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New London - Crowds watching the fireworks may have been thinner Saturday compared to last year's Sailfest, because of cloudy skies and the threat of a rainout, but those who stayed for the 30-minute display said the pyrotechnics did not disappoint.
"This display is like most people's finale," said Cynthia Bearse of Coventry, attending the event for the first time with a group that staked out a spot atop the Water Street Parking Garage.
The Water Street garage, usually bumper to bumper with cars during the fireworks, was half empty on this night - even on the rooftop where last year people and cars were wall to wall.
"This year, there's plenty of parking," said Jason Voelcker, of West Warwick, R.I., who has made the trip to Sailfest annually for the past 15 or so years. "I don't know if it's the weather or the economy or what."
John Plefka and his wife Susan, of Coventry, remembered taking 45 minutes to exit the garage after last year's fireworks, which they were forced to watch from a far corner of the rooftop because there were so few parking spots available. This year, in an annual tradition, they were attending with children Cortney, Kelsey and Jordan, enjoying a much better vantage point from atop a red Ford F150 truck topped by a multicolored, striped umbrella, just in case of rain.
"Getting out of here is going to be a lot easier this year," Susan said, surveying the half-empty upper level.
Sailfest coordinator Barbara Neff, however, said she noticed that more people appeared to be taking advantage of the Waterfront Park boardwalk to watch the fireworks, and she said crowds there were thicker than last year.
While the forecast called for a possible thunderstorm, Neff made the call early that the fireworks, sponsored by the Mashantucket Pequots, would go on.
"Mother Nature and I went head to head, and I won," Neff laughed after the show was over. "It was a perfect night for fireworks."
Neff earlier in the day had been dealing with a crashing Sailfest Web site, which had been overloaded with 20,000 hits by 2 p.m. as people tried to decide whether to chance a trip into New London for the fireworks. For those who decided to stick it out through the iffy weather, the excitement was palpable.
"Look, ma, smiley faces," Bearse's son, Mike Grenier of Coventry, pointed out as one of the newer displays made its first appearance.
"I didn't know what they were at first - that's great," Bearse said.
Jason Kucsera of Gales Ferry said his children - daughters Coral, Savanna, Storm, Sky and son C.J. - were oohing and aahing all through the performance. Kuscera's van, festooned with four green balloons, was ready for the occasion, its backseats pulled out so that his whole family, including wife Cynthia, could enjoy the fireworks.
"The chairs hold five, and I sit on the cooler," he smiled.
Hours before the pyrotechnics, Sailfest revelers lined up on both sides of the Thames River, reserving the best spots to view the annual display by New York-based Fireworks by Grucci.
Police said crowds were thinner this year during Sailfest's daytime activities because of fears that rain would cancel the annual display.
While fireworks gawkers at the garage paid an extra $20 for parking spaces to place their tents between their cars and SUVs, and stretched out on lawn chairs with coolers of beer by their sides, viewers who staked a claim to spots on the boardwalk were somewhat more cramped - and were not allowed to bring coolers.
"We come here almost every year," said Tom Leone of Montville, who used to view the fireworks from the Groton side of the river but now prefers the New London vantage point on the boardwalk.
Leone, who had a front-row seat on the boardwalk, was surprised he got such a good spot considering he didn't set up his chairs until about 6 p.m.
Joe Vandewege of Preston and his family - wife Amanda and sons Ethan, 3, Nathan, 6, and Jeremiah, 8 - placed a huge umbrella in a prime spot where the boardwalk juts out into the river. The cool weather made waiting for the fireworks easier on the kids, but Vandewege and others were anxious about whether the display would go forward if threatening clouds ever turned into rain.
"This year, there are fewer people (at Sailfest) - it just feels different," Vandewege said. "People think they may not be able to see the fireworks."
But others were undaunted. Laiosha Mason of Manchester and infant son Carter Vazquez found a prime spot on the boardwalk, despite it being their first Sailfest.
"My aunt said it was the best fireworks in Connecticut, and I'm taking her word for it," Mason said.