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New London's Sailfest 2020 is going virtual

New London — Spectators won’t be crowding into downtown to watch Saturday’s fireworks display light up the night sky. Food vendors will not be lined up along the waterfront. Downtown businesses, already counting their losses, aren’t likely to see a spike in customers like they normally would over the weekend.

The live and in-person version of Sailfest, the region’s largest summertime festival, was canceled with most other summer events this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But it doesn’t mean that Sailfest Executive Director Barbara Neff hasn’t remained upbeat or that there’s nothing to see this weekend.

Neff is hoping that instead of gathering on the streets of New London, or across the river in Groton, people will buy food from local restaurants and have Sailfest parties at home, tuning in to watch a virtual fireworks display set to start Saturday at 9 p.m. and streaming on The Day and KHITS 100.9 websites.

Of course, it’s not the same, Neff admits, but she is making the best out of the situation.

“Things are different. Times change,” she said.

The virtual fireworks display is one of a host of online promotions, and even a few in-person events, happening this weekend. Events and links can be viewed on the Sailfest Facebook page,

Neff said the offerings might tide people over until next year’s event. Local restaurants are offering discounts on food. Some of the food vendors, such as Heidi Jo’s Jerky and Keifer’s Kettle Korn, that typically show up during the three-day festival are offering their wares online.

Bands like Jeremy Beck & the Heavy Duty Horns and Shaded Soul Band are posting performances online. Virtual Sailfest T-shirts are available. The U.S. Coast Guard barque Eagle is offering virtual tours. Fire Fighter, the 80-year-old retired firefighting boat that spent seven decades protecting New York Harbor, is docked at Custom House Pier and will be open for tours.

The Thames River Heritage Park Water Taxi is offering half-price tickets to anyone wearing a Sailfest T-shirt on Friday, Saturday or Sunday.

There are also contests. Wear a Sailfest T-shirt and get your photo taken outside the “Be Kind” mural outside Hot Rod Cafe on Bank Street and post it to the Sailfest Facebook page. The photo with the most “likes” will go into a drawing for a dinner for four at the 2021 Fireworks Experience dinner.

The prerecorded fireworks display from a past Sailfest event will be hosted by The Day’s arts, music and humor columnist Rick Koster and KHITS 100.9FM radio personality Franco. The show is sponsored by The Day, Garden State Fireworks, KHITS 100.9, the Connecticut National Guard and Neff Productions.

This year’s virtual festival is dedicated to Sailfest founder Michael Lamperelli, the executive director of the city’s former Marine Commerce and Development Committee. He died in May. Neff, who started running Sailfest for the Downtown New London Association in 1996, said she has kept Lamperelli’s vision in mind when producing the event, always welcoming vendors, bands, fireworks and food, and plenty of activities for kids.

Neff, who typically is surrounded by an army of volunteers this time of year, said she has kept busy reaching out to the various organizations for sponsorship and coordinating online promotions.

Sailfest, in its 43rd year, has been canceled only one other time: in 2000 when OpSail 2000 Connecticut came to the city.

Editor's Note: This version corrects the date of the virtual fireworks show in the photo caption. It will take place on Saturday, July 11, 2020.


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