Published: November 1995 Mid-Gulf Sailing
© 2013 Troy Gilbert
By Peter Chance
Spring had arrived and still my good friend, David, and I had not yet taken our semi-annual adventure trip. The last one was a six-day sailboat trip down the Mississippi River from Cairo, Illinois, to Memphis, Tennessee. It was so much fun that when spring arrived this year, we knew we had to do something equally, if not more, adventuresome. So we spent an evening perusing maps and charts of the Gulf of Mexico and found a group of islands thirty miles south of the Mississippi coast called the Chandeleur Islands.
Although we are not great sportsmen, we had been sailing together on boats for five years. Sometimes we sailed in races, and sometimes we just sailed for fun; but we always appreciated the sheer wonder of being out on water and contending with wind and waves. This time we decided to be sportsmen: we would only bring enough food for three breakfasts and dinners for a six-day trip. The rest we would have to catch ourselves. Soon the eve of April 15, 1977, David and I, with the boat, sails, anchor and fishing rods, set out upon the road to Gulfport, Mississippi, for a six day adventure to the Chandeleur Islands. Ignorance was perhaps the best commodity we brought with us, for we had a lot to learn.
We launched the boat at the ramp the following morning. She is a class boat called a 470: a sixteen-foot fiberglass open hull with main, jib, spinnaker and trapeze and just enough space to tuck away some food, sleeping bags and tarpaulin. We packed the supplies, informed the Coast Guard of our intentions and set sail at 3:30 in the afternoon, way behind schedule. The Coast Guard quaintly informed us that no one had ever tried such an excursion in such a small boat. As we sailed away they watched in mild disbelief.
We broke out of the harbor of Gulfport in a fifteen-knot southeast breeze. We had a course heading of ESE magnetic, and we were doing a healthy five or six knots ourselves. The sun was blazing over the West and bright clouds glided silently overhead, leaving their splotchy shadows on the choppy water below. It was only a few hours later when Gulfport disappeared below the horizon behind us; we were out in the middle of the gulf with only the sun, sea, and a few islands off to the West. Three-foot waves occasionally broke over our two-foot bow, and David was rather damp; but the boat was self bailing, so the water went out as fast as it came in. All we cared about was that we were finally out on the water again, braving whatever circumstances were presented to us with what little skill we had — and hopefully with a lot of luck.
Our ESE heading was supposed to take us out about twelve miles to Ship Island, our intermediary to the Chandeleurs. At around six o’clock the island had still not come into sight, and we decided to change course to the island we had seen earlier in the West and to spend the night there. The sun was beginning to look like it was ready to set, and we didn’t want to get caught out in the Gulf in the dark without channel markers or a visible destination. We were a bit worried because the chart indicated that the island off to the West, Cat Island, was rather marshy, and perhaps did not deserve the title island. We bore off on port tack towards the flickering image of Cat Island. We considered setting the spinnaker, but the wind had come up a bit more and we feared that our haste to reach shore before sunset would lead us into a worse condition – tipped over. So we knuckled under with what sail we had and headed towards the sunset.
A while later the island came into full view. We could see a few trees and a seemingly endless string of marsh weed extending off into the southern horizon. David was the scout of the expedition and exclaimed, after looking through the binoculars, that there was no island. He declared that it was only vegetation growing out of an area of shallow water. This confirmed our fears from the chart, but we sailed on, hoping to find some good old firmament somewhere amongst the weeds. As we drew nearer he exclaimed that he could see breakers ahead with the skeleton of an old fishing boat resting awkwardly amidst them. As skipper of the expedition, I was beginning to have second thoughts about our situation, for the sun was just touching the horizon and we had yet to face breakers and an island which did not appear to be an island. So I made a merry joke, grabbed the binoculars and took a look myself.
Up ahead I could see — against a backdrop of marsh weed — the outline of the shipwreck and the waves beating up against its worn timbers. It looked bad. But upon closer inspection, I noticed that just underneath the weed was a pure white line of either flat water or the most ivory white sand I had ever seen. David took the binoculars back and made out in the dim light that indeed it was sand! The charts and our eyes had deceived us. Ahead lay a solid and beautiful island. We weaved our way through the breakers and sailed around to the leeward side and landed in an inlet with a large expanse of soft sand. We merrily lit a fire and settled down to the first of our three canned meals and ate sumptuously under the stars with the steady trade winds blowing our words away. We fell asleep as the fire died, exhausted after our first day at sea.
