Standing on his toes on the Woodcleft Canal esplanade, 6-year-old Owen Minihan pointed to the five 65-foot-tall, 44-foot-long sailboats — the Daring, the Warrior, the Brave, the Invincible and the Fearless — headed in his direction on Aug. 8.
“They’re here,” Owen announced as his sister, Page, 11, and their cousin Liam Kennedy, 9, looked for them.
Twenty-one years ago, Owen and Page’s mother, Colleen Minihan, a Freeport native and now a naval aviator, sailed 280 miles from Annapolis, Md., with 49 other U.S. Naval Academy Midshipmen. Since then, the annual arrival of the Midshipmen at the Nautical Mile has become a tradition that Freeporters, military veterans and neighboring communities look forward as summer nears an end.
While the boats were docking, Cathy Stevens, of Freeport, the grandmother of Owen, Page and Liam, reminisced about her daughter Colleen’s first visit.
“She was so young,” Stevens said. “She was following her older brother’s footsteps [by attending the Naval Academy], and since has had a long career in the Navy.”
John Nuzzi, a former Freeport Chamber of Commerce president, has welcomed the Midshipmen every year. The first year, Nuzzi recalled, then Freeport Mayor William Glacken held an elaborate breakfast for the sailors.
It was Glacken who asked the Naval Academy in the late 1990s to make Freeport a port of call for the Midshipmen’s sea training. They train at sea for four weeks, developing boat and leadership skills. After a week of classroom lessons, they sail in Chesapeake Bay. In the third week, they set sail for Freeport. At the start of the fourth week, they leave the esplanade and sail back to Annapolis for the start of the school year.
During their stay, the Midshipmen, ages 19 to 25, check into the Freeport Inn, and on Friday and Saturday they give visitors tours of their vessels. The Freeport Chamber of Commerce partners with local merchants to provide the Midshipmen with $20 worth of “Chamber Bucks” to spend while they’re in town and the Recreation Center gives them full access to its exercise center and pools.
A number of the Midshipmen visited the Freeport Bait and Tackle Shop, on South Main Street, to buy fishing line and hooks for their trip home. When they arrived, Capt. Ray Pasieka of Carolann P. Fishing Charters in Freeport bought them rods, reels and tackle.
“It’s great to see them here every year,” Pasieka said.
Butch Yamali, owner of the Dover Group and Hudsons on the Mile, sponsored a barbecue last Saturday at the Recreation Center with the Midshipmen, members of the William Clinton Story American Legion Post No. 342 and local elected officials. After an early breakfast on Sunday morning, the Midshipmen set sail for Annapolis.
“It seems that with every year that passes, they get younger,” Nuzzi said with a laugh, “or maybe I’m just getting old.”