East Lyme — The executive director of Operation Sail Inc. could only hope the rest of the weekend is as successful as Friday's opening event at McCook Point Park in Niantic.
"What a great turnout," Chris O'Brien said. "This is a terrific kickoff. If this is an indication of the weekend crowds ... well, so far so good. I think it will be a great success."
The Connecticut event is the sixth port for OpSail, which has also held events in New Orleans, Norfolk, Va., Baltimore, New York City and Boston.
Thousands of people lined every available vantage point along Niantic's Main Street to watch the landing of the U.S. Navy Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC), an amphibious vehicle capable of delivering 400 Marines to land from the USS Carter Hall.
The Carter Hall has two LCACs, or hovercrafts, onboard and sent a landing craft to "storm" the Hole in the Wall Beach in Niantic as part of the opening ceremonies for OpSail 2012CT.
When the hovercraft closed in on the beach, a 100-foot-long spray of water and sand shot into the air and onto the crowds watching from a walking path above the beach.
"It was a wall of water and sand and it just got bigger faster, the wall and the hovercraft," Waterford resident Ben Foote said. "The spray went right over our heads. It really was more water than sand. It felt good because it's so hot out. I'm waiting for it to leave so we can get sprayed again."
The Carter Hall sat more than a mile off shore. The large grey vessel captured the attention of the surprisingly large crowd gathered at McCook to watch the Navy's LCAC emerge from below the deck of the ship and make its way to shore.
Before the craft headed toward the beach, marine patrols cleared a path through the boats, kayaks and Jet-Skis that dotted the bay.
"I'm interested in seeing it (the LCAC) up close. I haven't seen a landing since 1953," said Waterford resident Ed Cooney, who was sitting comfortably in a beach chair. Cooney, a U.S. Navy veteran, served aboard the USS Oak Hill for 24 months.
"The shape of the boat looks exactly the same," he said, peering through a pair of binoculars. "It's a lot different now. Back then, everything was manual. It took 31 days to cross the Atlantic in that thing."
Before the LCAC landing, East Lyme resident Brandon Bonneau, 14, picked up his younger stepbrother and lifted him toward the eye of a telescope owned by Niantic resident Dick Voog, who described himself as a military aficionado. Like the thousands of other people at McCook, the stepbrothers came to see the ships.
"I've never really seen ships like this before," Bonneau said. "I've seen them on TV, but it's pretty exciting. I've never seen a hovercraft, either."
Cmdr. Gregg Blyden, executive officer of the Carter Hall, said OpSail is a boon for the crew as well as the people they work to protect.
Blyden said the event gives the crew a chance to see a place they might not visit during their usual ports of call. "I think the crew enjoys it," he said. "It's always good to see different ports all over the world. That's what inspired me to join.
"Even though there is the submarine base in Groton, the citizens of Connecticut get a closer glimpse of what the Navy is about. Seeing the LCAC shows them our capabilities, shows them the important things their tax dollars pay for."
And it doesn't hurt recruitment, either. When told that two little boys said they wanted to ride in the LCAC someday, he counted their wish as a selling point. "Exposure like this can go a long way," he said.
The Carter Hall was the only ship whose crew was able to take advantage of a banquet spread at the park that included barbecued chicken, grilled swordfish, corn on the cob and potato salad.
While the crowds were sizable on Friday, there were fewer tall ships than expected. The crew from the Carter Hall and the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps midshipmen onboard for a training mission shared the meal tent with OpSail volunteers and U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen from four Navy patrol boats docked at Custom House Pier in New London. A second tent was reserved for officers, dignitaries and OpSail officials.
"We were expecting a lot more ships," East Lyme First Selectman Paul Formica said. "A lot of them had refueling situations."
Besides the U.S. Coast Guard training barque Eagle and the cutters Ridley and Morro Bay, vessels A.J. Meerwald, Spirit, Tyrone and Brilliant joined the Carter Hall on the bay. The ships will all be part of the Parade of Sail this morning.