Local chairman says 'remarkable' effort has made OpSail weekend a reality

John Johnson, chairman of the local OpSail committee, takes a call as he returns to Shaws Cove in New London Tuesday, with Vice Chairman Frank  McLaughlin, behind the flag.
John Johnson, chairman of the local OpSail committee, takes a call as he returns to Shaws Cove in New London Tuesday, with Vice Chairman Frank McLaughlin, behind the flag. Tim Martin The Day Buy Photo

New London - OpSailCT2012 is around the corner and John Johnson, chairman of the local OpSail committee, is in the middle of New London Harbor on a swell Hinckley picnic boat.

He's with Frank McLaughlin, committee secretary, in Tony Sylvestri's 36-foot motorboat. Sylvestri, who is in charge of Harbour Towers condominiums, will provide a free water shuttle for VIPs during the three-day OpSail event that begins Friday.

They were checking out the floating docks at City Pier, Custom House Pier and Fort Trumbull. But that just could be an excuse; this trio will find any reason to be out on the water.

"We're having fun,'' Johnson chuckled. "We wouldn't be doing this if it wasn't fun."

For the past 18 months, Johnson has led the 21-member OpSail Committee in planning this weekend's festivities, which are expected to bring 22 visiting sailboats, Navy and Coast Guard vessels to the city, as well as numerous musical acts, and an estimated 900,000 people.

"Everyone's done the work of the Lord,'' Johnson said last week, as he sat in his office at the Gallery at Firehouse Square in New London. "They've been remarkable."

The committee had its final meeting before the event on Monday. It was two hours long.

"There was so much energy in the room,'' Johnson said.

"Everyone was in a joyful mood,'' said Vice Chairman Kevin Cavanagh. "We are just moving ahead.''

For Johnson, who also chaired the OpSail2000 committee, failure was never an option. Not when naysayers predicted the event would be a flop. Not early in the process when funding was hard to come by. And not when some tall ships announced they were going to Newport rather than coming to New London.

"I knew if we worked hard enough and persevered, we would get it done,'' he said.

The event, which also will commemorate the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 and the writing of "The Star-Spangled Banner," will take place at three venues in the city. It includes a Parade of Sail Saturday morning from Niantic to New London Harbor; free tours of more than 22 ships on Saturday and Sunday; and two stages of music. It culminates Sunday night with a Captain's Ball at Ocean Beach Park. Nearly 450 tickets have been sold.

The city's annual Sailfest also is taking place this weekend. Most of those festivities will be downtown.

Johnson doesn't need much sleep. He rises about 4 or 5 each morning and checks the hundreds of emails that came in overnight. He's having email exchanges with McLaughlin by 8 a.m., making plans for the day. He's in his office, from which he also runs five businesses, by about 9 a.m.

"I don't know how he does it, but he does," said his comptroller, Robin Goldschlager, who regularly receives emails from Johnson at 3 a.m. At least he doesn't expect a response then, she said.

Johnson said he's run his businesses, his volunteer work and his life on advice his father once gave him: You don't need to be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but you can be successful if you get people to do things for you.

"This is not a John Johnson event,'' he said. "This is an event for the city, for the region for the state. ... Everyone wants to make this successful."

All that was needed, he said, was a leader.

"There aren't enough people who want to take leadership roles,'' he said. But clearly Johnson does.

"It's in you or it isn't,'' he said. "I was blessed to learn how to be a leader in the Boy Scouts.''

The group has raised nearly $1 million - about $650,000 in private and corporate donations and about $325,000 from the state.

"Chairman John Johnson of OpSail has selected excellent people to head up subcommittees to get things done, and he's done an excellent job coordinating things, from volunteers to the ships visiting themselves," said New London Fire Chief Ronald Samul, who has worked closely with Johnson for the past nine months. "It's going to pay off and be a wonderful event for the City of New London."

Johnson agreed that many people have contributed.

"Everyone is doing their jobs,'' he said of the 40 to 50 volunteers who have been planning the event, and the 200 or so who will be working this weekend. He ordered 288 T-shirts for volunteers and he's confident everyone one of them will be handed out.

"From the start, we wanted this to be a free event, open to everyone,'' he said. "We raised the money and got the government to help."

When it's over, Johnson is going away on a two-week vacation with his wife.

"That's when things will level off,'' he said.

k.edgecomb@theday.com

Taylor Shelby, center, portrays Dolly Madison saving the portrait of George Washington, played by Paul Luks, as another actor sets fire to the White House prop in a rehearsal for a play outlining the history of the United States, specifically the War of 1812, Wednesday in Staunton, Va.
Taylor Shelby, center, portrays Dolly Madison saving the portrait of George Washington, played by Paul Luks, as another actor sets fire to the White House prop in a rehearsal for a play outlining the history of the United States, specifically the War of 1812, Wednesday in Staunton, Va. Pat Jarrett, The Daily News Leader/AP Photo
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