For some, the best part of Saturday's Parade of Sail may have happened before any boats got under way.
Hundreds of watercraft - sailboats, motor boats, skiffs, fishing vessels, kayaks and a little Sunfish - buzzed around Niantic Bay, earning their nickname: "mosquitoes."
Coast Guard auxiliary vessels kept most of the boaters a safe distance from the more than 20 ships getting ready to sail into New London harbor. Coast Guard officials estimated about 1,500 boats along the parade route.
Pleasure boaters vied for position to get closer to the U.S. Coast Guard barque Eagle, the USS Carter Hall and Brazilian Navy ship Cisne Branco - the three largest ships in the OpSail 2012CT Parade of Sail.
The parade got off to a less-than-perfect start when Eagle's anchor chain became tangled. The crew fixed it, but the snag delayed the parade by about an hour. OpSail ran behind schedule the rest of the day, with the governor greeting the crews at Fort Trumbull more than an hour behind schedule and the ships opening to the public at about 3:30 p.m. instead of 2.
Capt. Eric C. Jones, commanding officer of Eagle, said it was the first time in his three years on board that the chain tangled.
Impatient boaters waiting in New London began to creep into the path of the oncoming ships, said Lt. Todd Hartfiel, commander of Coast Guard Station New London. But the station and its partner agencies told the boaters to move, and they all complied, he said.
"No one pushed the envelope so much that they were negligent or disrespectful," Hartfiel said. "I think it was just impatience."
On shore, long after the parade of tall ships had been expected to be near City Pier, music began at the pier stage as part of the annual Sailfest weekend. With food and music going strong, the ships almost seemed like an afterthought.
But when Eagle drew into sight and passed close to City Pier, still under sail, it caught the attention of fairgoers, who turned to the river.
Eagle was followed by the USS Carter Hall, a Navy dock landing ship, and a line of more than 20 other vessels.
Eagle furled its sails past Fort Trumbull and docked at the pier there while the Carter Hall moved up the river. The Carter Hall also attracted a lot of attention, with its crew in white standing along the rails, facing downtown.
The last time Eagle sailed into its homeport instead of using its engine was for OpSail in 2000, but fewer sails were set this time. On Saturday, the cadets and crew shouted "heave, ho" as they raised 21 of the 23 sails.
Jones, Eagle's commanding officer, said he couldn't have asked for more perfect winds for sailing. The conditions were the best of any port this summer.
"How apropos," he said.
Tevin Porter-Perry, a cadet training on board, said the parade helped him see the barque "in a new light."
"You don't really get an appreciation for the ship until you see other people looking at it and taking pictures," said the 18-year-old from Hampton, Va. "It made me realize what I'm doing is pretty cool. It makes a difference and people take notice of it."
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and several other politicians and military officers were on board for the trip to Fort Trumbull. U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, helped haul lines to set the sails.
"It's gorgeous," Malloy said, looking out at the boats trailing in Eagle's wake. "To be on this ship, to see what's going on and the excitement that has been generated is just amazing."
Arriving in New London, boats in the harbor exchanged horn blasts in friendly greeting. Music played ashore.
"This is a tremendous day," Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio said. "It's the culmination of the efforts of so many people who worked together to make this such a success. It's a great honor and opportunity for the city."
In downtown New London, crowds started building early at City Pier, and food stands opened in time for an early lunch. Strollers on the pier were almost shoulder to shoulder by 10 a.m., and most of the benches were full.
Joe Brick of Granby, who runs the Jungle Jim Smoothies concession stands at City Pier, said it was a pretty typical Sailfest Saturday morning, with crowds maybe a bit bigger than usual.
The unified area command post responded to many calls for heat-related issues and heat exhaustion. By the time the fireworks lit up New London, the weather had cooled to a more manageable humidity level and the light drizzle had stopped.
Staff Writer David Collins contributed to this report.