New London - On Saturday morning, the Coast Guard's Eagle will lead a flotilla of 22 vessels into New London Harbor, including Brazil's 250-foot Cisne Branco, a 609-foot Navy ship, and a 90-foot off-shore scallop harvester based in Stonington.
Spectators can watch from along the shores of Niantic, Waterford, Groton and New London as two Class A tall ships, three Class B tall ships, six Class C tall ships, nine Navy and Coast Guard vessels and several other smaller boats descend on New London for OpSail2012CT.
"We're thrilled to be able to highlight our rich nautical heritage and strong maritime tradition as part of this national celebration,'' John Johnson, chairman of the local OpSail organization, said. "We see great value in OpSail2012CT for everyone who attends, and we believe it will have a strong positive impact in terms of economic development for the region."
Complementing OpSail is the city's annual Sailfest, which every year brings thousands into downtown for three days of live music, a fine arts show, amusement rides, a road race, an assortment of foods from local restaurants and roadside truck vendors, and a giant fireworks show Saturday night over the Thames River sponsored by the Mashantucket Pequots.
"It's going to be a huge event. It will be the largest event in Connecticut this summer,'' Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio said. "It may not be as large as past OpSails, but it will be much larger than the normal Sailfest.''
While the community will enjoy the festivities, the influx of visitors also should help local restaurants and stores, he said.
"There will be a lot great ships, a larger fireworks display and a lot of people,'' he said. "It will be great for the community and a tremendous boon for businesses."
OpSail, the national celebration of the country's maritime heritage, commemorates the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 and the penning of the country's National Anthem "The Star Spangled Banner.''
The Eagle and Brazil's Cisne Branco are expected to dock at Fort Trumbull around 1 p.m. Saturday, where Gov. Dannel P. Malloy officially will open the festivities at about 1:30 p.m. Malloy is expected to sail aboard Eagle from Niantic to New London.
In addition to the USS Carter Hall, a dock-landing ship, and the steel-hulled scallop boat Regulus, the Parade of Sail will include four 108-foot patrol vessels from the Naval Academy, the Coast Guard buoy tender Juniper, Coast Guard patrol boats Ridley and Sailfish and the ice-breaking tug Morro Bay.
Boats will be docked at State Pier, City Pier and Fort Trumbull and will be open for free tours after 1:30 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. Sunday.
Sailfest opens at noon Friday and runs through 6 p.m. Sunday.
"We didn't want to compete with OpSail,'' Sailfest organizer Barbara Neff said. "We kept it scaled down so visitors will go to all three sites. We encourage everyone to mingle.''
OpSail ships will depart New London on "Sail Away Day'' Monday morning.
Johnson said the event will showcase the state.
"It's a tremendous opportunity for Connecticut, one that gives us a chance to show visitors from around the world all that our state has to offer,'' he said. "We're looking forward to welcoming the visitors and crews of OpSail 2012 and look forward to a wonderful event."
If the Parade of Sail is anything like OpSail2000, which New London hosted a dozen years ago, hundreds of smaller, private boats will escort the visiting vessels Saturday morning from Niantic Bay, past Ledge Light and into the Thames River to New London.
Boats will begin assembling at 3 p.m. Friday in Niantic Bay, where East Lyme officials have scheduled a street festival in downtown Niantic and a dinner at McCook Point Park for the crews.
Saturday morning at 8:30 a.m., the Parade of Sail will leave Niantic Bay for New London.
Events include a performance of the Coast Guard Band at Fort Trumbull at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, a Coast Guard search-and-rescue demonstration on the Thames River at 11 a.m., and a Captain's Ball at Ocean Beach Park at 7 p.m. Sunday.
The New London County Historical Society, the Connecticut River Museum and other cultural groups will host a historic village at Fort Trumbull featuring artifacts and exhibits about the War of 1812 and the role the region played.
Sailfest, which will be held on Waterfront Park, the Parade plaza and along Bank and lower State streets, will feature a beer tent, music on the main stage at Custom House Pier and roaming kid-friendly entertainment throughout the weekend.
Fireworks are scheduled for about 9:20 p.m. Saturday from barges in the Thames River. Optimum viewing will be from City Pier, State Pier and Fort Trumbull in New London and at Fort Griswold State Park in Groton.
To help move thousands of visitors through New London, parking will be available at satellite lots in the city and in Waterford, and shuttle buses will bring people into downtown. Another shuttle will loop around State Pier, City Pier and Fort Trumbull.