Coast Guard to take lead on OpSail weekend security

New London - The local Coast Guard Station will take the lead in making sure the ships participating in OpSail and the boaters coming to see them are safe.

Used to escorting submarines on the river, the station's crew is getting ready to keep the channel clear for the 24 domestic and international ships in the Parade of Sail Satruday, July 7, and to ensure that the 2,000 to 4,000 boaters that are expected to come for the festivities obey the rules.

The Coast Guard created regulations just for OpSail 2012CT so boaters will know where they can and can't be.

All 80 of the Coast Guardsmen and reservists assigned to Station New London will be on duty at some point July 7, when the ships sail from Niantic to New London.

For a small station, taking on such a role is a big deal, said Lt. Amy Miller, the Coast Guard's OpSail planning officer in Connecticut.

"They do Sailfest. This is larger and a different event," she said Wednesday. "They are ready and they're going to get a lot of support."

Lt. Todd Hartfiel, the station's commanding officer, said roughly 20 law enforcement agencies and five fire departments also will help.

"We couldn't do it alone," he said. "We need our partners."

Navy Capt. Marc W. Denno, commander of the Naval Submarine Base in Groton, said it has taken a "significant level of coordination" to get to this point.

"I'm hoping for good weather and that everything we planned for goes as well as it can," Denno said. "I want to make sure this is a good event for everybody and a safe event."

John S. Johnson, chairman of the local OpSail, said he's expecting about 750,000 people to attend the July 6-9 event that commemorates the bicentennial of the War of 1812 and the writing of the "Star-Spangled Banner." The Coast Guard barque Eagle will lead the fleet, which will include the USS Carter Hall, a cargo variant of the Navy's dock landing ships. At 609 feet long, the Carter Hall will be the largest vessel at OpSail.

The planning began 20 months ago and kicked into high gear six months ago, Miller said. Anyone with a stake in the security of the event - from the Coast Guard and Navy to the state police and officials in the city and surrounding communities - gathered earlier this month for two days of planning. A final briefing is scheduled for today at Fort Trumbull.

"The plan is done. We're just kind of waiting until the 6th now," said Hartfiel, who called the national event "pretty exciting."

Half a dozen boats will meet the fleet when it anchors in Niantic on Friday, July 6, to make sure other vessels follow the Coast Guard's OpSail regulations and do not get too close or travel too fast near the staging area, Hartfiel said. The next day, the Coast Guard will keep boaters away from the Parade of Sail and the fireworks barges.

At the busiest times, there will be more than 20 boats from various agencies patrolling, Hartfiel said, and the station will keep "a sharp lookout" for potential security threats. The station reports to Captain of the Port Capt. Joseph Vojvodich.

The submarine base is providing 50 volunteers to help run the satellite parking lots, tugs and pilots for the Eagle and the Carter Hall, as well as helping to coordinate the ships' arrival in Niantic and trip to New London. Navy reservists will assist with security.

Denno stressed that visitors should use the satellite parking lots and shuttles that will operate in New London and Waterford, otherwise "it'll lock up New London." Sailors from the base will be shuttled downtown to take part.

Visitors will not be able to bring large, bulky bags or coolers on board the military ships, and the ships are not designed for strollers or wheelchairs. Sailors will be on the pier to talk with anyone who cannot climb aboard.

"We are looking forward to it and to showing off the rest of the Navy that the people in New London don't get a chance to see very often," Denno said.

j.mcdermott@theday.com

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