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New London - Standing at the end of the Amistad Pier, William Pinkney, the Amistad's first captain, raised his arms over his head and chuckled softly to himself as the schooner glided around Fort Trumbull and came into view.
"This trip has been a fantastic feat," he said. "It's the culmination of a lot of hopes and dreams."
After a weeklong stop in Mystic for repairs, the Amistad made its official homecoming Thursday afternoon from its nearly eight-month, 4,000-mile journey to Cuba. A small crowd gathered at the New London Waterfront Park to welcome the ship and its crew.
"It's like living history," said Gaby Schlesinger of New London as she waited for the ship to arrive. "It's great that there are dedicated individuals who work to make it meaningful for all of us."
The Amistad motored around New London Ledge Light and into the mouth of the Thames River under a bright blue sky. A steady breeze was flowing off the water, but the ship has been largely unable to use its sails since rough weather earlier this month damaged several cables at the bow.
As the schooner drew closer to the pier and lined up to dock, the deck became a hive of activity. Crew members and volunteers shouted commands to one another and worked to ready the ship for mooring; one volunteer threw a rope toward the pier and missed, drawing laughter from those on board.
When the vessel was finally lashed to the dock and skipper Sean Bercaw cut the motor, it was official: the Amistad was home.
"New London is often overlooked in the story of the Amistad, so having it here is a nice focal point," said Kathy Gaynor, a volunteer with the Custom House Maritime Museum. "Its story is hugely important."
In 1839, the original Amistad was the site of one of the boldest slave rebellions in history. While traveling from Havana to various plantations on Cuba's eastern end, 53 members of the Mendi tribe, captured in present-day Sierra Leone, managed to take over the boat. They instructed the surviving crew to sail back to Africa; however, the crew instead sailed up the east coast of America until the boat was seized by U.S. officials off Long Island and towed to New London. The Supreme Court ruled the men had been kidnapped in Africa and set them free.
"For me, meeting people of African descent in Cuba was very meaningful," said crew member Sam Yokie, originally from Sierra Leone. "I feel like we've made history with this trip, and it feels great."
Yet making history wasn't exactly easy. The crew endured extreme weather, cramped quarters and a frustrating lack of state funds. At times, according to Bercaw, it really felt like it wasn't going to happen. The crew relied on each other to make it through, he said.
"We decided that getting there wasn't a question of if, but when," said crew member Sayzie Koldys, who was on board for the entire journey. "The knowledge that it was such an incredible trip really kept us going."
After the ship docked, the crew allowed the public to come on board and explore the deck. Bercaw and other crew members explained the intricacies of running a tall ship as curious visitors wandered around the rigging and peered into the hold.
"I'm very proud of all their work on such a historic ship," said Bill Hennessey of Niantic, whose granddaughter was a member of the crew. "On the Connecticut state vessel, no less."
The Amistad's arrival on Thursday kicked off a three-day series of related events and exhibitions around New London, including:
• "Amistad: A True Story of Freedom," a new permanent exhibit at the Custom House that opened Thursday.
• "From Bondage to Freedom in the New World," open all weekend at the Provenance Center, 165 State St.
• "The Haitian Revolution," a celebration with food, music, and dancing Friday at the Provenance Center.
• "The Sounds of Freedom Celebration," including African dancers and drumming, along with children's activities, Saturday at Waterfront Park in New London.
• The Amistad, moored at the Amistad Pier behind the Custom House, is free and open to the public today and Saturday.