Published: June 1991 Mid-Gulf Sailing
© 2014 Troy Gilbert
By Tim Murray
Note: Dauphin Island Race – April 26-27 2014: Over 100 sailboats participate in this regatta which has become an institution on Mobile Bay. In 2014, competitors start at Mobile Yacht Club near the entrance to the Dog River and sail to Dauphin Island. The barrier island is then host to a seemingly unending array of festivities for the sailors and “racer chasers” until the return race the next day.
Three-hundred and fifty sailboats in a race; we must be talking about California or the upper east coast. Surprise, what is called the largest one-day sailboat race is held deep in the heart of Dixie, on Mobile Bay. It is the annual Dauphin Island Race, sailed each April. The race is a polite dash down Mobile Bay to Dauphin Island, where a party to end all parties is held. It is not a sissy race. The sailors want some bragging rights after they get there. It is long enough, 17.5 miles, to get the bigger boats in high gear and certainly challenging enough for the smaller boats, which range down to sixteen feet. It is definitely a sailboat race, but the emphasis is certainly on the party and participation aspect.
To really understand the Dauphin Island Race you have to expand your way of thinking. It is so much more than just a group of anonymous diehards who go out to battle the elements. It’s a major community happening, with all of the trappings, including a proclamation from the Governor of the state. You hear about it on the radio (even good Country/Western stations tell you about the expected race conditions) and read about it on the front page of the local paper. Trailering a boat to the race creates questions from service station attendants about the race. On the way home others are interested in how you did, they don’t say “what’s that funny looking stick on top of your funny looking bass boat.”
Boats come from all around the Northern Gulf area. Many are from Pensacola, as there is a race back to Pensacola the following week-end. There is also a contingent from the Mississippi Gulf Coast and an increasing number from New Orleans, which is 150 miles away.
Mobile Bay has a long history of sailing activity, beginning with the first days of discovery and exploration when Bienville sailed its waters and built a fort on its shore. Later the Bay was made famous when Admiral Farragut uttered the now famous words, “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.” Town names such as Batdes Wharf and Spanish Fort give evidence of this part of the area’s history.
Another town’s name is perhaps more representative of the modern-day Mobile area. That is Fairhope, a town founded by people who were interested in building a “special place.” Mobile Bay is a special kind of place. It is large enough to be challenging to sail on, but still small enough to encourage even the most timid sailors to venture forth. Its many beautiful and well-sheltered harbors seem to breed sailors, and character sailors at that. Among the many modern boats, you will also find a variety of beautiful old wood boats, and even a scaled down replica of the schooner America nestled away in tree lined harbors.
There are four Yacht Clubs on the Bay (Fairhope, Buccaneer, Mobile and Lake Forest Yacht Club’s). Each club is unique, reflecting the varied personalities of its members and each contributing to the overall sailing scene in its own way.
Somehow this combination of a sailing history, a comfortable geography, and cordial people who clearly understand the meaning of the phrase, “it might be a good idea to party for a spell,” produces one of the “funnest” sailing happenings that you could concoct.
This year, the party got underway the night before with the so-called skippers meeting at the recently expanded Lake Forest Yacht Club. The band did stop for a few minutes and there was relative quiet as the official proceedings got underway. They were quickly dispensed with and the party resumed.
The race itself has an early start, 9:30am, and the starting line is in the middle of the northern part of the Bay at a point about equidistant from the four clubs. You need to get away from the dock while the dew is still on the deck. The weather forecast was none too promising. The day before had seen a large number of violent thunderstorms, but the power of being able to party better if you sailed to the Island was enough to get everyone underway. Somehow this party spirit was also enough to keep the expected bad weather away all weekend.
The more aggressive monohull racers sailed under PHRF, but there was a large contingent of boats that make this their only annual race. These boats were handicapped using the US YRU Portsmouth system, which i Bounty works very well.
The course goes south to Middle Bay Light, a beautiful wood lighthouse, where there is a slight veer to the starboard and a direct course to the finish. The weather was light and out of the southeast at the first gun. By the time the fleet got to Middle Bay Light the wind had built to moderate whitecaps and was still out of the southeast, which gave a fast, close reach to the finish.
Several multihulls, which started 15 minutes after the PHRF sailors, found these conditions to be ideal and were easily first to finish. The first monohull across the line was Coquet, a Beneteau 42. In the brisk wind she waved her puckered, lipped, decorated bottom at the race committee.
The finish line was something different. There was a 95 foot dinner cruise ship for a committee boat. Because of the large number of entries there were finish lines on each side of the boat. You crossed the proper one, depending upon your class. Large numbers were given out in the race packet and they were placed on the appropriate side of the bow. Video cameras were used to record groups of boats in order to properly sort out finishers.
Then the raft-up begins. Ten nasty spiders could not weave a web as intricate or as complex. It’s not a wild party, compared to Mardi Gras standards. No messy drunks, just a whole lot of nice people having a great time. Some boats anchor and a large crescent is formed as others raft to them. Other boats try to raft off the dock. Dinghies of every description dart back and forth. As the afternoon wears on and the slower boats arrive, they are absorbed into the ever-growing montage of fiberglass, rigging and party activity.
There were three different trophy presentations, but they kind of blended into one another. It did take awhile and the band had to stop but it was outside and the crowd flowed. The classes were broken down into small groups, less than ten boats each, and there was a first, second and third for every class so there were a lot of trophies – sailors who might only race once a year value and display them proudly.
All around you there was the atmosphere of being part of something big. Each individual seemed aware that without their participation there would be something lacking, a color missing from a quilt. All involved were proud of the race and proud to be part of it.