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How the 2015 Dauphin Island Race unfolded

Published on May 3rd, 2015

by Lawrence Specker,
Like any other edition of the 18nm Dauphin Island Race, the 2015 edition began with the race before the race: The intense competition to gain the maximum advantage at the starting line as the seconds counted down.

Unknown to the fleet on this Saturday, April 25, 2015, another clock already had begun its count down toward a shocking, somber toll. The Coast Guard would later report that about 476 sailors were on the water at the start. Not all of them would make it home, and many of those who did would pass through moments of terror.

The day would end in turmoil, with boats capsized, sailors lost and a massive search-and-rescue under way. What it would all mean for Mobile’s Bay’s sailing community and its most storied race was unknown; grief was palpable as darkness fell.

But now, on Saturday morning, what mattered to the sailing crews was the regatta’s start. The first group of boats crossed the line early and had to be called back for a do-over. But the race had already suffered one significant delay. Now, the fleet would fall another 30 minutes behind schedule.

These kinds of things happen a lot in sailing. Usually, they aren’t a matter of life and death.

In retrospect, there were signs that the weather could be problematic. Forecasts depicted a turbulent system moving in from the west. Speaking with the advantage of hindsight, Birmingham meteorologist James Spann said Monday on his WeatherBrains blog that there was ample notice. “There was a watch,” he said. “There was a specific marine warning. There was a severe thunderstorm warning clearly identifying the risk of very strong straight-line winds.”

But on Saturday morning, it was a fluke miscommunication that was the chief concern for regatta organizers at Fairhope Yacht Club. According to accounts confirmed by FYC Commodore Gary Garner, an erroneous notice that the race had been canceled appeared on the FYC website.

The notice was taken down after about 30 minutes. Still, it caused confusion, prompting organizers to push the regatta’s start back an hour.

Between that postponement and the do-over, the race eventually got under way at about 11 a.m., an hour and a half behind the original timetable. The finish line was 18 miles to the southwest – just the direction from which the prevailing winds were coming. That guaranteed a long day as boats tacked back and forth, beating their way upwind. It also guaranteed the fleet would spread out, particularly as it got south of Middle Bay Light.

Sailors who’ve spoken since the race have said that they were aware of the oncoming storm system. The general consensus seems to be that they thought they could either outrun it, or handle whatever it threw at them. The Coast Guard later reported that of 125 boats registered for the regatta, only eight withdrew before the start.

It’s worth noting that squalls are a fact of life, and that sailors tend to be astute weather-watchers who aren’t troubled by conditions that pleasure-boaters might find appalling – at least if they pass quickly, and on Mobile Bay they usually do. But this system packed a punch that would astonish even veteran sailors. In a few hours, it would hit the bay with the force of a tropical storm. The morning’s seemingly insignificant delays would come to seem like the work of fate. – Full report

Editor’s note: The bodies of five of the six missing people have been recovered. More updates posted here.

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