Sunday June 3, 2012

HARTFORD, Conn. -- Tall ships from around the world will converge on southern New England for one weekend in early July, but will be sailing into two different ports.

New London will be hosting the OpSail2012 tour July 6-9, the same weekend that New port, R.I. holds its Ocean State Tall Ships festival, part of the traveling Tall Ships Challenge series.

The convergence of the two events, less than 60 miles apart, means fewer ships for each, and competition for tourist dollars in a tight economy.

Operation Sail is expecting at least 24 ships, including 11 tall ships, to participate in the New London parade of sail, which will be led by the Coast Guard’s flagship, the Barque Eagle, a hometown vessel based at the Coast Guard Academy.

The Ocean State festival has 15 tall ships coming, including the HMS Bounty, a replica of the original that has been featured in numerous films including the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

Both festivals will feature ship tours, food, entertainment and historical displays. The OpSail event also will include a large fireworks show.

"It would have been ideal if we could have had these events on different weekends," said Erin Donovan, the executive director of the Newport event. "Unfortunately, the schedule here in Newport only allowed us to have it on that weekend, because the America’s Cup is here the weekend before and the Tall Ships Challenge series only had those two weekends with the ships in our area.


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John Johnson, chairman of OpSail2012CT, said the New London event had similar logistical issues with ship commitments and dates. The New London appearance is the last in a series of port calls for Operation Sail which began its tour in New Orleans in April and will have visited Norfolk, Va., New York and Boston before Connecticut.

"I’ve always been a believer that competition brings out the best in everybody," Johnson said. "And this makes sure that both of us do a better event. If you don’t have any competition, you just slide along."

The timing has created a quandary for some of the ships involved. The operators of the Mystic Whaler, a schooner based in New London, participated in the planning of OpSail. But they ultimately chose to bring the ship to Newport that weekend after being offered up-front cash during the winter by the Ocean State organizers.

"It was purely a business decision," said John Eginton, the ship’s captain. "Winter is a very cash-flow sensitive time, and it was a decision we couldn’t not make, essentially."

"I regret that there was not better coordination between the two, because it seems to me the events could have been staggered," he added.

Jesse Briggs, captain of the A.J. Meerwald, New Jersey’s official tall ship, said his group chose to bring their schooner to New London because it was close to the Meerwald’s home in Port Norris, N.J.

"I have some friends that will be in Newport and I have some friends that will be in Connecticut," he said. "I wish we could all be together at one time, but it’s just not the way it worked out."

Johnson said it has been a challenge to organize OpSail 2012 with the competition and a budget over just over $1 million, about a sixth of the money put into OpSail2000. The state is giving OpSail a dollar for every two dollars the organizers raise.

But Johnson is expecting at least 750,000 visitors to the festival and a "huge" economic impact of on the region, though he declined to give an estimate. He said every hotel in the area is already sold out.

"This will be by far the big gest tourist event in Connec ticut this decade," he said.

Donovan said the Newport event is estimating a crowd there of about 200,000, and an economic impact of about $20 million.

The groups have not been working together to promote their festivals, but because of the proximity of the two events, it will be possible for tourists to go to both.

OpSail is a free event. There is no gate charge at the Ocean State festival, but visitors will need to purchase a ticket ($12.50 for adults, $7.50 for children) to board the vessels. The ships at both events are getting appearance fees, and will be able to use the festivals to promote their educational and training programs.

"There are enough ships for both events, and enough excitement and dockside and shipboard activities," said Briggs. "I think both events will do very well."

This is the sixth OpSail event since that organization was established in 1961, all of them tied to a historical event. This year it is the celebration of the bicentennial of the War of 1812. The last OpSail was in 2000 to celebrate the turn of the millennium.

The Tall Ships Challenge holds events every year, but rotates from the Atlantic coast, to the Great Lakes to the Pacific Ocean. The Ocean State festival will also have tie-ins to the 1812 bicentennial.

The organizers say while these are clearly competing events, they believe both can come out winners.

"The more successful New London’s event is, the more successful our events will be in the future," said Donovan. "It’s really just the concept and the overall attitude toward these types of festivals that we’re encouraging."