People jockey for fireworks viewing location on day two of Sailfest

New London — Nestled comfortably in folding chairs overlooking the Thames River, Dave and Sharon Rosenthal of New Britain claimed their spot early at this year’s Sailfest.

In fact, they’ve staked out the same location on the pier for themselves, family and friends each year for the past 10 years to secure sweeping views of the fireworks spectacular to come later in the evening.

“This is our spot,” Sharon Rosenthal said.

Sharing “the spot,” with the Rosenthals is Waterford resident Carmen Perez, who the couple met 10 years ago while jockeying for positon along the crowded New London waterfront. They’ve been friends ever since.

Perez and the Rosenthals were some of the thousands of people gathered Saturday for the most popular day of the three-day annual event. Sailfest is a mix of food vendors, carnival rides, live music and arts and crafts and welcomes people to the heart of downtown closed off to vehicular traffic.

Jungle Juice Smoothies and frozen lemonade were among the biggest hits during the heat of the midafternoon. Lines were markedly shorter at the food trucks hawking things like deep-fried Oreos or giant stuffed potato grenades.

Business was a bit slow early on for Beloved Grace Carter, who promised a taste of France outside Harris Place on State Street with her Grace Les Crepes stand. She was selling a variety of sweet crepes.

Carter, the director of the New London breakfast program at Engaging Heaven Church, wasn’t worried. She expected business would pick up later as it cooled down and crowds filtered out of the bars.

Carter, who also runs “It’s By Grace Cakes,” said she typically cooks for private functions but jumped at the opportunity to get out in the community. Nearing the age of 70, Carter said she’s lived in New London since she was 2 and enjoys the odd mix of characters that can be found at Sailfest.

“I love people. I love everything about New London. It’s like family. It’s community,” she said.

It was difficult to go anywhere in downtown on Saturday without seeing a member of a mix of law enforcements agencies. New London Police Captain Brian Wright said preparations for Sailfest are months in the making and include coordination with local, state and federal law enforcement partners.

“We meet on a routine basis ... to look at what we can do better, more efficiently every year,” Wright said.

He said nearly the entire department is on duty for the weekend and include “highly visible,” law enforcement personnel and others not so visible — all intent on creating a safe atmosphere for visitors.

Sailfest is run by the Downtown New London Association and Sailfest Executive Director Barbara Neff, who enlists a fleet of volunteers each year to make the event possible. A study commissioned by the association last year determined the event contributes $58.2 million in economic value to the region, and brought more than 278,000 people to the area last year.

The event is partially sponsored by the city, whose largest expense is the overtime hours for personnel in the police, fire and public works departments. Some criticism of the city’s estimated $200,000 contribution for the event in past years led to closer scrutiny and whittled back contributions to the event — an estimated $125,775 in 2018. The police budget contains $50,000 this year to cover police overtime costs.

Neff said this year’s event extended a bit further down Bank Street than in years past to make room for an increased number of vendors.

New additions to Sailfest this year include Sunday’s Family Fun Day that includes free crafts, hula-hoop lessons and face paintings by a variety of New London businesses. There is also a pirate invasion at custom house pier at 12:30 p.m. and at 2 p.m. at the Custom House Maritime Museum there will be an attempt to set a world record for the largest fist-bump explosion chain.

g.smith@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects the spelling of the S.S. Normandie.

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