A sun-splashed finale caps off a star-spangled weekend

Sean D. Elliot/The Day A crowd on the fishing pier at Fort Trumbull State Park watches as the schooner Wolf departs New London Monday, July 9, 2012.

New London - Thousands of festival-goers and tall ship admirers filled the city's streets, river walks and piers Sunday for the final day of the weekend's OpSail2012/Sailfest celebration.

It was shoulder-to-shoulder foot traffic along Bank Street, where food and gift vendors reclaimed the roadway from motor vehicles. Closer to the river, youths took turns on carnival rides while hundreds of people stood in line at State Pier under the blazing sun for guided tours aboard the USS Carter Hall, a hulking gray naval vessel.

A similar line formed on the pier at Fort Trumbull, where the U.S. Coast Guard barque Eagle and the Brazilian Cisne Branco were tied up and receiving visitors. The schooner Amistad was also at the dock but couldn't open for tours because its gangplank could not accommodate the height difference between the boat and the pier.

"We're too low in the water, and the pier is too high," said Valerie Gatavaski of Uncasville, volunteer interpreter for the 80-foot vessel. Visitors could instead listen to her and other volunteers tell the ship's story of freedom and interracial cooperation and view a table of artifacts and historical documents.

For festival organizers, Sunday brought an exciting end to the city's biggest weekend since OpSail 2000.

"The crowds are pouring into the city," said John Johnson, chairman of the local OpSail committee. "It's just a fabulous event for everyone."

However, both Johnson and Barbara Neff, the Sailfest organizer, said the total crowd size during the afternoons, although strong, was down somewhat from anticipated levels. Going into the weekend, Johnson predicted as many as 900,000 people.

He and Neff attributed the milder turnout to the weekend's muggy heat and the brief, mid-afternoon rain on Saturday.

The multiple venues also appeared to thin out the crowd concentration at each location. For example, Neff said there appeared to be fewer people at Sailfest than last year, and speculated that some of those people fanned out to see the other sights.

Yet she was far from disappointed.

"We're pretty happy with the event - it's hot out there!" Neff said. "There is a lot of people out here for a Sunday. People love the boats, and the firework company did an awesome job."

Volunteers offered free water to visitors to help with the sizzling heat. But emergency crews were needed to respond again Sunday - as they did Saturday - to numerous weather-related calls for assistance.

Bob and Nancy Ross had the right idea for beating the heat. The husband and wife strolled to the breezy end of City Pier and sat facing the river and the large vessels gliding in and out.

They now split their time between Florida and Washington, N.J., and Bob Ross, a 1950 graduate of Fitch High School in Groton, said they enjoys returning to the area whenever they can.

Now 80 years old, he recalled attending OpSail 2000 and the "unbelievable" number of tall ships that year. But that doesn't mean 2012 was a letdown.

"If you can get out near the water, with all these boats, this isn't a bad day at all," Nancy Ross said.

Kevin Hurley, 35, of Groton, savored the cool breeze hitting City Pier while he waited to take the first sailboat ride of his life.

He would board the A.J. Meerwald, a two-masted oyster schooner built in 1928 that is the official tall ship of New Jersey.

"I come down for Sailfest about every year," Hurley said. "Some years I watch it on the Groton side. But it's more exciting on the New London side."

One of the more colorful sailing vessels open for touring was the "Wolf," a 74-foot-long boat with a home port in Key West, Fla., and a history of trips to the Caribbean.

"This is as far north as this ship's ever been," said ship owner Finbar Gittelman, who helped construct the boat in 1982 and says he has lived on it ever since.

"If I'm someplace where I don't like the neighbors, all I have to do is throw the lines off and go someplace else," he quipped.

The deck hand for the vessel's first New London trip was Cao Boi, a Vietnam native who appeared on season 13 of the reality television show "Survivor." Boi held an audience with his story of how the Wolf nearly capsized during a squall on its voyage here.

Also open to touring was the deep sea scallop harvester Regulus of Stonington.

Nearby, New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio strolled the pier in what he described as a deliberately unmayoral outfit: a splashy tropical shirt, large-brimmed hat and baggy, below-the-knees cargo shorts.

Finizio explained that he was attempting to keep a low profile for the day. He said the crowd for OpSail and Sailfest was the largest he had ever seen in the city on a Sunday.

"It's a very, very good turnout, especially for the third day," Finizio said.

Many of the visiting ships from Saturday's Parade of Sail are scheduled to head out this morning. The Cisne Branco of Brazil, however, will stick around until early evening.

The Coast Guard barque Eagle will not be open to vistors today as originally announced.

This year's OpSail, the first since 2000, commemorates the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 and the writing of "The Star-Spangled Banner."

The tall ships event stopped in New Orleans in April; Puerto Rico and New York City in May; Norfolk and Annapolis in June; and Boston in early July. New London was the final stop.

"The OpSail national organization spent two days here with us and they said, unqualified, that we had the best show short of Norfolk on the six-stop circuit," Johnson said.

OpSail events officially came to a close Sunday evening with the Captains' Ball at Ocean Beach Park.

Hundreds of volunteers, civic leaders, ships' captains and crew gathered to eat filet mignon and celebrate the three-day event. With the ships slated to depart New London today, the evening was also a farewell.

OpSail Chairman John Johnson called the visiting captains to the stage and pledged to do it again, with another OpSail in the next couple of years.

j.reindl@theday.com

The schooner A.J. Meerwald passes Fort Griswold in Groton as it departs New London Monday, July 9, 2012.
Sean D. Elliot/The Day The schooner A.J. Meerwald passes Fort Griswold in Groton as it departs New London Monday, July 9, 2012.
Spectators watch a Coast Guard water rescue demonstration from the aft end of U.S. Coast Guard barque Eagle as spectators tour tall ships docked at Fort Trumbull in New London during OpSail 2012CT in New London Sunday, July 8, 2012.
Tim Martin/The Day Spectators watch a Coast Guard water rescue demonstration from the aft end of U.S. Coast Guard barque Eagle as spectators tour tall ships docked at Fort Trumbull in New London during OpSail 2012CT in New London Sunday, July 8, 2012.
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