Bringing the sails back to Sailfest

The sight of happy throngs enjoying a glorious weekend in New London during the combined Sailfest/OpSail2012CT festival has been a fresh breeze countering all the hot air and poisonous vitriol of late involving city police and fire contract disputes, school system shortcomings, and power struggles between the mayor and City Council.

It was as if everybody decided, at least for a couple of days, to stop all their bickering, kick back and simply have a good time. Even the weather gods for the most part cooperated, though we could have done with less overcast during the Parade of Sails, no looming thunderstorms that briefly threatened to wash out the fireworks, and maybe a tad lower temperatures and humidity.

High praise goes to festival organizers for their expert planning, to friendly and helpful police, maritime and emergency officials who kept the event peaceful, and to well-behaved multitudes who maintained their cool even in sweltering, crowded conditions.

The hordes that packed such shoreline viewing points as Harkness Memorial State Park in Waterford, Ocean Beach Park in New London and Avery Point in Groton Saturday morning for the Parade of Sails may have been disappointed by a tardy start and cloudy skies that obscured the procession until it neared its final approach on the Thames River, but no matter - thousands lined up later for tours at Fort Trumbull of vessels including the 295-foot Coast Guard barque Eagle and the Brazilian Navy's 256-foot Cisne Branco.

We had been advised that this year's OpSail edition, featuring 20-odd vessels, would not rival the grandeur of the festival in 2000, when twice as many tall ships sailed into the city - but it still was thrilling to see such magnificent ships in full sail entering the harbor.

The vision reinforces a point this newspaper and others have been advocating for years: New London needs to re-emphasize the sail in Sailfest.

OpSail may not be back any time soon, but Sailfest will return next year - we hope with more nautical activities.

In early years the city's annual nautical celebration included sailboat races and other maritime events, but then it seemed to lose its bearings and evolve into more of a street festival, with T-shirt and trinket vendors, live bands, corn dog stands and kiddie rides that could have been found in any inland setting.

We still welcome those amenities, but let's not forget: New London is the Whaling City and should capitalize on its rich maritime heritage.

The Eagle, of course, is based at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, and if available should be part of every Sailfest. Likewise the U.S. Navy, with its submarine base in Groton, should be able to provide a vessel - maybe not one as impressive as 609-foot Carter Hall, a naval dock landing ship that dispatched an amphibious Landing Craft Air Cushion to "storm" the beach as part of the opening ceremonies Friday in Niantic - but at least one that would remind southeastern Connecticut residents of their military connection to the sea.

In addition, a number of handsome charter sailboats operate in the region. Why couldn't they join a parade and offset their expenses by selling tickets to passengers?

Perhaps we're getting ahead of ourselves, and should simply bask in the afterglow of a wonderfully successful weekend that gave every citizen, business and city official reason to feel pride.

We encourage all to harness the good will from Sailfest/OpSail to ensure that New London enjoys fair winds and following seas well into the future.

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