New London — Beneath a blue sky etched with clouds, eight schooners of various sizes and home ports set off into the shimmering waters of New London Harbor on Saturday.
The schooners began sailing away from the panorama of downtown around 11 a.m. in the bright morning light, toward the starting line.
A crowd of spectators on City Pier watched as the schooners set their sails, gathered speed and moved south on the Thames River. Sailboats, motor boats and the occasional ferry dotted the harbor during the warm but breezy day.
The Mystic Whaler of New London, Brilliant of Mystic, Malabar II of Vineyard Haven, N.Y., Virginia of Norfolk, Va., Sophia Christina of Westerly, Mary E of Essex and the schooners Mystic and Equinox, both of Mystic, were the eight participants in Saturday's race during the inaugural Connecticut Schooner Festival, under the umbrella of OpSail Connecticut.
Each schooner made it to the starting point in the Thames River at its own pace — from the red-trimmed Mystic Whaler with dozens of passengers aboard and the tall Virginia with billowing white sails to the 171-foot Mystic with an anchor along its side.
The 8-mile race with four, 2-mile legs began shortly before 1 p.m. The Mystic Seaport's Brilliant swiftly took the lead. The schooner powered smoothly through the water and maintained the front spot throughout the race. The 64-foot schooner, built in 1932, crossed the Atlantic Ocean in about 15 days, a record for the boat's size, according to the festival's website.
The Malabar II followed in second place, with the other schooners spanning the water behind it. Police boats from nearby towns, including Old Saybrook, Norwich, Waterford and East Lyme, as well as a Coast Guard auxiliary boat, patrolled nearby.
At certain points, the Mystic Whaler and the Virginia appeared to be racing each other. The Mystic Whaler seemed to have a slight edge over the Virginia near the beginning of the race, with the Mystic bringing up the rear. But as the Virginia and Whaler reached the orange buoy marking the end of the first leg, the Virginia appeared to be gaining.
Brilliant was the first to reach the finish line, about 2 miles southwest of Ledge Light, at about 2:11 p.m. The schooner took home the Morgan Cup.
Malabar II came in 15 minutes later, and the Virginia came in at 2:36 p.m. The Mystic Whaler finished at 2:56 p.m. with the Equinox following later, according to Melissa Root, the race director and director of the judging committee.
The other boats continued to sail, but the rules stipulate that to earn a spot in the race, the schooner has to reach the finish line within an hour of the first vessel, according to Root.
The Equinox had experienced some mechanical issues, which made it difficult to travel from Mystic to New London for the race, but ended up doing a "beautiful job" during the race, she said.
Capt. Jim Lobdell, an owner of the Malabar II, said the day was beautiful. The wind, which was variable all day, made taking the schooner out particularly fun, he said.
"I'd love to come back," he said. "It was a great time."
Kevin Cavanagh, the event's vice chairman, said next year's festival is set for Sept. 10-14. The committee plans to hold the event in New London and partner with similar organizations, he said.
"We're committed to it," Cavanagh said.