This spring marks a grim anniversary for many in the Mobile Bay Area. Four years ago a violent line of thunderstorms storms blew up from the west and raked over Mobile Bay just as the annual Dauphin Island sailing race was taking place on an April Saturday. Many sailors were caught off guard, some capsized, many boats broke apart and several people ended up in the water and in the end six people perished in the violent weather. It left shockwaves across the region. Read more
We happened to be on Pelican that weekend anchored just west of the Ono Island bridge in the cut that runs south of the ICW and Ono. We had the dingy out and were sitting on the beach at the Flora Bama Yacht Club where the annual mullet toss festivities were ramping up. The skies to the west look a bit ominous so after checking our phones for radar we decide to scoot back to the mother ship. Friends in a deck boat choose to do the same. As we get the dinghy tied back to the stern of Pelican the temp drops about ten degrees in a second, rain begins to fall and the wind whoops down on us. We try to convince our pals to come aboard and hunker down but they choose to run on home through the increasingly white-out rain. Mac hollers to me to go below and secure hatches. Just as I do a microburst throws him to the deck and the board that holds the ac in place slaps him in the head. This is the same system that swept across the bay some thirty miles to our west and caused the tragic destruction to the racers. It moves on us with freakish speed. In all of our years on the water we have never experienced a weather system like this one. The straight line winds howl around us and in the end our canvas becomes shredded.
When it finally subsides we realize the 70 mile an hour winds have dragged our anchor and we are less than 50 yards from the Ono Island Bridge. We had been hard set for several nights at least 400 yards from that bridge!
Our friends make it to their slip but reported later that the stinging needles of freezing rain were not fun!
The run from Florida to Mississippi across Mobile Bay is something we have done dozens of times. We’ve done it in all seasons. Sometimes it is a peaceful surreal calm day with dolphin running alongside your bow for hours. Sometimes it’s anything but that. The Monday following this storm with Saturday’s tragedy on our minds we decide we have the window of time in calm waters that should make for a good crossing. Turns out we are mistaken.
We set out around 6AM from our anchorage near Ono. My favorite run along the ditch is pleasant as always and as we nose out of Sailboat Bay all is fairly smooth. Now Mobile Bay is about 30 miles across. It’s shoals are all around you so remaining in the channel is essential. I’m pretty sure you know by now that we have no autopilot so we are laser focused on the chart plotter and always looking for the next navigational beacon. We drive from our flybridge so windy days wear on us and spray sometimes hits us in the face. This day looks like it is about to become one of those days. As we approach the middle of the eastern half of the bay things begin to churn up from the west. Mac is driving so I answer his cell as it rings.
“Where are y’all?” It’s our friend Eddy Trigg. He knows we are making this run today and he has a keen eye on the weather. Now Eddy is retired from Ingalls Shipyard but still has access to some of their extremely sophisticated weather radar systems. I tell him we are just in sight of the Dauphin Island Bridge which (don’t get excited) means, at our speed, (6ish knots in great conditions) that we are a good two hours from the bridge which is only the middle of the bay. “I’m looking at this system” he begins, “there’s some nasty weather coming out of Baton Rouge. There’s purple in this stuff. And it’s moving really fast! Let me talk to Mike”. Ok, I’m concerned now! They talk. They concur. We need to do everything we can to get under the bridge and find the (very poorly marked very narrow) channel that leads to the north side of Dauphin Island. It our only hope to get tucked into safe harbor before this system blows up the bay. I’m busy on the Hail Marys. The bridge is coming closer but oh-so slowly. Hours pass. Waves increase. Wind is whipping. Skies to the west blacken. At last we pass under the bridge and immediately turn south in between the pitifully skinny little stakes marking the channel that leads to DI harbor. We know that if any other boats our size are in the cove just northwest of the bridge we won’t be able to anchor there. My prayers are answered when we approach the cove at the end of the channel and it is open for us. We get three anchors set in three different directions just as the storm system unleashes all she’s got over our heads. It is white-out rain and howling winds tearing at us for a good two hours. When it finally moves out to the east I fall asleep for the rest of the afternoon. Mac ventures out in the dingy. Around happy hour he comes back for me and we go up to the little bar called Pelican Pub to find a beer and a burger. The bar tender is a distinguished looking guy who looks more like an investment banker than a bartender. He’s retired on DI and life is good. We chat until his shift ends and then it’s enter the crusty man-of-the-sea type who listens to our day’s adventure and informs us that he grew up in Bayou La Batre on the north side of the bay. We wish we had met him before today! His words will remain in my memory forever. He tells us his grandfather lived, boated and fished this bay all his life and lived by the mantra “April and May…stay out of the Bay!!” Wishing we met this guy sooner! The beer is cold and the burger is delicious but the advice is what we will remember always!! Thanks bartender!