City's diversity, sense of fun on display for Sailfest

At 9 a.m. Saturday, a teasing breeze off the Thames River made the day seem specially ordered from late September — rather than a sun-and-humidity scorcher typically associated with mid-summer. On the far end of Children's Discovery Pier in New London's Waterfront Park, Rebekah Medley and her parents, Douglas and Gene Medley, were comfortably seated, enjoying the morning and were in no hurry to go anywhere.

When asked a leading question — "Do you guys like fireworks?" — the Medleys laughed good-naturedly and simultaneously answered with three different affirmative synonyms. Indeed, they'd arrived post-dawn to secure an optimal vantage point from which to view the Fireworks Extravaganza that luminously serves as the symbolic centerpiece of New London's annual Sailfest, which started Friday and runs through today.

That the pyrotechnics weren't scheduled to start for 12 more hours wasn't remotely a deterrent to the Medleys. "We've been coming to Sailfest for 25 years," Douglas Medley said," and for the last 10, we've come this early to get a good spot. We like to get up close and personal with this."

It's not as though homesteading the site was like serving a prison sentence. They'd brought books, a radio, cellphones and chargers, comfortable chairs and a shade-providing day-tent. Plus, they'd be joined later by other family members and friends, and could then peel off in small, rotating teams to shop, wander the festival, listen to music and eat.

By noon and extending into the late afternoon, the Medleys were joined throughout downtown New London and Waterfront Park by hundreds of similarly minded fun-seekers. The event has been tweaked and streamlined in small but meaningful ways.

There seemed to be fewer amusement rides than in the past — and erected further back on the waterfront than in recent years, when the parking lot between Eugene O'Neill Drive and Bank Street was where the rides were located. But the biggies were all accounted for: The Tilt-a-Whirl, a Ferris wheel, a fun house, a slide and race cars for kiddos.

And the strategically positioned cement barriers and sand-filled dump trucks were ominous reminders that security in these times ultimately is a comfort for large gatherings. Otherwise, dozens of food vendors created a meandering melange of pleasant scents to comingle with the sounds of live music and conversation.

And of course there were the vendors and information booths. Folks could consult psychics; find out about joining branches of the armed services; invest in windows and doors; join churches; and buy all types of artwork, crafts, T-shirts and clothing, jewelry, candles, bubble-machines and on and on.

Live entertainment was perhaps more diverse than ever, too. On the State House Pier Stage, for example, harpist/vocalist Emma Newton mesmerized with the sort of pastoral chamber pop decidedly not associated "county fair" acts. Rock, country and Latin acts were scheduled. And, on the Whale Tail Stage on Parade Plaza, a large crowd enthusiastically turned out mid-afternoon for Tiger Eye Dance, stars from the New London Talent Show, and performers from Writers Block Ink.

"This is the one of the biggest things I get to do all year," said Curtis Goodwin, director of the New London Talent Show. "Did you see the crowd? They get it! White, black, Puerto Rican — we're all dancing and celebrating together. Maybe they don't know each other but New London is coming together. I think events like this point to the future."

That spirit was shared by the Train Brass Band from Brooklyn, a traditional New Orleans-style marching band that, song by song, made its way throughout the event. "We come from New York," said trumpeter Dave Josephs, "which is maybe the most culturally and musically diverse city in the world. We wanted to play at Sailfest because New London is also very diverse, particularly for a small city. The point is to play fun music and see all kinds of people respond, and that's happening here."

Zach Patrick of Westbrook and Sarah Monty of Colchester also were pleasantly surprised by the broad appeal of Sailfest. "The idea was to come here for day drinking," Patrick admitted. "My father grew up around here and I knew it was fun. But there's so much going on. Besides, once we got here, we realized we also had to drive back, so the drinking hasn't really happened. Now we're looking for food."

"And there appears to be plenty of it," Monty said.

A fine perspective also came from Blake Camise of Dunbarton, N.H. All day, he occupied a prime piece of real estate where Bank Street collides with State Street, working a long but hopefully enjoyable and profitable day in the Heidi Jo's Jerky booth. An eight-person family business out of Dunbarton, N.H., Heidi Jo's offers homemade jerky in a variety of flavors and meats, and has become well established in the New England and upper-New York fair, festival and exposition circuit. But Camise, who's worked most of those events, said Sailfest is a family favorite.

"The atmosphere in New London is a little different," Camise says. "There's a festival feeling to it, but it's also a great little city with an urban feel. You see so many different types here, and everyone's having a good time. We work long hours and it's tiring, but at Sailfest, that's only part of it. We look forward to getting off work and exploring downtown, maybe get a beer and something to eat. It's an event we love every year for a lot of good reasons."

r.koster@theday.com

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