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New London — At 9:24 p.m. Saturday, the first fireworks launched into the sky over the Thames River, and let it be said that a few new colors and pinwheel patterns have been added to the vocabulary of pyrotechnics.
Or so it seemed from the collective "oohs" and "ahhs" of thousands gathered on the New London waterfront.
Pauline Bradford of Waterford said, "It's everything you want and expect each Sailfest, and you forget over the year how great it is."
It was a long, humid day, which made the payoff even more rewarding.
Earlier in the afternoon, Tom Myers and Doug Funk stood at City Pier, staring out at the Coast Guard barque Eagle and looking like two wise admirals — if admirals wore Hawaiian shirts and were in fact desirous of a cold beer just across the railroad tracks at the Exchange Cafe.
Instead, it was the pair's turn to hold prime real estate on the pier pursuant to the Sailfest fireworks extravaganza that would take place over the river in, oh, about six hours. Myers of Quaker Hill and Funk of Montville were part of a large squadron of friends who had been staking the same geographical claim every year since City Pier was built, and who arrived at 9 a.m. Saturday.
"It's the best seat in the house for fireworks," Funk said, "so it's worth it to take our turn watching the spot."
Homesteading river- and beach-front property has been a Groton and New London tradition since Sailfest started, and all one had to do Saturday morning was drive down Pequot Avenue to see folks staking their claims.
Of course, given the post-pyrotechnics traffic cobwebs, and the heat and humidity that can take a brutal cumulative toll over the course of a long day, it's not a bad idea to know someone who actually lives or works in a place with dynamic river views.
Tom Eschenfelder, owner of Captain Scott's Lobster Dock in New London, has a five-star location in terms of watching the fireworks, and given the popularity of his restaurant, the evening of Sailfest fireworks has been a lucrative situation.
Three years ago, though, Eschenfelder started to close the restaurant to the public and turned Captain Scott's into a private party spot for the evening.
"For one thing, we had so many people in and out I started to have traffic and safety concerns," Eschenfelder said. "It seemed more fun to just close up at 3 o'clock and invite our employees and marina folks, family and friends. We have food, music, and just enjoy the show."
In terms of private fireworks soirees, Saturday was a particularly busy day for Carl Franklin. Not only did his Franklin Brothers Band perform during a prime afternoon slot on the Custom House Pier Stage, he had to then load out and get to his recording studio high above State Street to prepare for the huge fireworks party he hosts annually.
"It's a cool opportunity to do both," Franklin said, munching a burger after his set. "Nothing is better than playing music, but I will say that our party is always epic."
Though Sailfest's renowned "Fireworks Extravaganza," sponsored by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, has long been produced by Fireworks by Grucci, the Long Island pyrotechnic company, a scheduling conflicts brought in a new outfit this year. New Jersey's Garden State Fireworks, a family-owned and operated business since 1890, presented their first Sailfest show.
"It's absolutely exciting putting a show together for an event of this magnitude," said Augie Santore, Jr., co-owner of the company, on Friday. "We're very aware of the importance of the show in the region and happy for the opportunity."
Santore said the presentation took several months to choreograph and to work out logistics, and it took three days to go through the program and do the computer coding. They also worked hard on the soundtrack, which, he said, "will appropriately close with the 1812 Overture and also include music that appeals to all generations."
Santore added, "We'd like very much to elevate the Sailfest program. We'll have a few pre-show butterflies but we're proud of what we do and we've turned every stone over in preparation."