BALTIMORE, AUG. 13 -- This port city is battling with New York for the dollars and distinction of becoming the host city for a mammoth transatlantic flotilla of sailing ships in 1992 to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' voyage to the New World.

The extravaganza, planned by the federally created Christopher Columbus Quincentenary Jubilee Commission, will be staged on the Fourth of July weekend, and will be boosted by the attendance of the president and what organizers expect to be millions of shoreside spectators and television viewers.

The big question is: Will it be in Baltimore or New York?

The two cities, finalists after several other Atlantic Coast cities were eliminated by the Columbus commission, are preparing detailed plans on financing, security, tourist accommodations and television coverage to give the commission next month.

A commission committee is scheduled to recommend its preference Sept. 11.

If Baltimore wins, organizers say they envision a massive ceremonial tall ships procession up the Chesapeake Bay from Annapolis to Baltimore after the president stands in review on the deck of an aircraft carrier near the Naval Academy in Annapolis. With 40,000 spectator boats crowded around them, plus 4 million to 5 million celebrators looking on from the shore, the ships would then sail into Baltimore Harbor to a reception of fireworks, hot air balloons, a jazz festival and a symphonic concert.

Although Columbus never set foot in Baltimore or New York, let alone anywhere else on the mainland United States, the commemoration of his voyage is considered at least a financial bonanza if not a historic occasion on both sides of the Atlantic.

Tourist revenue from hotels and restaurants to beer, ice and boat fuel is incalculable at this point, said Stan Heuisler, editor of Baltimore magazine and president of Columbus 500/Baltimore, the 55-member board of local movers and shakers promoting the celebration here.

"We're hoping for both national and international corporate contributions" to underwrite inital costs, Heuisler said.

John Williams, spokesman for the Columbus commission in Washington, said plans call for as many as 300 sailing craft, including 30 to 35 of the world's tall ships, to converge on Cadiz, Spain, near the Strait of Gibraltar, where Columbus departed on the first of four voyages to the Caribbean and the coasts of Central and South America on the ships Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria.

The "Grand Columbus Regatta," as the fleet is called by an international planning committee of representatives from Italy, Spain, the United States and other countries, will sail across the Atlantic first to San Juan, Puerto Rico, in the Caribbean and then north to Baltimore or New York.

Baltimore and New York were picked as finalists because "both are important maritime centers and both have historic connections with Columbus," Williams said.

Both have large Italian American communities and observe annual Columbus Day parades.

But Baltimore has additional claims to the 500th anniversary celebration, Heuisler said, because it is a sister city to Genoa, Italy, Columbus' birthplace. Also, he said, the Chesapeake Bay and Baltimore's Inner Harbor are geographically suited to accommodate millions of spectators, and the city has previously handled tall ships. "The physical plant is already in place," he said.