The Connecticut Maritime Heritage Festival arrives in New London

The Titanic won't make it; Leo DiCaprio bought it and turned it into a mini-golf course. The Monitor, being a Confederate vessel, refuses to leave Dixie to be here. And the Pequot, alas, is fictional - no matter what Herman Melville tries to tell you.

Other than that, though, just about every boat and boat-themed activity will be in New London today through Saturday at the second Connecticut Maritime Heritage Festival. Indeed, amongst the participating vessels lining New London Harbor will be the 208-foot NOAA research ship Thomas Jefferson, the freedom schooner Amistad, the 87-foot Coast Guard Cutter Chinook, and the Mystic Whaler, which might be thought of as the unofficial host schooner.

"This is a celebration of the sea and New London and Connecticut's long and rich history with the sea," says Bruce MacDonald, chief operating officer of OpSail Connecticut, the outfit that organizes the fest. "This is a great historic port and even today it's a vibrant, working port in a vibrant city. We wanted to be part of that and to provide an informative, fun event for all ages."

The official Welcoming Ceremony, presided over by New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio and Connecticut Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, takes place at 2 p.m. Friday on City Pier. Joseph Salcedo, a 12-year-old eighth grader at the ISAAC School, will sing the National Anthem while the New London High School Junior ROTC will present the colors.

But action starts this afternoon as the schooners and other guest vessels begin arriving at City Pier. They will be open for viewing throughout the festival, and many will be available for charter.

To assemble this many active and ocean-going ships is, as you might expect, a fairly arduous task.

"We had a lot of help from Ed Hellenbrecht, a member of the festival board and our schooner wrangler," MacDonald says. "Over the past few years, we've developed a profile in the schooner community. There are similar events in Provincetown and Boston and at other ports in New England and the Eastern Seaboard, and we've gotten to know them. And, happily, New London is an attractive destination.

"We can reflect the spirit of the sea in a lot of ways. So many local small businesses and restaurants are involved as well as groups like the Flock Theatre and, of course, the United States Coast Guard Academy and Coast Guard Sector Long Island. So many people have eagerly played a big role in this."

Of course, the idea of a "festival" implies all sorts of expansive opportunities for fun beyond the impressive roster of vessels, and MacDonald says the goal is to satisfy across the board.

The second annual lighted boat parade is a competition in which privately owned local boats, decorated in all sorts of luminous aesthetics, promenade Friday evening up and back down the Thames. The processional will be led by the R/V Connecticut, a research vessel out of the UConn Avery Point campus and helmed by the school's Husky mascot as well as King Neptune himself.

On Saturday, the Great New London Chowder Challenge, including savory recipes from nearly 20 area chefs and restaurants, should tantalize folks. Did you know that Chapter 15 of "Moby-Dick" is called "Chowder" and consists entirely of Queequeg and Ishmael eating chowder? Historical lineage! In that culinary spirit, there will be plenty of vendors and area restaurants offering thematic specials.

For the young folks, a long Monster Mural will be set up along Waterfront Park with paint and brushes provided for a colorful participatory project. Nearby will be numerous educational exhibits and a Connecticut-Made Expo. The Custom House Museum (150 Bank St.) offers lighthouse tours, an extensive maritime collection, and a permanent exhibit on the slave ship Amistad. And, hard to the Parade Plaza, the restored Nathan Hale School House will be open 1-4 p.m. all three days of the festival.

There'll be plenty of live music, too. Tonight, David Littlefield will sing sea chanties in the Hygienic Art Park, while the superb Americana artists Vince Thompson and Friends (5 p.m. Friday, Custom House Pier) and Jim Carpenter and the Hoolios (1 p.m. Saturday, Custom House Pier) also entertain.

Of course, all eyes will turn back to the water at noon on Saturday when the festival's Schooner Race takes place in Fisher's Island Sound (with an awards ceremony from 5-7 p.m.). It should be an exciting finale to a great and briny weekend.

Connecticut Heritage Maritime Festival, schooners begin arriving at City Pier today, fest continues 2-10 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday, City Pier, Waterfront Park and downtown New London; free; ctmaritimefest.com.

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