‘This storm did not just appear out of the blue’
One racer was missing and the bodies of five others had been recovered as Alabama authorities and the Coast Guard began investigating the deaths of six sailors after nearhurricane-force winds pummeled the Dauphin Island Race on Mobile Bay.
An organized line of severe thunderstorms marching east along the Gulf Coast from Texas and Louisiana bore down on the bay with 60-mph winds about 3 p.m. on Saturday, April 25, as some of the 112 sailboats were finishing the 18-mile course from Mobile to Dauphin Island and others were returning home. The race, scheduled to start at 9:30 a.m., was postponed an hour due to a misunderstanding between race officials at host Fairhope Yacht Club and their Web administrator, who in a garbled phone conversation thought he had been told to post a notice that the race had been “scratched” — canceled — when in fact he had been told to post the scratch sheet on the club website, an unidentified club official told
The cancellation notice was posted, then retracted. The first of the two starts was rescheduled for 10: 30 but didn’t occur until 11 o’clock because of a restart, which set the fleet up for a collision with the midafternoon storm. At least eight boats sank or were disabled. The Coast Guard says multiple agencies and good Samaritans rescued at least 40 people from the water. The National Weather Service reported a 73- mph gust at 3: 18 p.m. at the Mobile Bay lighthouse, and racers say waves — whipped into walls of water in the shallow bay — quickly built to 8 to 10 feet, swamping and capsizing boats and leaving sailors in the churning waters.
Rescue boats, helicopters and aircraft from the Coast Guard, Alabama Marine Patrol, and the Mobile and Baldwin County sheriff’s departments searched 9,500 square miles of Mobile Bay and 164 miles of shoreline for survivors over four days, then downshifted to a search-and-recovery operation for the body of one sailor who was still unaccounted for.
As part of their joint investigation, the Coast Guard and the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency’s Marine Patrol asked the approximately 476 race participants to fill out a survey that included this question: “Did you or anyone on your vessel hear weather alerts from any source before weather conditions deteriorated?” The question suggested another one that perplexed many observers in the days after the tragedy: Why had so many skippers been surprised by this storm?
“All the right watches and warnings were posted,” says WBMA-TV Birmingham’s chief meteorologist, James Spann, the dean of Alabama weathermen and a regular on
a national weekly cable TV and podcast program. “I just don’t understand what failed. Why wouldn’t they be aware of the situation? The storm did not just appear out of the blue. Not this one.”
Some racers said post-race that they knew there was a possibility of thunderstorms, but thunderstorms are often possible along the Gulf Coast in the spring and summer. However, they weren’t expecting — many had never seen — anything this vicious.
Spann says that shouldn’t have been a surprise, either. Weather radar showed storms spreading across coastal Louisiana into Missis-
Al.com. The storm was forecasted, yet it caught many sailors by surprise.
Conditions on Mobile Bay quickly deteriorated when the line of storms