The total displacement tonnage of this sailboat is 330 tons. The brig has 16 sails that total 735 square meters (7,912 square feet) in area.

Scarlet sails in 2018

Tre Kronor” is occasionally referred to as “the sailboat of the world”, as patrons and volunteers from many different countries funded its construction. Originally, “Tre Kronor” was rebuilt as a training vessel for the international team of sailors. Currently, “Tre Kronor” is regularly employed for ecological expeditions and is a symbol of international cooperation and collaboration. In 2009 the brig became the winner of the most popular regatta for tall sailboats called The Tall Ships Races, (on the stage from Gdańsk to St. Petersburg). Exactly around that time the organizers of the celebration Scarlet Sails turned their attention to this ship and its crew.

In 2016 Scarlet Sails have been named among top winning candidates in all 5 categories that they had been nominated in for the international competition Best European Event Award. Having surpassed over 100 finalists, St. Petersburg’s celebration had been recognized as the best one in the nomination “Best Town’s celebration”. In total there were 276 projects contending from 22 different countries. As of today, in at least 20 European countries there have been recommendations made to visit the Scarlet Sails festival. From year-to-year the number of tourists and foreign journalists that travel to Russia with the particular purpose to attend the festival increases.

Tours that include The Scarlet Sails celebration

Keep in mind that there is always the option of attending the most important festival during white nights independently or as a part of a tour. When its comes to the latter, there are several options:

  1. Scarlet Sails on a motor ship. This tour will give you the opportunity to see the fireworks from the direction of the Trinity Bridge, usually 300-400 meters (985-1312 feet) above the bridge, in proximity to the Russian cruiser Aurora. As soon as the sailboat passes the Trinity Bridge towards the Palace Bridge, the motor ship would be able to approach the Trinity Bridge as close as 150-200 meters (492-656 feet) and from that point you’ll be able to enjoy the fireworks. Generally speaking, the tour will take from 2 to 3 hours.
  1. Scarlet Sails on a bus and a motor ship.This tour is destined only for those that are fine with getting back to the hotel very late, practically in the early morning. First, you will have to ride a bus. Around 1 am the bus will take you to the docks and you will embark on to a motor ship for an hour and a half or a two-hour journey that will take you almost all the way up to the Trinity Bridge and you’ll be able to enjoy the fire and water performance. As soon as you get back to the docks, you continue your tour on the bus that will take you on a general tour. You should be done with the tour anywhere in between 4 am to 6 am (depending on the intensity of the tour). On the bright side, you’ll not only witness the Scarlet Sails celebration, but will also see Nevskiy Prospect (the main street of St. Petersburg), the Bronze Horseman monument on the Senate square, the Admiralty building and the Palace embankment, the cathedral of Christ the Savior on Spilled Blood, the Field of Mars and the Lebyzh’ya Kanavka (the swan’s chanal), the lullaby of St. Petersburg which is the Peter and Paul Fortress, the University embankment and the Russian Academy of Arts.
  1. Attend the “dressed” rehearsal of the Scarlet Sails celebration. This tour is unique because its participants will get the opportunity to witness the final rehearsal of the celebration that will include the passage of the sailboat in the Neva water area. 24 hours prior to the Scarlet Sails celebration, the brig is anchored 50 meters (164 feet) away from the Peter and Paul Fortress. Although, the sails are folded (to hide them from curious individuals) while the ship is anchored, it is impossible not to notice it from the Trinity Bridge. The rehearsal starts in the evening and one can predict what would be the next move of the sailboat with the precision to a second. And until its passage between the Trinity and the Palace bridges takes exactly 23 minutes and 18 seconds, the crew will have to rehearse and train.

Every year the Scarlet Sails celebration gathers anywhere in between 1,5 – 2 million visitors in the city center of St. Petersburg, and a multimillion audience that follows the festivities on live TV. Make sure that you make it a priority to go and visit the celebration, and see the magnificent fireworks and the water performance with your own eyes while being submerged into the romantic coolness or chill of white nights in St. Petersburg!