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Schooners take sail as Schooner Fest moves to New London

By Kathleen Edgecomb

Publication: theday.com

Published September 13. 2013 12:02PM   Updated September 15. 2013 5:29PM
Sean D. Elliot/The Day
The schooners Brilliant and Malabar II sail in Fishers Island Sound en route to New London Friday.The two schooners are members of a small fleet of sailing vessels participating in the inaugural Connecticut Schooner Festival that includes a schooner race Saturday off Ocean Beach Park.

Lucinda Johnson and Gladys Ramos, mother and daughter landlubbers, got into the spirit of handling a tall ship Friday morning as they helped to hoist some of the Mystic Whaler's 3,000 square feet of sails.

As the crew shouted "Heave!" during the short trip from Mystic Seaport to City Pier in New London, Johnson and Ramos joined some of the 23 guests aboard the 83-foot schooner and responded with "Ho!" as they pulled on lines that brought up the sails.

"At first I thought, 'What if I got it wrong?'" said Ramos, who lives in Uncasville and had never been on a tall ship before. "But then I thought, 'I'm at the end. What can I do wrong?'"

Johnson had won tickets for Friday's three-hour ride, which kicked off the inaugural Connecticut Schooner Festival. She invited her mother to join her.

"That was pretty cool,'' Johnson, who lives in Ledyard, said of getting her hands on the lines and pulling up the sail. "Whatever they told us to do, we did it."

Mystic Whaler was supposed to lead a parade of sail Friday for the start of the festival. But weather conditions and other events conspired to reduce the parade to only three ships — Mystic Whaler, followed by Brilliant and Malabar II.

But no one on board Mystic Whaler seemed to mind. And neither did the people lining either side of the Mystic River to see the ship off. Standing on docks and seated in lawn chairs on grassy areas, several dozen people waved and shouted to Capt. John Eginton as he motored down the Mystic River with sails set.

The overcast morning turned into a brilliant day as the schooner cruised out to Fishers Island Sound and then up the Thames River. Speed boats, kayakers, ferries, more than 100 boats lining up for the Fall Off Soundings race, and even a submarine, were part of the sights along the way.

On board, New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio chatted with other guests, including state Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, and talked up the city's assets — City Pier, Waterfront Park, floating docks and good restaurants.

"We have to capitalize on our investments," Finizio said. "We've got to get the people here to see what we have. New London is very much on the rise."

On board without his cellphone, Finizio said he was the most relaxed he's been in months during the three-hour journey. "I'm not from a boating family, but I love to be out on the water,'' he said.

When the ship arrived at City Pier, Mystic Whaler's homeport, about 1 p.m., Eginton shouted a greeting: "Welcome to New London and welcome to the Schooner Festival!"

The festival is a collaboration of Mystic Seaport and OpSail Connecticut to celebrate the region's maritime heritage. The five-day event began at Mystic Seaport on Wednesday and included a parade of lighted boats Friday night.

A race off the New London shore is scheduled for today. Eight schooners — Mystic Whaler, Brilliant, Malabar II, Virginia, Sophia Christina, Mary E, Schooner Mystic and Equinox — will be racing.

Melissa Root of New London, the race director, designed the course keeping in mind wind direction for the sailors and viewing possibilities for those on land.

"I've never done this before, but I like to sail and I like sailing," said Root, who was one of several Schooner Festival volunteers on board the Mystic Whaler. "We're excited. I've been working on this with a great group of people since March. The weather is looking good and the course is good for the best viewership from shore."

Root will be on the committee boat today, a Leadership 44, a training vessel on loan for the race from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.

Root said she's hoping for more ships next year. "We're building momentum," she added.

The schooners will be open for tours from 9 to 10:30 a.m. today at City Pier, and will leave for the start of the race at 11 a.m. Some schooners, including Mystic Whaler, are taking on passengers for the race.

When asked the odds of winning, Eginton diplomatically responded: "This schooner was built to carry passengers comfortably. We're racing against Brilliant, who was built for racing.

"We're going to have a good time," he said.

The ships will return to City Pier at about 4 p.m. and will reopen for tours.

All the schooners are scheduled to leave New London late Sunday morning.


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