OpSail, Sailfest merge for one big, festive event this July

New London - The city's annual Sailfest, which brings thousands to downtown every July, will go on as scheduled this year alongside OpSail2012CT.

Organizers say combining the two events promises to result in "the largest and most festive event in Connecticut this summer.'' The announcement was made Friday by John Johnson, chairman of OpSail, and Barbara Neff, executive director of Sailfest.

OpSail, with its tall ships, and Sailfest, with its food vendors, carnival rides, live music and arts and crafts, will be held July 6-9 at three focal points in the city - downtown, Fort Trumbull and State Pier.

OpSail, a national celebration of the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 that is being carried out in cooperation with the U.S. Navy, was expected to replace Sailfest this year when it arrived in New London.

But on Friday Johnson said he welcomes Sailfest to be part of the celebration.

"Sailfest has a long history of success in putting on maritime festivals in New London," he said.

Neff added that the Downtown New London Association and the Sailfest committee look forward to working together to showcase the city's active port and its maritime history.

Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio said "the entire community is coming together" and the inclusion of Sailfest "will help make OpSail an even greater success and will appeal to a broader spectrum of people in the greater New London community.''

The state has pledged to contribute $1 in funds for every $2 in local fundraising, up to a maximum of $500,000. Organizers say they have raised $350,000 so far.

The number of tall ships that will visit New London is still being worked out, Johnson said, but this year's event isn't expected to be as big as OpSail 2000, when at least a dozen tall ships and many smaller boats visited New London.

"We are in active discussion with the operators of various vessels,'' said Bruce MacDonald, a member of the committee. "We just don't know yet."

Organizers have said that invitations have been extended to ships from Colombia, Ecuador and Romania.

Capt. William Armstrong, director of communications for the national OpSail Inc., which was founded in the early 1960s, acknowledged that this year's events will not be as big as in previous years. A lack of political willpower and a sluggish economy are contributing factors, he said.

Another factor is that Newport is holding its Ocean State Tall Ships Festival the same weekend in July and some ships will be going there. Scheduled to be in Newport is the 179-foot barque Picton Castle, 177-foot Gazela, and the small tall ships HMS Bounty, Mystic Whaler, Unicorn and Lynx, according the organization's website.

"It's a distraction,'' Armstrong said of the competing event in Newport. "But I think it's going to be fabulous (in New London.) I can't wait to come to New London."

Capt. Eric Jones, commanding officer of the Coast Guard barque Eagle, said he is unsure what ships will sail into New London for OpSail, but the Eagle will be among them. There also will be some other sailboats and a "gray hull," or Navy ship, presence, he said.

"I hope its will be as big as it was in 2000, but there are some clear challenges," Jones said, referring to the Newport festival.

"Eagle will be here, I do know that."

OpSail2012CT will kick off Friday, July 6, in Niantic Bay where vessels will gather and participate in "Celebrate East Lyme Week.'' A Parade of Sail into New London on Saturday, July 7, will be followed by fireworks that night. OpSail and Sailfest organizers are working out other details of the three-day event.

k.edgecomb@theday.com

OpSail 2012

April 17: New Orleans
May 9-14: San Juan, Puerto Rico
May 23-30: New York City
June 1-12: Norfolk, Va.
June 13-19: Baltimore/Annapolis
June 30-July 6: Boston
July 6-9: New London

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