Dauphin Island Race – Nowhere to Hide

Published – Sailing World
©2015 – All Rights Reserved – Troy Gilbert

For Zane Yoder, an experienced 43-year-old sailor, the Dauphin Island Race was like the other 35 he’d done before. It’s a casual 17-nautical mile day race across shallow Mobile Bay with a relaxing delivery to a raft up. Yoder’s race, and that of another 117 entries, was without incident, before a sleeper of a super-cell lashed the fleet with 70-knot winds and driving rain. The storm came out of the blue and in the span of 30 minutes, 10 boats sank and many more were severely damaged. An extensive search and rescue operation recovered six dead—5 sailors and 1 fisherman.

“I’ve sailed toward thousands of [storm cells] for the wind or a shift,” says Yoder, who was motorsailing his J/24, 99 Problems, to a planned post-race raft-up, “but this was something I’d never seen before.”

With overcast skies, there were no weather warnings posted before the start on race day.

The Dauphin Island Race takes its fleet to the white sands of Alabama’s rustic barrier island, marking the line between the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the shallows of Mobile Bay. From large keelboats to beach cats, the race is a tradition that draws from the region’s best sailors, as well as skippers and crews that may only race this one day each year.

From the Northern Gulf Coasts of Texas to Florida, spring is ideal sailing weather, without the heat of summer or the worries of the hurricane season. The weather this time of year can, however, be explosive, with cool fronts banging into unstable tropical air reasserting itself over the deep south. In 1983, a nearly identical weather situation hit a 38-boat offshore fleet of experienced racers in the Gulf of Mexico. The fleet ran into an unpredicted series of training super-cells. Only six boats finished, multiple boats were lost, and a 19-year-old sailor died.

After finishing around 2:30pm Yoder and his crew were motorsailing in a channel leading to the raft-up. Yoder was at the helm, scanning for channel markers and boats that had finished to get a handle on how well they’d done in the race. Ahead, in the narrow channel, about a mile away, Yoder could clearly see two Pearson Flyers.

“One of my crew was bringing up sandwiches from below,” says Yoder, “and when I looked up again, the boats weren’t there anymore. There was nothing but a big, white haze. The sky hadn’t even darkened—it was just a white haze like the downdraft and spray from a helicopter over water, but amplified by thousands of them.”

He had the crew scramble forward to drop the jib as he luffed the main, but within a minute, the J/24 was laid flat on its portside. The J/24 popped up and slid sideways across the 30-foot wide channel toward a run of power lines and the Dauphin Island Bridge.

“With the leeward rail in the water and the main down and flogging, I had them raise the jib again to try and build speed to tack and get us away from the power lines,” says Yoder, “but it only blew us further sideways.”

Desperate, in what was now a 2- to 3-foot chop in less than two feet of water and raking on sand and oyster shells, Yoder had the crew raise the mainsail to help them duck beneath the powerlines. They slid under, but were then wedged against the bridge with the mast nearing its breaking point.

Donnie Brennan, was onboard a friend’s Pearson Flyer as tactician. Brennan has sailed the Dauphin Island Race for more than 20 years and he and his five crew finished behind Yoder. As many of the competitors do, Brennan and crew immediately turned and sailed back north to join boats returning to ports in Mobile or Fairhope.

“We were broad reaching home and making 7 knots north. Just south of the Middle Bay Light, it got dark to the west and then our cell phones below started going crazy with weather warnings. It was around 2:30 p.m.”

Brennan saw black clouds rapidly coming off the western shore only two miles away with wispy, little clouds leading. His gut wrenched. He was returning with a loose group of 15 to 20 boats that had finished, sailing straight toward 30 of the slower keelboats still racing in the narrow bay. With the storm traveling at 60 knots, Brennan quickly realized they weren’t going to outrun it under sail or with a 5-horsepower outboard.

“We had only minutes to disperse life jackets, drop the main, and strip the headsail and stow it below and then close the hatches and companionway,” said Brennan. “We still didn’t realize the severity of what was approaching, but we’d done everything we could and all there was left was to ride it out.”

Bare-poled, the storm slammed into them and immediately laid the boat on its starboard side. The Pearson righted, and within seconds, it was sailing at 6 knots in whiteout conditions.

Brennan went forward to the mast to watch for potential collisions while a crewmember in the cockpit screamed out compass bearings to the helmsman. After an initial blast of what was later reported as 70 knots, seas built to 8 feet in only 5 minutes. Winds then dropped to a steady 50 knots for about 30 minutes. The Pearson was knocked down a dozen times.

As the storm moderated and visibility improved, all Brennan could see was the grey and white water steaming with its wave tops blowing off. To port was a mast, sticking out of the water, to starboard an overturned hull. From every direction came cries and screams for help.

“We put up a reefed main and I took the helm, immediately sailing toward the nearest hails,” says Brennan. For two and a half hours, he and his crew sailed around and rescued two people from the water—one was wearing a life jacket and the other was in severe distress.

The bigger keelboats also searched in the area for hours; the Pearson crew witnessed another five individuals pulled from the water by their fellow racers. The Coast Guard, along with multiple other federal, state, and local agencies, launched a calculated search and rescue effort into the hectic situation.

The final toll was 10 racing boats sunk, each of them in the 20- to 27-foot range. Officials eventually determined that 40 of 476 reported sailors went into the water, most of which were saved by fellow sailors. One local fisherman also died, bringing the day’s death toll to six. Members of the Coast Guard said the sailors took care of their own.

The aftermath on the Alabama Coast made national news, and meteorologists—both local and national—turned responsibility to the Race Committee. Many mainstream media reports erroneously blamed a one-hour delay, and a general recall at the start of the PHRF fleet, insinuating the tragedy and loss of life might have been avoided without such delays.

Having run the race for Buccaneer YC in the past, Brennan says, “It’s ludicrous to point the finger at the race committee, or the club [this edition was hosted by Fairhope YC]. There are very experienced people on the water for this race, and some weekend sailors who don’t have particularly well maintained boats or aren’t properly prepared. Mother Nature keeps preaching to us over and over again this same lesson. Safety is always first: Life jackets, take down the sails, and close the hatches because in that first gulp of water, 250 gallons go into the boat. In the second, it’s 400 gallons. On the third gulp, the boat goes to the bottom. This is a hard lesson we constantly have to relearn, but this tragedy was going to happen.”

The delay, or the general recall, says Brennan, only changed where the boats were on the bay: “More of these boats would have been either caught and sunk in the open stretch of water between the lighthouse and the island or then crushed tying up in the giant raft-up, and likely even more people could have died.”

Yoder and his crew made it to safety, with minimal damage to his J/24. The experience, however, is unforgettable. Saddened and affected by the loss of life, he nevertheless agrees with the opinion of Brennan and other Gulf Coast PROs: “We’d all been watching that front for three or four days and everyone was confident it was going north of the bay,” he says. “I’ve gone through it a thousand times in my head and every time I come to the same conclusion: I would have started the race if I were the PRO. If we canceled races down here for every thunderstorm, there wouldn’t be any racing.”

~ Excellent analysis of the weather system that struck the regatta can be found HERE.

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