Mississippi Gulf Island Expedition

Published: June 2014 – BoatU.S. Magazine
© 2014 Troy Gilbert

Faulkner sailed them, as did the pirate Jean Lafitte. They were the first islands Jimmy Buffet knew and dreamed of as Horn-Island0481a kid in Pascagoula and the muse for the art of Walter Anderson displayed in the Smithsonian. Mississippi’s Gulf Islands were the rallying point for 60 British frigates prior to their failed invasion of New Orleans and like then, seeds and tropical driftwoods still push north from the Caribbean and South America onto their sugar sand beaches.

Once home to a litany of pirates, Confederate gun runners and 1970′s drug smugglers, Mississippi’s barrier islands are today uninhabited and quiet with Cuba and Mexico the nearest landfall south. Visited mainly by locals looking for good fishing or overnight beach camping, these sandy spits of dunes and lagoons are wholly protected as a National Seashore and Wildlife Preserve and stunning in their beauty and history.

Stringing along the entire coast of Mississippi, these long and narrow islands – Cat, Ship, Horn, Sand & Petit Bois – are an important first line of defense for the coast from hurricanes. Forming the boundary between the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi Sound, they are located between 7-12 miles offshore of quaint, historic coastal towns offering everything from antiquing to casinos and are an unheralded and forgotten cruising ground.

Due east, lie Alabama’s developed barrier islands and the heavily trafficked waters of the panhandle of Florida, but cruisers rarely take the time to travel the few extra miles. Unless on daytrips from the coast or transiting back from Gulf Coast regattas to New Orleans, the islands are skirted by shrimp boats and oystermen plying the sound and not much else. Locals will tell you with their wry Mississippi accent that the Gulf Coast doesn’t end at the furthest point west tourists can toss a mullet at the legendary Flora-Bama  bar.

Lugging 40lb. bags of ice from the pink bait shop in Ocean Springs and onto the 48′ Hatteras and 21′ Boston Whaler for use as scat boat, Chef Matthew Mayfield and coastal artist, Billy Solitario, needle each other as they have done since their childhood.

“So Matthew, are you a fisherman?”

“Well I don’t know Billy, what constitutes a fisherman?”

“I don’t know, do you consider yourself one?”

“Well I fish. What constitutes an artist?”

The reality is these two grew up together on the Mississippi Coast running these barrier islands – it was their childhood playground and now their professional inspiration. Mayfield is a classically trained chef from the Culinary Institute of America and Solitario is a renowned artist with a studio in nearby New Orleans. I join them and we watch as Dr. Bob Thomas, the Director of the Environmental Program at Loyola University and James Beard nominated filmmaker, Kevin McCaffrey, arrive from New Orleans. They unpack their cameras and gear and pass it to us along the rebuilt piers lost in Hurricane Katrina. We are headed out on an expedition to explore, document and enjoy these Horn-Island0491barrier islands that are vanishing into the Gulf of Mexico.

While the new arrivals secure bunks in the Hatteras, the hometown guys joke on the dock with the shrimpers who are already off of work from their early morning trawling. These are men and women, who if they were coastal oaks with their roots deep in the salt and dusted by white sand, you could figure their age by the big storms they had weathered. This marina is a small world in a small town on a coast that has endured everything.

Rising on a slight bluff, Ocean Springs was relatively spared from most of the cataclysmic destruction from the hurricane in 2005, its historic downtown left intact. Today it is quietly booming with the feel of an Austin, Texas in its infancy. Only blocks from the marina, Government St. is growing into a music and restaurant scene. Home to Walter Anderson’s legacy and Shearwater Pottery, Ocean Springs has always been an arts town and it is finally being discovered.

Casting off the Hatteras, McCaffrey films footage of the big boat as he follows in the whaler helmed by Nate, a local man-about-town and friend of the guys from the coast. Across the entrance to the back bay as we convoy southeast, high rise hotels and their casinos command the beachfront in Biloxi, a different world from genteel Ocean Springs with her beachfront dotted with private homes and the Ocean Springs Yacht Club.

Cruising south on a boat from the Gulf Coast always feels like heading north for some reason and Horn Island rises low on the horizon. It doesn’t appear to be much on the approach – only 14 miles long and a quarter mile wide with several outcroppings of dunes, pines and periodic oak trees. We slide in at the “fat” west end of Horn. Almost pure beach on three sides, and these are not the Atlantic beaches of Florida or Jersey, these are Gulf Coast beaches. Giant sandy swaths that easily reach out 25 yards in each direction, with lee coves populated by brown pelicans, ospreys and a myriad of other sea birds startled only by periodic redfish runs in the shallows. The southern shore pounds Horn-Island0411with beach surf, while the north can be as quiet and cool as an Amish Pennsylvania pond, but with water temperatures averaging above 80F in the summer and 60F in the deep winter.

Solitario’s career as a painter was made when he started painting these island scenes and he’s obviously ready to dig his toes into the sand. He wants to paint, but mostly talks of redfish and wading for oysters at the mouth of the inner lagoons. Mayfield wants to boat, he’s the skipper and we round Horn Island to the south. At the eastern point there is a secluded shoreline and no one is concerned that anyone will be there. There is an unwritten rule that each island is claimed by the coastal town that lies due north. Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian get Cat, Gulfport gets Ship. Biloxi gets the western side of Horn and Ocean Springs gets eastern Horn. With the prevailing winds and currents tending to be from the east, the western cove of Horn can be heavily visited by locals on weekends for use as a lee shore, especially if a strong easterly is at play, but we have light winds.

