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Tall ships in Newport? Skip 'em

By David Collins

Publication: The Day

Published July 06. 2012 4:00AM

Bringing a handful more ships to Newport is sort of like taking coals to Newcastle.

That was my impression of Thursday's prelude to Ocean State Tall Ships in Newport, the tall ships festival that will compete with OpSail 2012 in New London this weekend.

The Newport festival doesn't officially begin until today, but I found some of the participating ships Thursday after navigating Newport's usual summertime congestion, with its crowded sidewalks and traffic gridlock.

For the most part, the festival ships, which began arriving Thursday morning, without ceremony, blend in with Newport's bustling harbor and have little impact on a waterfront packed with enormous world-traveling yachts.

The ships get lost in part because there aren't that many of them. There will be 14. But mostly they don't command much attention because they are not very special.

One of the featured ships in Newport will be the Mystic Whaler, which hardly turns heads even in New London, where it is homeported.

There will be no big show-stoppers in Newport this weekend, like the Coast Guard's Eagle or the Brazilian navy sailing ship Cisne Branco, which will headline New London's OpSail.

The Newport Festival will be showing the movie "Amistad" over the weekend. New London will actually have the Amistad.

It also occurred to me Thursday, as I fished in my pocket for some money to pay the $4 toll to go over the Newport Bridge, how much more accessible the ships will be in New London.

Not only is Newport itself more expensive to visit, from the tolls to parking, but they are going to charge to board the ships there, $12.50 for adults and $7.50 for kids. OpSail in New London is free, from the nonstop entertainment to ship boardings.

There will be no doubt in New London Saturday and Sunday that something special is going on. The spectacle will be center stage and accessible.

In Newport, none of the staff members at the tourism visitors' center I spoke to could provide any information about the weekend tall ships festival. They were busy helping frazzled tourists, who already looked kind of defeated, studying maps to figure how to get to Ocean Drive and the mansions.

Giving up on getting help at the visitors' center, I set out on foot and eventually found the 150-foot Peacemaker, a barquentine rig, one of the official festival ships. The Peacemaker had just finished docking when I found it, alongside some smelly fishing boats.

I thought one of the Peacemaker crew members I met looked a little pained when I mentioned I was from New London.

He said the ship had a great visit to New London a few years ago, when it came for a Sailfest weekend. He added that they were sorry to miss both the Eagle and the Cisne Branco here this weekend.

The Peacemaker crew did point out the Bounty, another Newport festival ship, which you could just make out across the crowded harbor.

But really, the Bounty, built as a prop for the 1962 movie "Mutiny on the Bounty," looked like just a few more masts on a mast-strewn horizon, less impressive than some of the big yachts around it.

One hospitable thing I did notice in Newport were the many portable toilets around town. Seems like there is a set on every block.

I think New London has Newport beat on ships for sure.

If they do well on spot-a-pots, it could be a slam dunk this weekend.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

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When did you attend your first Sailfest in New London?
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This weekend will be my first, can't wait.
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