OpSail having trouble attracting ships to summer festival

New London — The local OpSail2012CT chairman said Wednesday that he's having trouble getting international sail-training vessels to agree to come to the city for the festival.

John Johnson said he learned Wednesday morning that an Ecuadorian ship that organizers were hoping would attend this summer's Operation Sail has declined. Only the Coast Guard barque Eagle and a training ship from Brazil have made firm commitments so far.

"It's terribly disappointing and will probably have a major impact on the size of the event," Johnson said at a meeting of the Thames Maritime Coalition.

He said that it has been difficult to raise money and that the merchandiser who was supposed to sell all of the OpSail gear nationwide recently backed out of the national contract.

Meanwhile, New London faces competition from Newport, R.I., which is hosting the Ocean State Tall Ships Festival 2012 the same weekend.

Johnson said ports in many areas are having the same problems because of the economy. But the local group is "plowing ahead," he added.

Other cities have received more commitments than New London, however. The website for OpSail 2012 Virginia lists 17 participating tall ships. Boston and Baltimore are each expecting six, while New York will play host to nine.

The July 6-9 event is expected to draw thousands to New London's waterfront to commemorate the bicentennial of the War of 1812 and the writing of the "Star-Spangled Banner." The Eagle, homeported in New London, always leads the ships as they sail into port.

The state agreed to put up $1 for every $2 in local fundraising, with a maximum $500,000 in potential state funding. Johnson said OpSail has received around $3,000 in contributions since Gov. Dannel P. Malloy visited the city earlier this month to kick off a statewide campaign to raise money for the event.

SailFest, the city's annual summer festival that features food vendors, carnival rides, live music and arts and crafts, will be held the same weekend in July.

City officials and Barbara Neff Productions are planning an event the following weekend called "Don't Miss the Boat" to draw some of the vessels from the festival in Newport.

"I laud her efforts," Johnson said of Neff. "It won't be easy."

j.mcdermott@theday.com

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