But we had not yet made the Chandeleurs. So the next morning, as the sun rose, we hastily ate two saltines apiece and set sail once again. The winds had freshened during the night; it was averaging twenty and gusting up to twenty five knots. The sea had come up, too. We still had a good, healthy fifteen miles to go, directly into the wind, which lengthened our actual mileage to twenty three. Unbeknownst to us we were also fighting a one-knot current, which was stealthily bearing us off to the West.
It was about 12:30 when David finally sighted the Chandeleur Island lighthouse bobbing on the horizon ahead. By 2:00, it was abeam on the port side. We sailed up under the island to get out of the chop, but we could not get within a mile, for it was too shallow. But the island was beautiful. We could see large sand dunes with windblown bushes clinging to the tops, and spread below were pure white sand and occasional dune and marsh weed along some of the coast. It was a picture of naked nature affixed in a windblown and wild sea. And there was not one boat in sight. The whole island was ours — all twenty miles of it.
We followed the coastline for a few miles to get away from the lighthouse to a place where no one had ever been before. After traversing about five miles, we saw an extra-high set of dunes that touched down into the water inside a deep cove. It looked like a perfect place to set up base camp, so we sailed for shore. We had no idea that it was so shallow. At first we thought we would be able to make it through the shoals by raising the center-board more and more as we got in closer, but the bottom was only a foot away when we were still a good half mile out. Since the sun was shining down, we could see the deeper water, and we sailed in and out of small channels that weaved their way in to within a few hundred yards of the dunes. It was only a matter of walking the boat in from there. When we finally lowered the sails and anchored the boat at 3:30 in the afternoon, we ran up to the dunes and danced with joy. We had made it with the crew, boat and equipment present and accounted for.
We immediately wanted to start exploring the island, which stretched off into both the northern and southern horizons but ended abruptly about a half mile to the East, where we could see rollers coming in and breaking upon the shore. But the sky looked as if it might be brewing up some heavier weather, so we decided that we ought to set up camp first. We unloaded the boat, set up the tarpaulin, and gathered some firewood for dinner. Pitching camp occupied the better part of the afternoon, but we did have an opportunity to go over to the ocean side of the island, where the surf had piled some goodly masses of elegantly shaped firewood.
It was not until after dinner (our second canned meal) that we had a chance to sit down and realize what a wild place this island in the sea was. We had become so accustomed to concrete and buildings that this large expanse of sand, water and sky completely overwhelmed us. The wind had come up some more; it howled through the bushes and whipped sand particles down the beaches. Sounding like distant thunder, the breakers pounded at the other side of the island, while low flying clouds scudded by overhead. But we were safe behind our sand dunes under the tarpaulin while the boat rested comfortably at anchor in the cove. Little wavelets lapped at her bow. The sun set in all of her blazing glory as we gobbled down the most delicious hot dogs anyone has ever eaten. Night filled in, bringing out the blazing stars and a few well-wishing meteorites. We fell quite soundly asleep soon thereafter, mumbling something about how the wind seemed to be coming up more.
I must step aside here to tell you the story that nature was telling whilst we were curled deep in our sleeping-bags. Truly, this trip was her story, and we were just the listeners. Indeed, nature was plotting one of her more coordinated efforts for our benefit. For the past twenty-four hours, somewhere deep in the gulf some kind of riot had been going on between the warm and cold, the wet and dry. The forerunners, the waves, began their scourge on the beach. For half a mile the ocean was a frothy, boiling mass of water gone mad. It dug and drove and belched and heaved itself upon the sand. The water became an ugly grey soup. It was not long after the waves arrived that the wind rose to a gale, carrying low-flying clouds from the Southeast up towards the mainland. It roared over the sea and sand, picking up pieces and dashing them into any object that dared stand in its way. Between the thunder from the sea and the howling from the wind, neither a breath could be breathed nor a word said. But this was just the beginning.
Very near dawn we were awakened by the sound of rain pelting on the tarpaulin. The state of the island, the sound of the breakers and the wind, now combined with the rain, lightning and thunder, broke in upon our meager abode. We huddled back under the tent and peered out from our sleeping bags while the deluge swept over and around us. It did not take long for the tent to fill with water, but this abuse was no match for the scene outside. Nature was out and about, rampant in the night, creating all the most wondrous havoc she could.
