Published: May 2014 – Sailing World
© 2014 Troy Gilbert
Drawing pistols at dawn, two sailors acknowledged their seconds standing by and marched off fifteen paces beneath the sprawling moss covered oaks of the Grand Hotel in Point Clear, Alabama. The men then turned and fired to settle the “Affair of Honor” earned the previous evening over a perceived slight to a young woman at the post-regatta ball. As the smoke from their pistols joined the cool morning mist, the men were left standing – the result of a misfire and a poorly aimed shot. Both parties agreed that honor had been restored and that the matter was settled.
161 years later and catching their first freshening wind line in the Rigolets (RIG-uh-LEES), the red-hulled Cal 48, Tiare, races south towards the Gulf of Mexico and joins the legacy of this regatta stretching back before the Civil War. First officially raced on July 4, 1850, Southern YC’s Race to the Coast is the oldest and still running point-to-point distance race in the United States and the second oldest regatta after New York YC’s Around the Island Race which traces its roots to 1845.
Newspaper reports are vague as to which schooners the dueling gentlemen crewed back in 1852, but today the regatta follows a 50nm steeplechase format along the nearly identical course that has been raced for 163 years – minus a few finish deviations over the years and the interruption during the Civil War when New Orleans fell to Union forces.
The regatta owes its start to an annual migration of wealthy cotton brokers, bankers and sugar plantation owners who fled New Orleans with their families during the heat and chronic yellow fever epidemics that would strike the city in the summer months. Maintaining residences along the coast and with sail the primary method of transportation, wagers between these men on their schooners naturally occurred. Over time “The Race to the Coast” gained structure until it became an ‘official’ regatta after the formation of Southern YC in 1849.
In 1850, the boats and crews took their start at New Orleans’ West End and made their way through the historically light summer winds on the 633sm Lake Pontchartrain, before transiting the Rigolets Pass snaking through the marsh and leading into the Mississippi Sound. Southern YC’s regatta now runs on a set course from New Orleans to Gulfport on the Mississippi Coast and has the added dimensions of navigating several railroad, highway and interstate bridges that transect the beautiful, but eroding marshes that lead into open waters.
Stewart “Tootie” Barnett, Jr., longtime SYC Race Committee stalwart who has overseen the race for many years, perfectly explained the rule of thumb for navigating the pass a few years back, “In the Rigolets, the bottom comes up real short. When it drops from 21 to 20 feet, tack, because in another boat length, it will be six feet.”
While this race is known for the transit of the Rigolets, channel markers and GPS now assist the sailors plying the swampy straits and the spectacle of duels are uncommon after the regatta, but the revered tradition lives on and it works as a feeder race for the 100nm Gulfport to Pensacola race. In its prime, upwards of 70 boats would compete and in an effort to boost participation, 2013 marked the inaugural year for the two regattas scored together as the Sawgrass Offshore Series.
Onboard Bill Provensal’s red-hulled Cal 48, Tiare, which has gained legendary status on the Gulf Coast since 1967 and holds multiple line honors and records to her name in everything from buoy racing in the Gulf Yachting Association’s Challenge Cup to distance racing to Mexico – it’s easy to feel the connection to the history of this race. Centuries old forts subsiding in the marsh grass with brown pelicans perched on the bones of ancient lighthouses and fishing camps lost in storms past make for a unique race course. This is a struggling stretch of American coastline with a football field of Louisiana’s vital marsh eroding into the Gulf of Mexico every day and because of this, the Rigolets has grown wider and a bit easier to navigate due to the erosion.
Tiare crewmember, Billy Marchal, has done the Race to the Coast for most of his life and calls it the ‘Grandfather of Distance Races.’ He comments, “Prior to the advent of Loran-C and GPS, when you had to read an actual chart and understand lights, numerous yachts found themselves hard aground on shell banks or in the marsh.” But it’s an uncommon occurrence in this day and age.
This past June, light summer winds greeted the start for 19 boats ranging from a Stoner 25 helmed by Transat Mini sailor Ryan Finn to the Melges 32, Rougarou, raced by Burt Benrud and Olympic Star sailor Andy Lovell. Heavier winds kicked off by thunderstorms were expected later in the day – and delivered. In the seemingly protected confines of the lake or the run through the Mississippi Sound, local sailors understand that these waters can kick up a rapid, considerable chop with potential for 6′ swells in short frequency.
Under spinnaker in the light air, the first pair of old adjacent railroad and highway bridges approached after the first few hours sailing downwind in the lake. These obstructions are part of the modern status quo when transiting the Rigolets – they were not constructed with racing sailboats in mind. Radioing ahead for clearance and with “bridge time” allowed in the SI’s for motoring during bridge closures, it’s not surprising to hear the clueless bridge operators nervously comment over the radio, “you can’t pass with those ‘balloons’ up!”
Each of the three segments of this historic race offer up unusual challenges. From quiet winds on a lake that can turn squirrelly in no time to the wind on the nose while dealing with an incoming 5 knot current through the marsh. The Mississippi Sound offers the beauty of sailing along the barrier islands that make up the Gulf Islands National Seashore, yet the oyster shoals of Merrill Coquille and Square Handkerchief are always there to keep the helmsman honest.
From duels in the 1850’s to a female only crew stunning the fleet by finishing second overall in 1928 – generations of sailors on the northern Gulf Coast have done this regatta. This summer the Cal 48, Tiare, made the turn at the Gulfport sea buoy and then motored to her slip on the sandy and oak lined coast. With the party at hand and waiting at the Gulfport YC, the crew folded sails and coiled lines as racers have done now for nearly two centuries, traditions reaching all the way back to the beginning of the sport in the United States.
You can view more images from the Race to the Coast by clicking HERE.