OpSail 2012 eyes New London

Visitors explore the tall ship Guayas, a steel barque from Ecuador, while it was docked at New London's Fort Trumbull Pier during its OpSail 2000 visit.
Visitors explore the tall ship Guayas, a steel barque from Ecuador, while it was docked at New London's Fort Trumbull Pier during its OpSail 2000 visit. Day file photo

New London - Following OpSail 2000, a three-day festival on the Thames River in July 2000 that featured dozens of tall ships from around the world, people marveled that it was a once-in-a-lifetime event.

But history can repeat itself if the city follows through and becomes another port of call for OpSail 2012.

"This would be huge,'' said New London Mayor Rob Pero. "It could generate an economic turnaround for the community.''

In April, the national organization called Operation Sail, or OpSail for short, announced it was planning bicentennial celebrations in 2012 to commemorate The War of 1812 and the "Star-Spangled Banner."

Last week, the group met with city officials and asked if New London would like to join New York City, Boston, Norfolk, Baltimore, New Orleans and Annapolis as part of the event, which will feature an international fleet of tall ships and warships.

Chris O'Brien, executive director of OpSail, said during the organization's announcement in April that the event "will give spectators the opportunity to witness tall ships and warships from around the world and further our goal of preserving our maritime heritage."

OpSail 2000 showcased 41 vessels from 14 countries and drew more than 10 million people to Baltimore, New York and New London. Nearly 40 sailing ships were in New London Harbor for the three-day event, and thousands of other boaters and an estimated 900,000 people visited the ships.

OpSail 2012 would be celebrated the same weekend as the city's annual Sailfest, which is usually held the second weekend of July. Barbara Neff, who manages Sailfest, said she would welcome the tall ships to Sailfest.

"We're willing to work with anybody,'' said Neff. "This is very good for the city.''

The event can be tailored to fit the city's waterfront, she said.

Although City Pier is in need of nearly $3 million in repairs and another $1 million to construct new finger piers, there is time for the city to do the work. The good news is that the committee has made the offer now, giving the city two years to plan.

"This gives us plenty of time,'' Neff said.

Pero said he will propose at the Sept. 7 City Council meeting that the city hire a coordinator to start planning.

"I would recommend we hire someone, with the understanding that we seek reimbursement (for the salary) from other funding sources,'' he said. "If the council wants it, and the state gets behind it, I think there could be a big economic return."

He added that Gov. M. Jodi Rell has said she supports the idea, but she will not be in office in 2012 and cannot commit funds. He will also seek federal funds to help the city prepare for the event.

"This is fantastic,'' said City Councilor Michael Passero, who tried unsuccessfully to get the America's Cup interested in hosting sailing races around the Connecticut and Rhode Island shoreline. "It's perfect,'' he said. "With all this impetus to revitalize our harbor ... I think the timing is perfect."

New London was the seventh stop of OpSail 2000, which started in San Juan and stopped in Miami, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York.

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