In 1969, Bayou la Batre and the rest of the Gulf Coast were picking up the pieces from the aftermath of Hurricane Camille.
The Category 5 hurricane is still the second strongest in the country’s recorded history and it caused nearly $8 million in damage statewide ($51 million, adjusted for inflation).
One of the only good things to come out of the storm was an unidentified shrimping vessel that washed into the Bayou. The boat sustained serious damage and wasn’t safe to put back in the water.
The town’s leaders decided it would be best to set the boat in a concrete base just in front of City Hall. It was renamed to the “City of Bayou la Batre,” which was painted across her bow.
The boat quickly became a central part of town and an icon for the small seafood community.
“Years ago even the high school students in marine shop would work on the boat,” said Wanda Overstreet, assistant to Mayor Brett Dungan. “It gave them the opportunity to learn a trade and a place for training.”
Overstreet said she remembers the boat from when she was younger and said it “was something that reminded her of the past.”
Right where the flags at City Hall today, “The City of Bayou la Batre” sat for nearly a decade, but in a similar fashion to its arrival, the boat left town.
When Hurricane Fredrick came onto land in 1979, it destroyed the boat beyond any chance of repair.
Since purchasing a new shrimping boat with taxpayer dollars wasn’t a viable option, the space in front of City Hall sat vacant for years.
Eventually it was filled with flagpoles and additional parking spaces, but no boat.
At the time the “City of Bayou la Batre” first washed ashore, Gilbert “Bubba” Castelin had been shrimping for three years.
A life-long resident of the Bayou, Castelin saved his money for years and put it into building a boat with his friend Richard Gazzier. He named his boat after his wife and his daughter — the “Sharon Darlene.”
“My father stood at the helm of that boat for 43 years,” Darlene Castelin said. “That’s where he spent the majority of his life. When you stay gone for a week or 10 days at a time, and come home for two or three days, you see the boat more than your family. It’s quite a sacrifice.”
Joe Gazzier said his family and Darlene’s have been friends for more than 100 years, which is why Mr. Castelin and his grandfather Richard “Papa Dick” Gazzier built the ship together.
“About 10 years ago, I told Bubba, ‘if you ever get ready to get rid of it, I’d like to have it back and fix it up a little bit to keep it in the family,” Gazzier said. “He had gotten worried it might sink and cost him money, so he gave it to me.”
Gazzier said he was very pleased to be able to keep his grandfather’s boat, especially after losing a majority of his mother and father’s possessions years ago in a house fire.
He got the boat back in 2010 when Castelin retired after the BP oil spill, and since then he’s kept it in his shipyard. However, the “Sharon Darlene” will soon have a more public and permanent location.
The Bayou la Batre Beautification Committee asked Gazzier earlier this year if they could use his boat to display downtown — an attempt to recreate the symbolism and beautify of the old vessel that washed ashore years ago.
“We started a fund through the beautification committee to bring a boat into one of our park areas,” Overstreet said. “A lot of money is coming from donations, but the city is organizing it and keeping everything on track.”
Oddly enough, the motivation to bring back this symbol of the past got started on social media. A picture of the old “City of Bayou la Batre” went viral with more than 10,000 comments and shares on Facebook.
Since then, donations have come in from residents in the city and beyond. The beautification committee also held a community fish fry in June to help raise the $20,000 needed for the ship’s concrete foundation alone.
Though Gazzier had planned to fix up his grandfather’s boat and keep it on the water, he’s happy about how the “Sharon Darlene” will be used because he “loves the town.”
“They’re going to remodel and refinish the boat,” he said. “I believe it’ll live forever. It’s got a lot better chance there than it would have sitting in the water.”
Overstreet said the city is very excited about the project, which she hopes will give people who pass through a reason to stop, take pictures and learn about Bayou la Batre.
“We feel like it will bring back the traditions that are long-standing in our community,” she said. “It also says to the tourists who would make it here, ‘the hurricanes come, but the boats still stay.’ We’re resilient.”