With OpSail adrift, New London's shot at 2020 tall ships event uncertain

New London — John Johnson resigned as OpSail Connecticut chairman Monday night, less than 24 hours before the private nonprofit was expected to sign a deal designating New London as a 2020 port of call for tall ships.

Johnson’s resignation exposed an apparent rift among members of OpSail’s Executive Committee and board of directors, some of whom Johnson said had reservations about partnering with Tall Ships America, the Newport, R.I.-based nonprofit that’s planning the 2020 event.

An OpSail meeting at which the contract-signing was to take place was canceled Tuesday morning.

“I stepped down last night. It was time for me to step down,” Johnson said. “New leadership has to make a commitment to the tall ships event — or not. It should be in the hands of a new chairman.”

Kristin Von Wald, executive director of Tall Ships America, had expected to attend the contract-signing and took part in a meeting with port officials Tuesday at the Coast Guard Academy in New London. She said her organization is eager to land New London as a port of call.

“It may not be an event OpSail hosts, but that doesn’t mean New London won’t host it,” she said of the 2020 event, a North Atlantic procession of tall ships being planned in connection with Maine’s bicentennial. “We’re committed to having New London host tall ships and there are people here who are keen to have it happen.”

She said that while she “had gotten far down the road” with OpSail, the group’s withdrawal “is not catastrophic.”

“We’ve got ships that want to come and people who are mobilized,” Von Wald said. “We will be talking to the mayor, the governor, local and statewide fundraisers and people who have been involved in maritime festivals. We’ve got good connections.”

Mayor Michael Passero said he has been in talks with Tall Ships America since the winter and that the city was “most definitely interested” in hosting next summer’s event, tentatively scheduled for June 11-15.

“We were going to depend on OpSail to manage the event, as they manage the Connecticut Maritime Heritage Festival every year, which they do very well,” Passero said. “We’re still very, very interested in working with the OpSail committee. ... My understanding is that they’re regrouping.”

“Funding is the major issue,” he said. 

Johnson said the contract with Tall Ships America would have committed OpSail to a $50,000 fee — a small fraction of the total cost of hosting the event but still “a major bone of contention” with some board members. He said some Executive Committee members wanted the agreement to be contingent on securing state funding.

“You can’t do that,” he said. “You can’t wait for that. Tall Ships needs to get started on marketing. ... They (Executive Committee members) just didn’t have that entrepreneurial spirit.”

Johnson said he hopes the Connecticut Port Authority, on whose board of directors he serves, will consider taking over OpSail and negotiations with Tall Ships America.

Johnson’s resignation follows that of Kevin Cavanagh, the former OpSail vice chairman and onetime New London mayor, who stepped down after this year’s Connecticut Maritime Heritage Festival, which took place in September.

Marian Galbraith, the former Groton City mayor, is the OpSail Executive Committee’s secretary. She said Tuesday she was in favor of hosting the tall ships event though she had raised some questions about the contract that had not yet been answered.

If Tuesday’s meeting had been held, the committee likely would have acted on the reappointment of Marcus Fisk as OpSail's chief operating officer. Fisk held the position during planning for the 2018 maritime festival before resigning early this year. He said Tuesday that Johnson recently had asked him to consider returning.

In 1999, then-Gov. John Rowland appointed Johnson to head up OpSail 2000, a major event that brought dozens of tall ships and crowds estimated in the hundreds of thousands to New London’s waterfront. Johnson oversaw another OpSail event in 2012, the forerunner of the Connecticut Maritime Heritage Festival, which has been held every year since.

Johnson informed Gov. Ned Lamont’s office of his resignation, a spokesman for the governor confirmed.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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