The eastern sky grew a bit lighter, and soon thereafter the rain stopped, but the wind continued to howl. David went back to sleep, but I got up to check the boat and to admire the scene. In the eastern sky there was a thick wedge of clouds that had a most odd violet and green appearance. In the West the underbellies of the storms that had just passed over showed slightly pink rough edges interspersed with jet black inner folds. To the North and South, oddly shaped and billowing clouds bent in the direction of the wind and marched by in a ghostly array. The wind blasted over the island ruthlessly. I walked down to the cove to check the boat and was shocked to find that she was leaning over at an unnatural angle. The tide had gone out over-night and left her high and dry on the sand. Only later, when I walked around to the other side of the dunes, did the full power of the wind hit my face. There was nothing to block it on the sea, and for hundreds of miles it had built up momentum; now it plowed forcefully upon the island. I had to lean into it to stay upright, but it was steady, so it never made me falter. My mouth was probably open from amazement, but upon turning at a certain angle to the wind, my mouth became filled with sound, like when one blows over a Coca-Cola bottle. It surprised the daylights out of me at first, but soon I became adept at playing tunes just by moving my lips. I sat there enjoying the scenery and a few tunes until David came and sat down next to me. He looked rather dazed and dreary but ready for breakfast.
We decided later, after hanging our wet belongings up and while munching on damp bread and warm, sandy tea, that we must make our camp more secure and livable. We therefore spent the morning gathering strong pieces of ten-foot planks and two-by-fours, which we summarily sharpened and pounded halfway into the ground. Nothing but a hurricane would be able to rip them out of the sand. To create an excellent lean-to, we stretched some ropes between the planks and finally tied the tarpaulin over the top. Some benches we built and a nice table David found became our kitchen. By noon, the camp was tight and dry, and we thought we were ready for anything. So we ate lunch while devising methods of food gathering, for our supply was rapidly being eaten and stolen by raccoons.
After lunch, David went for a walk while I rested. Within a few minutes he came running back, telling me to come quickly. He led me around the dunes and up into the next cove, where, to my amazement, there were at least a hundred fish swimming, jumping, and generally creating havoc in the cove. Our food problems were solved! We ran back and got the fishing rods, baited them up with some minnows and threw our lines in. But the fish ignored our bait entirely! David was more patient than I and managed to land a few catfish, but they were not very large, so we cut them up for bait.
It was then that the blue heron flew in and landed. The giant bird gracefully glided down, and after flapping his wings a few times settled down on his two long legs into the water. He did not seem to be disturbed by our presence but looked curiously in our direction. He studied us, trying to decipher what kind of beast we might be, but soon decided that we were not harmful and proceeded with his business of catching fish. We silently watched an animal that was designed to do what we had so miserably been unable to do. The heron started walking after the school of fish, but soon it broke into a run, using his wings to balance himself through the sharp turns the fish took. Suddenly he made a lunge with his long neck and came up with a large fish, which he immediately chugged down. David instantly ran back to camp to rig up a spear and soon came back with a crude approximation of one. He ran out into the bay, which was not more than ten inches deep, to track down the school of fish. He spotted them and took off in a hard run; the fish began dashing, dancing and jumping ahead of him, when suddenly he threw the spear. It missed. He took off after them again, and again they dispersed amongst thrashing waves and wild jumps. Again David threw the spear, but this time it struck true. He lifted it up, and there on the spear was a delicious-looking five-pound fish!
Meanwhile, I had been watching the heron, who stood aside to watch David’s antics. But it seemed to show approval when David came up with the fish. Indeed, he had taught us how to fish. Undoubtedly he was also glad to know for sure that we would not eat him. But above it all, I felt a bond had been formed between him and us, and we had been formally accepted by the wild inhabitants of the island.
By that time David was approaching with a big grin on his face. He held the pierced fish out in front of him. It was a goodly sized fish; surely dinner was going to be a feast. I declined on David’s offer to use the spear and instead took off in search of some blue crabs I had noticed earlier. I threw in my line with a big chunk of catfish on it, and it was not long before I felt something tugging at the line. I carefully reeled it in and lifted it just to the surface of the water. It was a big crab — and a greedy one at that — for it refused to let go of its prize. I swung the rod upwards as smoothly and quickly as I could; and sure enough, there was our dinner flying through the air towards the beach. We were very pleased that night as we sat around the fire munching on bits of moist and delicate fish and occasionally tracking down a tidbit of the most delicious crab I have ever eaten. We had also fried up some potatoes, which filled in the meal perfectly. It was with a full and happy stomach that we fell asleep that night underneath the stars.
