Every year sailors from all over the Gulf Coast gather for the Dauphin Island Regatta. Known as one of the largest point-to-point races, the Regatta is held on the usually calm Mobile Bay. On April 25, 2015, the tranquil bay would burst with a tragic event that would change sailing on the Bay forever. All in all 6 lives were lost and 10 sailboats, ranging from 20-27 ft. were sunk. Over 40 people were pulled from the water, rescued by fellow competitors, Coast Guard, and multiple agencies who patrolled for hours.
April 25, 2015 began with a steady 15-16 knot wind under overcast skies. Mother Nature gave no indiction of the hell she would unleash in just a few hours. There were some indications however, that the weather could become problem later in the day. A storm system moving in from the west was predicted to make a significant marine impact with heavy rain, lightening , and straight line winds. Many sailors watched the storm front, but most thought they would have time to race and then rally up in Dauphin Island.
The day hadn’t started out as smoothly as hoped. The race had already suffered a significant delay due to a miscommunication from the host that year, the Fairhope Yacht Club. Each year, the regatta is hosted by a different sailing organization. Fairhope Yacht Club, a premiere sailing organization in the picturesque town of Fairhope Alabama was the 2015 host. The morning of the race an erroneous message was released saying that the race had been cancelled, causing several registered participants to miss the start time. The notice was taken down but it caused organizers to push the start back by an hour. A false start caused another delay. At 10:45am, the National Weather Service released another warning for the area. “Thunderstorms will move in from the west this afternoon and across the marine area. Some of the thunderstorms may be strong or severe with gusty winds and large hail the primary threat.” Still, of the 125 boats registered, only 8 withdrew before the start. The storm appeared to be on track to move into the area around 4:30pm, so most participants felt as if they had enough time to complete the race and return to port.
As the storm approached the bay, a weather phenomenon known as a “bow echo” began to form. This formation typically indicates a strengthening in a storm. By 3pm, a wall of rain began to make it’s way toward Mobile Bay. In neighboring Pascagoula Mississippi, the front slammed into the Manama, a 600 foot oil tanker and heaved it aground. As it made it’s way towards the sailors, an event known as a “Derecho” formed pushing a wind ahead of the front. It exploded with the force of nearly 70mph winds. At 3pm, the cameras on the Dauphin Island bridge showed complete white out conditions. The world’s fastest boats in the world couldn’t have outrun the storm as it bulls-eyed the sailors. For 45 minutes, the bay churned as if a hurricane had moved above her. Sailors were thrown into the water. Boats were rolled, submerging, masts breaking off as they righted again.
My parents lived at the mouth of the Dog River and the Dauphin Island Parkway bridge. I remember my mother calling me the afternoon of the storm. She had never seen a storm hit with such ferocity. She and my Dad watched the rescue effort and participated by walking the shoreline looking for anyone who may have been stranded or washed in. After days of a massive search and rescue effort, the Coast Guard ended it’s operations. 6 lives had been lost in this tragic but perhaps avoidable disaster.
Since that fateful day in 2015, the Regatta has adopted stringent rules that they hope will help prevent similar tragedies from occurring.
- Skippers must provide a master list with cell phone numbers of everyone on the boat.
- All boaters are required to download the “RaceQ’s” app that will track their location on the water. That way, loved ones onshore and members of the race committee can make sure everyone is safe and accounted for.
- All crew members must wear life jackets for at least the first five minutes of the race.
- All life jackets must have a whistle attached.
Many wonder, however, if even this will be enough. Some point fingers at the Fairhope Yacht Club saying that organizers should have cancelled the race the night before. Others say it was ultimately the sailors responsibility for the safety of their crew.
For the 2018 Regatta, Fairhope Yacht Club was once again the host. On April 28, 2018, the race went off without a hitch under beautiful blue skies. The lives of those lost and the heroic efforts of the rescuers were remembered.
In memory of:
17-year-old Adam Clark of Mobile.
50-year-old Robert Thomas of Pickens, Mississippi.
27-year-old Kris Beall of Pineville, Louisiana.
72-year-old Robert Delaney of Madison, Mississippi.
67-year-old William Glenn Massey from Daphne.
71 year old “J.C.” Brown of Mobile, Alabama