So, Sailfest got some ships this year

I was in Barbara Neff's Sailfest command post in downtown New London Saturday morning when her phone rang.

It was the bridge of the Navy ship USS Carter Hall, and they were asking Neff for permission to take the lead position for the Parade of Sail into New London.

Apparently, the Navy was getting frustrated waiting for the Coast Guard to get under way.

The Coast Guard's barque Eagle, which eventually made a smashing, show-opening entrance into New London Harbor, under lots of sail, had gotten off to a slow start after a snafu getting up its anchor in Niantic Bay.

Neff, as polite and diplomatic as could be, told the Navy ship she didn't have the authority to change the roster of the Parade of Sail. She referred them to OpSail headquarters.

"We're doing fine this morning," Neff told me, after she finished with Carter Hall. "We've been doing this 19 years."

After all, it wasn't Neff's Parade of Sail running behind schedule Saturday. Her Sailfest - she is the director - is a longstanding annual tradition in New London, and it was running like clockwork when I caught up with her.

Sailfest normally would have been next weekend. There was talk of canceling it altogether this year because of OpSail, but in the end the wise decision was made to combine the two events.

Neff introduced me to a cadre of volunteers gathered at headquarters, some of them with more than a dozen years of Sailfest organizing under their belts. They were already wired up with walkie-talkies early in the morning and ready for a big day.

Outside, up and down Bank Street and along City Pier, vendors were in selling mode early. By 10 a.m., the smell of Sailfest, sausage on the grill, was already wafting across downtown.

Everywhere I went Saturday, I saw workers and volunteers who should make the city proud.

It seemed like New London police officers and firefighters were everywhere, keeping a restrained but polite control of the big crowds.

A team of uniformed Department of Public Works crews passed me early on at City Pier, checking still-empty trash cans. Someone on the crew told me they would be checking them every 10 minutes all day to make sure they were not full.

All the shuttles seemed to be running efficiently and were full Saturday, but my best discovery of the day were the free bikes being offered by Bike New London, set up for Sailfest in front of the train station.

For a $10 deposit, you can be on your way with a bike, lock and helmet.

Normally, this estimable organization makes bikes available at the Water Street parking garage. It would be a treat any day to borrow one and ride over to Fort Trumbull, but it was especially pleasant Saturday, riding past all the walkers making the long trek in the heat, like pilgrims, between downtown and the fort.

My biggest disappointment of the day was the discovery that visitors were being denied access to the interior of the fort itself unless they paid $6 in admission.

Making admission to the ships free but charging to enter a state park seemed like a strange disconnect.

Maybe the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection will devote some of the money it made for the gas needed to keep a big guzzling DEEP truck, parked at one of the park entrances, running all afternoon.

DEEP officers sat comfortably inside the truck, air conditioning running, while the sweltering crowds drifted by.

I didn't see any New London police lounging in cool cruisers Saturday.

They were out on the streets, professionally welcoming the many thousands of visitors to New London's big day: Sailfest with ships.

This is the opinion of David Collins.

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