The next morning we decided over breakfast to go exploring on the boat back towards the lighthouse. At night we had seen it beaconing across the water, and it had gotten our curiosity up. It only took about thirty minutes to sail back the five miles that had taken us two hours when we first arrived. The wind was stronger, but this time we were going with it. It was sensational to shoot across the flats with the centerboard all the way up. We were going about ten knots, and the bottom rushed by underneath in a blur of blue and green. The boat was feeling good.
We landed at a dock that adjoined the lighthouse and immediately saw a group of four-foot fish swim by. We had brought our fishing equipment and immediately began to fish. The lighthouse could wait; this was dinner. After three hours and every combination of hook, bait and distance from the dock, we caught nothing but skate and catfish, which we threw back. But one of the catfish stuck me through my sneakers into my foot while we were unhooking him, so we cut him up into lots of chunky, bloody pieces and threw him back in to attract larger fish or even some sharks. We had not been sitting for more than five minutes when, sure enough, they came back, sniffed at the chum, and proceeded on their way! They ignored our craftiest efforts completely. We decided that catfish must not be the most appetizing dinner in the ocean. We spent the rest of the afternoon resting on top of the lighthouse and exploring the northernmost tip of the island, which had huge breakers off the point. Atop the lighthouse, we could see for twenty to thirty miles in every direction. The island stretched almost to the horizon southward, and there were some more islands off to the southwest; but otherwise all around was sun washed sea. After our unsuccessful day at food gathering, we were forced to eat our last canned meal, and we went to sleep wondering what new methods of food gathering we could invent.
During the night the wind came up again to its usual gale proportions, and once more it greeted us with an early morning shower. I could feel in the air when I got up that today was somehow going to be different. The wind was thicker, the clouds heavier, and the sea at its highest pitch yet. As the tide rose, we noticed that the sea was slowly separating us from the mainland of the island. The water had risen around us, and the waves from the ocean side were breaking all the way over the island right to the base of our dunes. The wind streaked across the water, lifting it and whipping up a constant spray just above its surface. It did not take us long to figure out that we had better re-pitch our tarpaulin and dig in deeper to prepare for what appeared to be some rougher weather. For this we found some heavy steel pipes, which we drove into the sand. Over the pipes we hung the tarpaulin, with its protected side exposed to the southeast winds. While looking for materials for the tent, I ran across a large area of weeds which was covered with thousands of snails. Here was lunch — snails a la weeds! We gathered a hundred of them, wrapped them in tin foil with some onions and roasted them on the fire. They were delicious, but it was very frustrating to pick them out of their shells. While we were thus picking and eating, I turned suddenly to a sound and saw to my utmost asphyxiation that there was an enormous jet fighter not forty feet above the water just about to strafe our island! I yelled to David, and just as I did, the jet swooped over with the pilot waving as he passed by at four hundred miles per hour. Lunch, needless to say, was rather exciting.
By now our dunes had been surrounded by the mounting waters. I had wondered why the charts had indicated that the Chandeleur Islands were actually a group of forty or so small islands, when indeed, one day ago, it was one long island. Now I knew. When they made the chart, there must have been a storm and the island had flooded, much like it was now.
That afternoon, after exploring down the beach, I decided to catch some dinner. I took the spear out into the cove to track down some of those delicious fish. It did not take long to find them, and immediately I took off in a hard run. It seemed I was faster, for soon I was on top of them. I picked out one of the larger ones and tracked after it while it darted in and out; but it paused and I threw the spear. I missed, but for some reason he swam into the cloud of sand I had created with the spear. I picked it up and threw it again, but I missed again. This time the fish darted off, so I ran after him, leaving the spear behind, trying to chase him into shallower water. Thinking he was very smart, the fish swam into the cloudy water I had stirred under my feet, so I quickly reached down, and there he was. I reached my hand around his body and lifted him up above my head to David, who watched amusedly on the shore. It was a good, five-pound fish, a little tired at this point, but definitely ready to be joined by another fish that David was to catch using the same method. Dinner was again, indescribably delicious.
