When Mobile Bay Exploded

Published on April 30th, 2015

The waters of Mobile Bay became deadly when a storm hit the annual 18nm Dauphin Island Race on April 25, capsizing boats and pitching sailors overboard. The race, hosted by Fairhope Yacht Club near Mobile, AL, has led to three confirmed deaths with three people still missing.

A video by 32-year-old sailor Josh Edwards, who, with a GoPro camera strapped to his head, caught the horrifying first 16 minutes of the storm. Bob Muggleston of Points East spoke to Josh about the experience.

What were you expecting when you saw the black cloud on the horizon?

Just another thunderstorm on Mobile Bay . . . it’s something we deal with all the time in April and you can usually sail through them without dropping sail. They usually blow through quickly and we never see more than 30 knots. We talked about the possibility of storms before the race and all the weather buffs said they’d go north. The race committee got on the radio to tell us something was coming, but no one expected what we got. The Bay just exploded. After it subsided the Bay went calm just as quickly.

Your mom was at the helm. Did she have any issues in the storm?
My mom is very experienced; she’s been sailing all her life and taught me to sail. When I asked her if she was okay, she always said she was. To be honest, the time I was most nervous was when the lightning came through. We put the auto-helm on so she didn’t have to touch the wheel, but very quickly it was overwhelmed so she had to go back to driving.

What was going on in your head those first 16 minutes?
You know, there were times I got nervous . . . I was just fortunate to be on the boat I was on (St. Somewhere, a 2000 Catalina 36 MkII). My main thought was, “Oh my Lord, those small boats.” Between the five of us (Josh, his parents, and two friends from their yacht club) there was 300 years of experience.

What kind of speeds did you see surfing those waves?

We topped out at 12.1 knots. I don’t know what the hull speed is, but with the chute up the fastest I’ve ever seen before is 8.2 knots. (In the early first few minutes of the video, Josh’s mom is calling out wind speeds. The highest she calls out is 58 knots.)

There’s an eerie scene in your footage in which a small boat with its main still up appears to starboard, and then quickly disappears.
It was a Cape Dory named Sweet Louise. They later sunk but fortunately were rescued.

Has this experience changed how you view sailing?
What happened is not going to deter me, but we’ll prepare a bit differently moving forward in terms of keeping a closer eye on the weather (while out there), and in terms of what gear we’ll have on board.

Editor’s note: News updates are being posted here.

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