The Deadly 1983 New Orleans Lightship Race

Published – Southwinds
©2015 – All Rights Reserved – Troy Gilbert

— In light of the horrific and tragic events that fell on the 57th running of the Dauphin Island Race this past April, it is important to remember that the spring is a glorious month for sailing on the Northern Gulf Coast, but it can also be dangerous. As reinforcing cool fronts make their way down towards the Gulf of Mexico they begin to run into unstable tropical air which can cause violent and explosive weather patterns. The five sailors who lost their lives on Mobile Bay are a cautionary tale to sailors everywhere as is the following harrowing and little-known story that took place offshore the barrier islands in 1983 – neither of which was under any weather watches or warnings. — 

“Next thing I know I’m disoriented and on my back on the cabin floor in salt and bilgewater. I look up and Harvey has got his front teeth knocked out and I scramble out on deck and see in the lightning that we’re cLightship Conglomerate newlose to a breaker line, but worse – there’s no one in the cockpit. I thought… hell of a fucking situation.” Legendary sailor and eventual Commodore of Southern Yacht Club, Hjalmer Breit was onboard Big H, a Charlie Morgan designed Heritage One-Ton racing in the deadly 1983 New Orleans Lightship Race in the Gulf of Mexico.

Only six boats would finish the race out of the 38 that started, and no one would dispute that the U.S. Coast Guard had earned their pay that weekend. Once part of the Gulf Ocean Racing Circuit (GORC), the 180-mile Lightship Race ran a triangular ocean course outside the protection of the barrier islands of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Forming the boundary between the Gulf of Mexico and the shallows of the Mississippi Sound, these barrier islands are uninhabited long spits of narrow sand dunes peppered with pine and oak trees that parallel the coast and mark the rapid rise of the seafloor from deepwater to less than 12 feet. Late March is an ideal weather window before the Gulf Coast’s hot summer doldrums, but reinforcing cool high pressure systems diving south and colliding with warm Gulf moisture can raise atmospheric havoc including serious sustained winds. However, predictions were reasonable that weekend with nothing higher than 25 knots.

The 38 boat PHRF start was in a strong and building southerly with heavily overcast and threatening skies and only a few boats opted to DNS and stay in the marinas. Conditions started worsening quickly throughout the race as the cold front approached from the north and several boats had serious issues in the first few miles and didn’t make it past the mark at Ship Island Pass, let alone into the open waters of the Gulf.

Guy Brierre who crewed with Breit on the Heritage One-Ton describes the first few hours of conditions where some of the boats were in ‘survival’ mode before the first mark, “It was a shallow beat to the Ship Island Pass and we started with a #2. Almost immediately we went to a #3 and by the time we hit the pass we were going to a #4, and then we reefed the main. Remember, many of these were old, heavy boats.”

These were still the days of Gulf Coast sailing legends like Tommy Dreyfus and Buddy Friedrichs and where LORAN and dead reckoning were king – crews were spoiled if they had enough water or dry crackers onboard, let alone life jackets. But even on many of these heavy displacement boats with winds reported from nearby offshore oil rigs approaching sustained 40 knots with gusts as high as 65 and seas over 15′ it was too much, and catastrophes started occurring on the water.

Several hours into the race and nearing the first mark, a C&C 40 had a small electrical fire and lost most of her Slot Machine - Lightshipelectronics and along with a Hobie 33 who lost her port spreader, both immediately retired from the race. Upon docking in Gulfport marina, their crews were not surprised to hear that several other boats had already returned to the marina or were motoring back to New Orleans through the protected MRGO Channel without their masts. A crewmember on the retired C&C recalls, “I crashed in Gulfport that afternoon and by early the next morning, I remember the hotel was shaking. I went to check it out and the wind was easily howling at over 60 knots out of the southeast. I left and went over to the yacht club and joined everyone quietly listening to the mayday calls and the efforts by the coast guard to rescue them.”

The majority of the fleet was offshore and now rolling in the steadily worsening conditions and by the next afternoon, the weather had truly turned. Many of the smaller boats still in the race such as a J29 and a S 27.9 were surfing around the course at 15+ knots with a blade and no main. By all accounts, turning past the Mobile Sea Buoy and heading back to the west is when everything really started to hit the fan. The combination of the cold front carrying with it 50+ sustained winds and the shallower waters near the Gulf Islands were creating an irresistible formula for disaster.

Unaware that behind them a 34-foot Ericson’s keel was separating from the hull and had to be bailed continuously or that Breit’s Heritage One-Ton was ahead of them in similar trouble, Topper Thompson on Slot Machine, a Lindenberg 30 custom light displacement states, “After rounding the Mobile Bay sea buoy, it was deemed safest to just get home to Gulfport offshore rather than dropping out and risking threading it through one of the shallow narrow passes in the islands.”

