New London - Twelve years ago, OpSail2000 transformed this city for four days in July, showcasing it like perhaps no other event in its history.
Some 40 ships, including 14 of the tallest of the tall ships, paraded into the harbor. Estimates of total attendance approached 1 million people. Tens of millions of dollars rushed into the local economy.
It figured to be a tough act to follow.
John Johnson, back at the helm of Connecticut's Opsail2012, the post he held in 2000, might know that better than anyone. Still, despite the trying economic conditions and the potential impact of a competing tall ships event in Newport, R.I., he's been reluctant to temper expectations.
With commitments from just two Class A tall ships, including the Coast Guard barque Eagle, which is homeported here, Johnson promised last week that OpSail2012 will come together big time in the weeks ahead.
He said his group has or soon expects to have commitments from "close to a dozen" tall ships, though the rest are likely to be of the smaller Class B and Class C variety. And he refused to downgrade the group's fundraising target of $1 million, which the state would match with another $500,000.
Ninety days short of the event, set for July 6-9, about a third of the goal has been achieved.
"Funding is tied directly to the number of ships you've got," Johnson said in an interview. "I just had a call from a (corporate) donor and all he wanted to know was how many ships we have. … I don't blame him. If you only have two ships, that's not a festival.
"We have a whole lot more than two ships."
A good part of what OpSail will have is Sailfest, the venerable New London street festival that's been scheduled for the same dates as the tall ships event. It was Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio's suggestion that the two events "join forces," Johnson pointed out, adding "that's what will make this a success."
The Navy is sending warships, and Coast Guard vessels are scheduled to participate as well.
"It'll be a wonderful exhibition of working naval ships, a better-than-ever Sailfest … and on the OpSail side … tall ships filling every dock space at Fort Trumbull," Johnson said. "And you can see them free of charge."
OpSail organizers say economic conditions have affected the availability of tall ships - those that are supported by governments as well as those that are privately owned and rely on "appearance fees" to defray their costs. The ships committed to New London - the 295-foot Eagle and the 254-foot Cisne Branco, a Brazilian navy ship homeported in Rio de Janeiro - fall into the former category. The other ships OpSail 2012 Connecticut has on its radar include some "privates" that charge appearance fees.
Johnson said his group so far has offered $36,000 in appearance fees and would spend a total of no more than $100,000 on such fees.
One Class B ship that won't be visiting New London this July is the Lynx, a 122-foot square topsail schooner that wintered at Mystic Seaport, where it has undergone extensive renovations. Modeled on a namesake "privateer" commissioned during the opening days of the War of 1812, the Lynx has strong ties with the theme of this year's OpSail events — the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 and the writing of "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Jeffrey Woods, executive director of the Lynx Educational Foundation, the nonprofit that owns the Lynx, said he was fully aware of the OpSail event in New London and, at one point, had hoped to participate. Ultimately, however, the ship committed to the Ocean State Tall Ships Festival in Newport, the event taking place on the same dates as OpSail 2012 Connecticut.
"Our funding totally depends on philanthropy and the public," Woods said. "We're going to Newport because they are paying; New London wasn't paying."
While Johnson and Woods differed on the details of their communication, Johnson confirmed that his group would not match the $20,000 appearance fee Ocean State Tall Ships had agreed to pay to land the Lynx.
Johnson acknowledged that the Newport event, which is being arranged with the help of Tall Ships America, a Newport-based nonprofit, has provided OpSail with competition for privately held ships. He said he only became aware of the events' shared dates about two months ago.
Erin Donovan, executive director of Ocean State Tall Ships, said her organization originally had planned its event for the last weekend in June but was asked to reschedule to accommodate an America's Cup World Series event in Newport. At that point, the July dates were the only ones available, she said.
As of last week, 11 tall ships had committed to the Ocean State Tall Ships Festival and two or three more commitments were expected, according to Donovan.
She said her organization has a projected budget of $1.2 million, a sum based on input from Tall Ships America and the experience of previous Newport festivals. The amount devoted to appearance fees "is a moving target," she said.
Typically, the fees range from $10,000 to $40,000, depending on the size of the ship, where it's coming from and its specific needs. Ocean State Tall Ships is paying $40,000 for an appearance by the Picton Castle, a 176-foot square-rigger whose home port is Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, Donovan said.
Two Class A's for NL
The Eagle left New London Friday, sailing for New Orleans, where the first of seven OpSail2012 events is scheduled April 17-23. The Coast Guard barque, "America's Tall Ship," is one of three Class A vessels that will appear at NOLA Navy Week in New Orleans, the others being Ecuador's Guayas and Indonesia's Dewaruci.
OpSail2012 Connecticut had expected the Guayas to participate in New London, Johnson said, but the ship withdrew. It is scheduled to appear at the other six stops on the OpSail2012 tour, including New Orleans; San Juan, Puerto Rico; New York; Norfolk, Va.; Baltimore; and Boston.
All eight of the Class A sail-training vessels participating in OpSail2012 are scheduled to appear in New York, while Norfolk will have seven; Baltimore, six; Boston, five; New Orleans and San Juan, three each; and New London, two, according to Operation Sail, the national OpSail organization.
In New Orleans, organizers are still raising funds aggressively for this month's OpSail event, Mark Romig, president and chief executive officer of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp., said Friday. Organizers believe hosting the event will cost close to $800,000, he said, even with the city providing security, emergency medical services, traffic control and other services.
Seven U.S. and foreign warships also will participate in NOLA Navy Week, as will the Navy's Blue Angels flight demonstration squadron. New Orleans, a city of 350,000 people, expects 1 million people will visit during the week-long event, Romig said.