Reading the Wind – Sailing the Mississippi Coast

Published – Mississippi Magazine
©2013 – Troy Gilbert

Like a great novel, sailors read the wind on the water. Wind lines are new chapters that guide and propel them toward grand destinations and approaching squalls are plot twists that must be surmounted to further their character arcs. William Faulkner and Eudora Welty both understood this as they would sail Mississippi’s inland lakes or out to the barrier islands of the coast. Walter Anderson was so in-tune that he intertwined his life and art with the sights of these waters and sand blown islands. Walker Percy wrote of daytrips from New Orleans to lounge on the beaches and enjoy the cooling breezes coming off the Mississippi Sound, desiring a boat with sails to capture them.

As far back as the early 1800’s, wealthy merchants from New Orleans understood the draw of the waters of the Mississippi Sound. In what would become an annual migration to the coast seeking to escape the summer heat and yellow fever epidemics in the city, they would sail their families over to the coast where they kept second homes. Throughout the long summer they’d join their sailing counterparts from Pass Christian, Gulfport and Biloxi, and organize informal regattas that utilized the Gulf Islands as waypoints and sailing marks. Over two centuries later, nothing has changed.

Today marinas and yacht clubs from Bay-Waveland to Ocean Springs, some over 150 years old, serve as outposts on the Mississippi Sound – beacons drawing sailors in from days spent on the water or pulling them down to the water’s edge from points inland. Out on the piers, Olympic class sailors easily mingle with novice adults and juniors learning this new way of life as the clink of boat rigging calls out in the wind, waiting for hoisted sails.

As a new summer approaches, the ties to this deep history and their traditions breeze again onto the coast. In June, all ranges of sailors will board boats in New Orleans and sail the 163rd running of the Race to the Coast which culminates in Gulfport – the oldest point to point sailboat race in the Western Hemisphere. A week later, nearly 100 boats of every stripe will leave the docks and sail from Ship Island for Pensacola along the southern reaches of the Gulf barrier islands.

Onboard, these amateur and expert crews revel through the hours spent under sail and on the water. As the sun falls and meals are roused from the galley below, stories and laughter are shared all the while the spray coming off the bow becomes saltier and the lights from the cities and towns vanish. These men and women are sharing an adventure, a sport that is a closer kin to wilderness expeditions and it creates enduring bonds and experiences. For most sailors, the value is in the journey – the landfall is simply lagniappe. And many learn this as junior sailors, some as young as six, in sailing camps throughout the coast or in Jackson.

Ask any collegiate sailor under scholarship who aspires for the Olympics and they will easily tell you that their skills were learned sailing small 8′ Optimist dinghies at yacht club’s throughout the country. In fact, talk to most sailors and they’ll not hesitate to describe how they learned self reliance out on the waters under the guidance of junior sailing programs.

It starts for these kids a culture of water and wind. Your average power boat owner may sell a boat when bored of it, but for most sailors with a boat or not – they can never give up the lifestyle. It becomes a part of who they are and the legacy gets passed down through generations. With three of the five oldest yacht club’s in the America’s on the Mississippi Coast, browse through the membership rolls and family trees thread throughout their histories.

Surprising though is the groundbreaking leadership role of women in the sport over the years. In a time easily before women had the right to vote in this country, all female crewed boats were openly competing against men and not without some disconcertion from a segment of their old school male counterparts. There are several documented examples of all female crews and regattas on the Gulf Coast dating back to 1904 and today female skippers, crew and regattas are common.

While regattas are the most publicized events and certainly daunting for individuals with little to no sailing experience, racing constitutes a scant 15% of the on-the-water activities. Cruising sailors whether affiliated with a club or not, make up the vast majority of the sailing population. It is a liberating escape for families to set out on relaxed sails for the barrier islands and anchor in lee shores. Turning off the playstations, the iPad’s and grilling the day’s catch off the stern of sailboats over cocktails as the kids learn to crab or simply run their feet through the sand, these experiences last a lifetime.

With the Gulf Islands and their legacy of pirates and colonial Spanish forts within easy reach for daysailors, it’s hard not to get wrapped up in the romanticism of sailing. The ideal method to get acquainted with the lifestyle is to finally accept that invitation out on a friend of a friend’s boat, or walk the piers during the fun weekly “beercan” races and introduce yourself to skippers who may be looking for dedicated crew willing to learn. In addition to junior sailing camps, there are multiple courses available for adults, women only and even singles along the coast and on the Ross Barnett reservoir in Jackson.

Aspects of this world my appear daunting to the uninitiated, however with most seasoned sailors decked out in flip flops it should not be surprising that they are readily accepting and willing to teach people who feel the call of the water. There are new families beginning their legacies on the water every day and learning what it means to have that sail full in the breeze and those island shores within their grasp.


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