Almost all of the remaining boats in the race opted for that ‘safe’ decision and that led them into the really bad conditions around Petit Bois Island. On Slot Machine, most of the crew was puking below as they now pounded through the still chilly Gulf water under maximum reef on the main and a storm jib, and with every fourth or fifth wave completely pooping the cockpit. Thompson continues, “I would like to say that we were great seamen and all of that, but most of us puked around the course and just did the work that we had to do to try and get back.”

As the boats came into contact with the shallowing waters along the southern shores of the barrier islands, the erratic rollers were forced higher and higher. Guy Brierre onboard the Heritage One-Ton describes the fitful last minutes where Big H was cratering down in troughs between the waves so that to see the sky you had to look straight up. “Our forestay tang sheered with a loud bang and the only thing holding the mast forward was a baby stay and the jib luff. We quickly ran halyards forward to the surviving jib-tack horns and cinched them tight, saving the mast. No longer able to sail, we began motoring north, with huge help from the now following seas to try to find the pass and put in at Pascagoula. It was the middle of the night now, and you couldn’t see a thing, but you could hear each wave as it approached like a freight train. I went below off shift and it’s amazing how attuned and accurate yours ears become at moments like this. We heard the next wave coming. Instead of it being behind us, it was above us. The wave broke over the first set of spreaders and the boat pitchpoled into a fully inverted position.”

Topper Thompson onboard Slot Machine, the Lindenberg 30 explains their eventual forced removal from the regatta and their mayday calls, “Rogue waves started coming in earnest. On top of the 12 foot seas running at the time, occasional monsters would come through and break on top. It was one of these waves in particular that came through and seems to have been the harbinger of disaster. The wave broke, and flipped her stern over bow. In the same motion, the rudder was broken off. The boat came up, rig intact, but no steerage. A sea anchor was deployed, but it did not bring the bow into the wind. Slot Machine had no control, and was broadside to the breaking waves. The crew got below deck, wedged themselves into place with sails, and tried to stow all potential projectiles. A Mayday was put out and the Coast Guard was contacted. In the middle of communication with the Coast Guard, the boat rolled again and this time the mast hit the bottom and communication with the Coast Guard ceased.”

Only a few miles away, the Heritage One-Ton had righted and Hjalmer Breit climbed through the debris in the cabin and made his way into the empty cockpit. As the vessel bore down on the breaking shoreline, Breit immediately scrambled and found the two crew hanging off the stern attached via harnesses. He had an immediate choice to make, one of the crew was a 350lb. linebacker who had played for the Georgia Bulldogs and the other, as Breit explains, “owed me money.” Choosing wisely he pulled in the average weight man and then along with two other crewmembers who came from below, the four pulled the linebacker in from the water.

A few boats got lucky in the horrendous conditions and miraculously snuck through the passes between the barrier islands, but Slot Machine wasn’t so lucky. Within the next hour the boat started pounding on the beach of Petit Bois Island and Thompson and his crew abandoned ship into the heavy surf, he recounts, “We were eight souls aboard Slot Machine during the Lightship Race. All survived the foundering suffering some degree of hypothermia after having been exposed to rain and 42 degree temperatures on Petit Bois Island. Luckily our watch captain at the helm during the pitchpole, was harnessed to the rail and only suffered cracked ribs when he bent the stern pulpit and broke through the lifelines.”

Having secured the crewmembers, Breit was amazed to discover that the Heritage One-Ton’s engine had kept running while inverted. They now steered Big H away from the breakers and were spotted by a Coast Guard helicopter. Using their searchlight and determining the Big H was in the least distress, the Coast Guard directed them through to one of the passes and into the protected waters of the Sound where the seas almost immediately dropped from 15 feet to what seemed like one foot waves.

Dealing with multiple mayday calls and making assessments on the fly, the Coast Guard helicopter then screamed away to search for a 19 year old Tulane student, Nelson Roltsch, who had been washed off of a J29 along with their helmsman by a rogue wave. The J29 crew had successfully recovered the helmsman, but were unsuccessful in attempting a recovery of Roltsch sailing into the breaking seas and headwinds while attempting to use a 7 1/2 hp overboard which was useless and only in the water half the time.

Hours later, the crew of Slot Machine was rescued off of Petit Bois while planes and helicopters continuously searched for Nelson Roltsch. Tragically he was never found, nor was his body recovered. An accomplished sailor, well-liked and with fiery red hair, an accomplished Laser sailor he had also won a national scow championship at age 16. He had entered Tulane in 1981 and had spent the summer as a charter captain, having earned his US Coast Guard Captain’s License at age 18. Today Tulane University of New Orleans continues to remember Nelson by holding a well attended and very competitive collegiate regatta in his name.

Reflecting on the trials so many years ago onboard Slot Machine, Topper Thompson states, “As I recall we never knew that Nelson was lost until Monday. I think that we just trudged off of the Coast Guard boat and into the car, heading for home. I remember that I fell asleep in the bath tub. When we first heard that he had been lost my initial response was that that could not have happened on the boat that I was on, but after thinking more carefully, it began to dawn on me that it could have happened to anyone, on any of the boats, and that it was amazing that it didn’t happen more often.”

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