Overtures aside, the War of 1812 doesn't get much attention, which is why so few people know about the massive naval battles fought on the Great Lakes by British and American warships. The war went on for three years and many boats and men were lost to the fighting. To commemorate those pitched battles and their horrible toll, The Tall Ships Challenge, an event-oriented offshoot of marine historical charity Tall Ships America, is sailing an armada of tall ships, schooners, sloops, ketches, brigantines and frigates around Superior, Huron, and Erie this summer, stopping at once-booming ports like Bay City, Michigan and Duluth, Minnesota.

On July 4, the flotilla will participate in Cleveland's Independence Day celebrations. Land lubbers will be invited to watch fireworks from the deck of Peacemaker, a barquentine-rigged 108-footer with a recently renovated interior modeled after the Cutty Sark.

In early August, the ships will arrive in Chicago for the Parade of Sail at Navy Pier. Visitors will be able to board the ships and sail along as guests - or crew if need be - during the parade. A special bonus for those into sailing: The only domestic stop of the Alpari World Match Cup Racing Tour happens to coincide with the tall ships arrival in Chicago. Modern match racing boats will compete for the biggest purse in sailing, some $1.75 million, not far from the more cumbersome hulls of historic yachts.

Experienced sailors can spend more time aboard the Challenge's classic vessels by signing on as crew for a week or two. Many of the larger ships are often in need of an extra deckhand and will provide meals, a berth, and maybe some grog in exchange for passage. It's a great opportunity to learn navigation, seamanship (lakemanship?), and, chances are, some sea shanties. Cruisers can also pay for passage to their desired port of call. They'll find themselves immersed in the naval lore, but - thankfully - not literally immersed.

More information: The Tall Ships Challenge will be calling at fourteen Canadian ports and seven U.S. ports through the end of August. Check the schedule to see when you can climb aboard.