Published: August 1994 Mid-Gulf Sailing
© 2013 Troy Gilbert
By Tim Murray
On Sunday afternoon, July 17, the recently launched Biloxi schooner Mike Sekul, owned and operated by the Biloxi Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum, took a knockdown in a squall and quickly sank in approximately nine to ten feet of water. In the shallow water, the schooner rested on her side, supported by her mast; because her beam is 15 feet, much of her hull and deck were above water. All of the 23 people aboard were able to put on life jackets and wait for the squall to pass. One person aboard was treated for cracked ribs; she was apparently injured during the knockdown.
The incident took place during the Race for the Case, an annual staggered-start race from Gulfport to Biloxi. Both the Mike Sekul and the Glenn L. Swetman, which is also owned by the museum, participated in the race.
At the time that the squall hit, the two schooners were close together and about three miles east of Gulfport. When the Sekul went over, the Swetman dropped her sails, notified the Coast Guard by VHF radio, and steered a compass course back to the Sekul. The rain was so heavy that visibility was almost zero. Shore stations reportedly recorded wind velocities of 46 mph during the squall. The initial wind gust of the squall, which toppled the Sekul, was approximately 30 to 35 knots.
Sunday evening, museum volunteers removed the sails and some of the rigging. The Sekul was raised the next day, with the help of many volunteers, and the engine was running that evening. She didn’t suffer any serious physical injury, but her electrical system will have to be replaced.
Although the two schooners appear to be sister ships, there are significant differences. The Swetman has a flatter hull shape, which gives her significantly more form stability. The underwater lines of the Sekul are rounder, letting her go through the water easier, but giving her less initial stability. The Swetman has a 3,000pound concert keel and 4,200 pounds of inside ballast. At the time of the sinking, the Sekul had a 3,600 pound keel and no internal ballast. The Sekul is scheduled to receive a lead keel of approximately 20,000pounds before the vessel is fully certified by the Coast Guard.
When a museum or other organization creates a reproduction of an old sailing vessel, the question of authenticity verses the needs and realities of the modern world come very much in to question. The old Biloxi schooners didn’t have heavy lead keels, and there was resistance to putting one on the Sekul. With the proper keel under her, she would not have sank in a normal summer squall.
Things were very different 100 years ago when Biloxi schooners plied the shallow waters of the Mississippi Sound in search of seafood. As with all work boats, the particular waters they sailed and the type of work they did influenced the evolution of the design.
The skinny waters required a shallow draft centerboard boat. They left port heavy with ice and returned heavy with both ice and seafood. The ice and seafood was their ballast.
This was also before inboard engines, electrical systems, the Jones Act, OSHA and plaintiffs attorneys. When a schooner floundered in the shallow waters of the sound, it was usually not a major problem. After the seas subsided, two other schooners would come alongside and raise her to a level where she could be pumped out. She was soon back in operation. If all went well, they didn’t lose their cargo.
The ships of old also used the tide and weather as their major clocks. They didn’t have to get in three cruises a day.
Today’s world is far different. If a replica is going to be a working vessel, which both contributes to her support through charters and exposes more people to her, she has to be modified to meet the realities of today.
The sinking of the Mike Sekul could have been a major tragedy. It wasn’t, but only because those aboard were physically able to deal with the problems of being in the water. It also happened during the summer in warm, shallow water, in daylight, with plenty of help around. If the Sekul had been in 20 feet of water with no help around, the story could, most unfortunately, have been very different.