I have not yet mentioned anything about the bird population on the island. There were more birds than any other kind of animal. There were seagulls of every shape and size and color, from sandpipers to terns and large seagulls; there were ducks, red-winged blackbirds, sparrows, swallows and gold finches. Egrets fished in the marshes and flew gracefully over our camp on their way back to their nests at sunset. But the big blue heron had befriended us and hung around our area most of the day, but disappeared at night to his favorite roost somewhere to the south of us. But on this particular evening after dinner, a large flock of terns and seagull swarmed around our cove, sometimes landing in the shallower areas nearby, and other times taking off in a sudden rush to gather at the northern end of the cove. Although we could not explain this behavior, I attributed it to their sense of a change in weather, and as we fell into the sleeping bags I was afraid that we might be in for something overnight.
Throughout the night the birds kept up their screeching racket, which occasionally woke us because it sounded as though the birds were attacking the camp. Images of being barraged by thousands of birds in the deep of night kept me awake. But perhaps it was for good reason. Off in the West, I could see lightning striking down into the water illuminating large, squall-like clouds. David was soon awake, for this is what we dreaded most: that the wind would shift in from the West and push the rain into the exposed side of the lean-to. Not much later, what I feared happened. We covered up the exposed side of the tent and huddled in the back side, hoping the boat would make it through the latest ordeal nature had provided. The night was long and the wind kept shifting clockwise all the way around from the Southeast until dawn, when it came in strongly from the Northwest.
This was the day we had designated for going back to the mainland. Until the previous night, we had been depending on the southeasterlies to make the trip a mere four-hour run. But now there was a fifteen-knot breeze out of the northwest, which was exactly where we wanted to go. We packed up our camp, hoisted the sails, and set out on starboard tack on a smooth plane. By the time we had passed the lighthouse, the wind had begun to fade. By one o’clock it had dropped to two or three knots. By two, there was no wind. We were still a good fifteen miles out when I noticed that we were not where we were supposed to be. There was a one-knot current bearing us off to the West. Visibility was excellent, and with the binoculars I could make out the lighthouse, but it was showing an easterly bearing whilst it should have been far astern. In all directions there were other large projections; they appeared to be Cape Kennedy launch pads but were oil drilling rigs, none of which were marked on the charts. We were becalmed and lost. Our only reference was the lighthouse which was rapidly dimming and sinking into the horizon. As if to mark our state, a tiny bird flew around the boat a few times and landed on the tiller to rest. He was not more than a foot from my hand but was obviously tired and thirsty. He jumped down inside the cockpit and pecked at the flooring as if to indicate his state, so I asked David to get some water, but as he moved, the bird flew away, leaving us once again to the hot doldrums.
But all was not lost, for around four o’clock the wind came in again. It was only up to five knots, but that was enough to get us back on course and into a better mood. David took the helm, and I dozed up forward for awhile. I was suddenly awakened by David beating on my legs. He pointed forward at a school of dolphins that were surfacing, blowing, and then diving again. They swam around and came up right behind us and suddenly surfaced not four feet from the boat. I could see as they came up that they had large smiles on their faces and probably dropped by to offer a greeting to fellow ocean-going travelers. Later, a shark approached. All we could see was a large fin with waves falling off its leading edge as it slithered back and forth through the water. I stirred up the water to get his attention, but he disinterestedly swam away.
By now, dusk had dropped itself upon us and made the going a little more challenging but a little less encouraging. We were still ten miles out with very little wind and had yet to navigate ourselves into a harbor that we had never seen at night and had hardly noticed on our way out. Around midnight we finally began to approach Gulfport. There were lights everywhere, some blinking rapidly, others seemingly randomly, and general confusion seemed to rule. David manned the binoculars while I tried to read the chart. Somehow we managed to get into the harbor without any major disasters, and at 12:30 in the morning we landed exactly where we had left. Waiting for us was an older couple who had heard from the Coast Guard of our trip and had watched for our return. They were a very gracious couple and wanted to know everything about it. Apparently the weather had been brutal at Gulfport, too, and everyone had been a little concerned about our welfare. But we made it; though a bit dirty, sandy, sunburnt and disheveled, we were very happy adventurers.
By morning, after driving all night, we approached Memphis. As we went north on the Interstate, we could see Saturday fishermen towing their little motor-boats behind them for their great big adventure on one of the Mississippi lakes. By comparison, we felt as though we had just sailed around the world. Who knows, maybe we will someday!