The eastern shore of Horn is magical – the Gulf of Mexico crashing a stone’s throw to the south is a close white noise behind the dunes that rise 20′. Their perfect crystalline quartz sand that thousands of years ago washed down from the Appalachians rests here now for rabbit and ghost crab footprints – and ours. Solitario sets up his easel almost immediately in the pine straw and sand beneath a run of pine trees that are home to massive osprey nests. The chef and biologist walk down the beach discussing foraging on the island while McCaffrey sets up his HD camera and starts filming. Nate cracks open a beverage on the Whaler as I walk off and explore the dunes for sun-bleached driftwood for tonight’s campfire.

Walking only a few steps inland it seems everything is left behind and that you are alone and solitary. A distant squall throws off lightning and my feet dig deep into the white sand. Amazed that there are no human footprints here, I feel something ancient explorers likely never felt – guilt. But I walk on and track up a small rise and find a quiet lagoon. The brackish pond fed by springs and rainfall is lined with reeds on one side and the dunes I now stand on. I disturb some more rabbit footprints until the dunes and light scrub give way to the pink and black sand of the flats peppered with thousands of seashell shards. When I find the beach, the Gulf of Mexico is rolling as the tropical breeze freshens from the south – it is entirely likely that we are the only people on this island.

With years of childhood experience that make them fearless, Mayfield and Solitario break out a paddleboard and fishHorn Island, Mississippi - Gulf Islands National Seashore one of the inner lagoons known to house redfish and a stray alligator or two. Standing on the dunes, watching and waiting for their inevitable death that never comes, the rest of us discuss the unbelievable ability for the island’s rabbits, deer and raccoon to have survived the 30′ storm surge that covered this island only nine years ago. It is mystifying to even the biologist.

By campfire, the shadows play on the dunes and the Mississippi coast is quiet in her distant lights while Mayfield cooks a simple dish of redfish in the coals. The Sound washes on the shore and a few periodic shrimp boats slide past. The discussion turns to the single lone park ranger who has lived on Horn Island for the last 30 years and how his world could not be that dissimilar from Edward Abbey’s experience in the deserts of Utah.

On the Gulf beach in the morning, the surf is salty and warm and we prepare to move on. Only a few miles to the west lies Ship Island with her massive Civil War fortress that still guards the coast. Ship Island was quickly conquered by the North in 1862 and the fort was turned into a prison camp for Confederate POW’s. The island’s natural harbor was then used again as a staging point for the capture of New Orleans – the Yankee Navy succeeding where the British Navy failed some 50 years earlier. The fort and beaches make Ship Island of interest to tourists who arrive daily via charters from nearby Gulfport and while excellent anchorages abound, Ship does not have the remote, quiet feel of the other islands until after dusk.

The entire coastline of Mississippi is populated by transient friendly yacht club’s, including three of the five oldest clubs in the United States as well as $94M in new state-of-the-art marinas. The Gulfport Small Craft Harbor is a good resupply or overnight destination and the marina can accommodate vessels up to 140′. The Gulfport Yacht Club, as well as restaurants and bars abound only three blocks away in downtown Gulfport.

Cat Island is another quick run from the coast – originally named “Isle Aux Chats” for the multitude of raccoons on the island that were mistakenly identified as cats by the French explorers. Cat Island is a “T” shaped island and the only one in the chain that breaks from the narrow and long shape of the rest of the barrier islands. Here also white sand beaches, palmettos, pines and oaks abound, but with the southwestern cove of the island pure marsh and swamp. Overnight camping is allowed, although a small interior portion is still privately owned and posted. From the beaches of Cat Island, the transformation to the marshy coastline of Louisiana becomes visible as the water turns darker with the influx of the muddy water from the mouth of the Mississippi River. Continue on a few miles further and the Louisiana barrier islands of the Chandeleurs await, while to the northwest, the deepwater Rigolets Pass opens up and leads into Lake Pontchartrain and then the New Orleans’ marina district of West End.

Only eight miles north of Cat Island lies Bay St. Louis and her namesake town. The perfect bookend for any Gulf Island expedition with her quiet oak lined streets, waterfront seafood restaurants, antique shops and history dating back to French explorers in 1699.

With their architectural history mostly spared in Hurricane Katrina, Bay St. Louis and Ocean Springs have been thrust into the vanguard of a coast that’s still searching for its identity after the storm. Each of us onboard the Hatteras lost something in 2005, and we understand that as we motor back home and to our cars. It’s one thing to look on a map or read a newspaper story and distantly understand the importance of these islands, Mayfield explains, “It is another thing to dig your feet into the sand and hear those nesting seabirds and really get that these islands are not only here to protect us, my family, the casinos or an oil & gas refinery, but that there is an important relationship here. We have to help them protect us.”

In one of those thick southern skies where you can truly feel the height of the atmosphere above, the sun sets and their shores sparkle in crazy blues and purples, but after only a mile of heading back north, the islands again become quiet and plain. They are real magic hidden in plain sight, waiting to be explored and experienced.

- For more images of Mississippi’s Gulf Islands: Click HERE

- For a very detailed cruising guide and history of the islands: Click HERE

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