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Eagle will leave today on mission to OpSail

New London — The Coast Guard barque Eagle leaves today for a historic summer training cruise, but soon it will be back, and it's going to bring along a few friends.

Eagle, "America's Tall Ship," will lead the parade of ships into the ports that are hosting Operation Sail events to commemorate the bicentennial of the War of 1812 and the writing of the "Star-Spangled Banner." The July 6-9 event in New London is expected to draw thousands to the waterfront.

"It's a wonderful honor to be able to lead that fleet into New London," said Capt. Eric C. Jones, Eagle's commanding officer. "We get to, in a sense, be the first to welcome the U.S. Navy combatants and international ships into our home port. We get to be the ones to invite them into the house, so to speak."

The organizers of OpSail2012CT, politicians and other well-wishers gathered Thursday at the pier at Fort Trumbull State Park to say goodbye to the crew.

John Johnson, the local OpSail2012CT chairman, who said last week he was disappointed that more ships were not signing up to come to New London, said at the event that a Class C vessel, or a smaller, yacht-sized ship, had just agreed to participate.

Johnson declined to name the ship, but he did say that the total number of tall ships participating now stands at close to a dozen. That figure includes two of the large Class A square-rigged vessels, Eagle and the Cisne Branco, a training ship from Brazil.

The plan for Navy ships is to have the Yard Patrol Squadron from the U.S. Naval Academy bring four boats and for one of the Navy's amphibious ships to dock at State Pier, said Navy Capt. Marc W. Denno, commander of the Naval Submarine Base in Groton, who was at the Eagle Thursday. Right now that amphibious ship is the USS Whidbey Island (LSD 41), Denno said, but that could change.

A Portuguese submarine already had planned to be at the base in July. Denno said the diesel submarine wouldn't be open for general tours, but the crew would take part in OpSail events. The base also would provide volunteers for OpSail and help with security, Denno said.

"It seems like there is some momentum starting to build," said U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District.

Sailfest, the city's annual summer festival that features food vendors, carnival rides, live music, and arts and crafts, will be held the same weekend in July. Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio said that while the city faces competition from Newport, R.I., which is hosting the Ocean State Tall Ships Festival 2012 the same weekend, "it's still going to be a great event for the city."

With close to 80 people training to be officers in the Coast Guard or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on board, Eagle will sail from the city to New Orleans for the first OpSail event, April 17-23. The USS Wasp (LHD 1), along with five large Navy vessels, will welcome the tall ships.

New Orleans, unlike New London, is considered to be one of the major events for the bicentennial commemorations, said retired Rear Adm. John B. Padgett III, chairman of the national advisory group for the commemoration of the bicentennial of the War of 1812 and the writing of the "Star-Spangled Banner."

The Navy's flight demonstration squadron, the Blue Angels, perform at the major events in the ports where the Navy can educate large numbers of people about the history of the War of 1812, what the Navy does today and the importance of a strong Navy, Padgett said Wednesday.

"You have a limited number of ships, and you're trying to distribute them most efficiently to get the message out," he said. "You get a bigger bang for the buck in New York or in Boston than you would in New London. It's just a fact of life, and you can't put as many ships in New London as you can put other places."

It is estimated that nearly 1 million people visited New London for OpSail 2000. But millions went to the New York festival, Padgett said.

"That's not to disparage New London," he said. "It's just not as big."

Padgett said some of the Navy ships that will be in Boston, June 30-July 5, may be available for New London, depending on their operational requirements.

Finizio said this year's OpSail is still "a work in progress."

"If we compare it to, say, past OpSails, or what we would hope ideally OpSail to be, then our expectations would fall short," Finizio said. "But if we look at this as every year we do Sailfest, and this year we're going to have an event that doubles or triples the size of Sailfest. We have to look at it through that lens and see that it will be a tremendous success and a tremendous boon to our local economy."


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