Weather, vessels draw crowds to New London

New London — Sparkling weather and superb racing conditions in Fishers Island Sound for eight schooners on Saturday combined to make the fourth day of the first Connecticut Schooner Festival a success, according to patrons, vendors and ship captains.

While crowds watched the race from Ocean Beach Park and other shore side locations, a steady stream of people walked along Waterfront Park talking to vendors selling Connecticut-made items, listening to music, and viewing maritime projects from area schools. There was even a chance to say goodbye to a Benedict Arnold puppet which was the target of mock burning during a performance Saturday night by the Flock Theatre.

When the boats returned to the dock late in the afternoon, people quickly lined up to tour the vessels and talk to their crews.

“This has been wonderful. We’re so glad to have been part of this today,” said John Eginton, the captain of the Mystic Whaler, as people waited to board his boat. “It’s great to see so many people down here.”

Eginton also credited the weather for playing a big role in the turnout, likening it to a “Rosenfeld sky.” That was a reference to the dramatic black-and-white yachting photographs taken by the Rosenfeld family, many of which are in the collection at Mystic Seaport.

Event coordinator Bruce MacDonald called the festival a “spectacular success,” even though some of the boats originally slated to be on hand had to cancel because of mechanical problems and scheduling conflicts. On the other hand, he said affiliated events such as the Great New London Chowder Challenge was so popular that tickets sold out.

“For the first year, this is a great turnout both on the water and on the shore,” he said, adding that the success will help “root the festival” for the coming years. Plans are to stage it for the next four years, but MacDonald said there’s no reason to stop it from going beyond that. Gloucester, Mass, has staged a schooner festival for the past 29 years.

That would be fine with Ron Lethiewicz of Newington who made the trip to the festival.

“It’s nice to see schooners like this. There’s no doubt about that,” he said.

Lethiewicz, who attended last week’s Taste of Mystic, said he enjoys coming to events in this part of the state, especially in New London, where he’s looking forward to the planned creation of the national Coast Guard museum.

“If they do more of this stuff, it will draw more people down here,” he said. “This place has so much potential.”

While touring the Mystic Whaler, Kathy Christie of West Hartford said the vendors and other activities in addition to the boats were drawing people to the festival.

“We came down because we wanted to see the schooners and get on the boats. We like to see the sailors from different countries and the music. It’s really cool,” she said, adding she’d like to bring her grandson in the future.

Nicholas Alley, the captain of Mystic Seaport’s schooner Brilliant, said the museum tries to get the boat out to events such as the festival to raise the profile of the ship.

In addition, he said the boat had charters on Friday and Saturday, including a family that helped race it.

“This is a great thing to raise people’s awareness of the boat,” he said about the festival.

Along the row of Made in Connecticut vendors, handweaver Stephanie Morton of Old Lyme said business had been kind of slow but that she had met some really nice people who had stopped to look at her rugs.

“So it’s definitely been worth coming to,” she said. “If they have it again next year, I’ll come back. It’s worth building up.”

Two booths down, Greg Haling of Greg Haling Design was displaying his photographs as well as handmade frames, mirrors, wooden bowls and tables.

He said he had not sold a lot of items but that there was a steady stream of people, especially after boats such as the Mystic tied up at City Pier in the afternoon following the race.

“Its been nice. The weather has been great so that’s the biggest thing,” he said.

Nearby, children painted a 6-feet-by-20-feet “Welcome to CT Schooner Festival” mural through the afternoon with brightly colored paints. The mural featured Ledge Light, a tugboat and of course a schooner. A few yards away, built between the walkway and railroad tracks, was an 8-foot-tall sand sculpture of a lighthouse and sailboat.

“You tell kids to keep it neat and they go right to it. They’ve really enjoyed it,” volunteer Bruce Cole said about the painting.

The festival ends late this morning, with the schooners parading out of New London Harbor.

j.wojtas@theday.com

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