Fred Haidt was a crewmember on a 30-foot Capri that had just finished the Dauphin Island Regatta when the squall hit. He said the crew was headed back to the Mobile Yacht Club when the storm began.
“It was the worst storm I’d ever been in on the bay,” he said. “It blew us east for about 45 minutes.”
Haidt said the crew was lucky because one of the sailors got a phone call warning of the storm and they had about two minutes to prepare. He said they were about halfway finished taking the sails down when the storm hit.
“It hit so fast,” he said. “Usually you can see a squall coming, but we had one strike of lightning and then it was on.”
As of Monday morning, the U.S. Coast Guard confirmed four people were still missing and more than 40 had been rescued over the weekend. Originally, the Coast Guard reported a total of five missing persons, but one man had been accounted for after he notified authorities he was safe at home, Petty Officer Carlos Veta said.
Dauphin Island Mayor Jeff Collier confirmed the death of one man involved in the regatta Saturday. Multiple media reports state another body was found Sunday.
Boaters were scattered around Mobile Bay at around 3:30 p.m., the time the bad weather hit, Collier said, which made the situation more complicated. He said the regatta starts and finishes in the middle of the bay. Participants, upon finishing, can either take their boats to Dauphin Island for post-regatta festivities, or head to their home port. Collier said that was the situation Saturday afternoon when the storm hit.
The area was under a severe thunderstorm warning at the time, National Weather Service Warning Coordination Meteorologist Jason Beaman said Monday. A Severe Thunderstorm Watch was issued for the area at 1:30 p.m. Saturday. It was increased to a warning at 2:47 p.m. and was extended throughout the afternoon in Baldwin County.
A long-time Mobile Bay sailor and member of the board of directors of a bay-area yacht club, who requested anonymity, said organizers of the race tracked the forecast all day, but the speed and intensity of the storm cell likely caught skippers off guard.
“In the end, it’s the skipper’s decision to race or not,” he said.
Haidt agreed, adding that during the storm he and other crewmembers were concerned with the safety of those in boats less than 30 feet in length. For example, Haidt said he owns a 26-footer and wouldn’t have taken it out Saturday.
“We felt confident that we’d be OK,” Haidt said. “We knew the small boats would have a hard time.”
Haidt said the crew had prepared for strong winds, expecting 15-20 knots and said sailors at the regatta knew there were thunderstorms predicted with gusts of 60 miles per hour, but it turned out to be the worst he’s experienced in 45 years.
“It was the first bad storm in all the years I’ve been racing in the race,” Haidt said.
Even with the notice and preparation, the sailor called Saturday’s storm a “rogue situation.”
“The storm was moving so fast by the time it crossed the Alabama-Mississippi line, a lot of people didn’t have time to come in,” he said. “It’s very uncommon for a cell to develop and move in the way that it did.”
Mike Hammer, a member of Buccaneer Yacht Club, who participated in Saturday’s regatta, said conditions were perfect in the morning, but deteriorated before the boat he was on could finish the race. The storm hit while their boat was in the middle of tacking, about two to three miles east of the Dauphin Island Bridge.
“It was a nice day up until then,” he said. “I’ve been sailing for a long time in the Gulf and that’s the biggest blow I’ve ever been involved in.”
Hammer said he was surprised by the conditions. He also said crews expected bad weather, but nothing as bad as what hit. The six-member crew he was with couldn’t get the sails down until the storm had almost passed, he said, and the winds shredded the head sail.
With calmer weather minutes later, the crew was still able to finish the race minutes before the cutoff time.
Beaman said the storm was moving about 60 miles per hour and did intensify over the bay, but the National Weather Service had warned of winds greater than 58 miles per hour, which is why an alert was issued. Wind gusts reached near hurricane force on the bay.
There were 119 vessels and at least 200 sailors registered in this year’s regatta, which was hosted by the Fairhope Yacht Club. The Dauphin Island Race is known as the largest one-day, point-to-point sailboat race in the United States.
In its immediate response at about 4:30 p.m. Saturday, the Coast Guard dispatched two 45-foot response boats, two MH-65 Dolphin helicopter crews, two patrol boats and a HC-144 Ocean Sentry and HH-60 Jayhawk crew. They had searched roughly 1,100 square-miles of water by Saturday morning.
In all, the storm capsized 10 boats, three of which had participated in the regatta. Haidt said Monday morning, members of the MYC were still awaiting word on two missing sailors.
Several involved said the experience won’t scare them away from sailing, but will force them to rethink how they prepare in the future.
“I might be a little more careful when I see a storm now,” Hammer said.