Alabama Sailboat Race Tragedy Prompts Changes

By JAY REEVES | April 21, 2016

Organizers of a major Gulf Coast sailboat race are making changes to improve safety a year after the regatta ended in chaos and death when a powerful storm struck Alabama’s Mobile Bay while dozens of boats were on the water.

Six sailors died when a thunderstorm with winds near hurricane-force slammed the coast at the end of the Dauphin Island Race in 2015, overturning multiple boats. About 100 boats carrying 470 people were on the water at the time and a search for missing victims went on for days.

On Saturday, boats competing in the 58th annual regatta off Alabama’s coast will be tracked by an online program using cellphone GPS signals to keep up with their locations, and race officials also will require a list of everyone aboard each boat. Fewer than 10 boats participated in a warmup race Saturday, but the tracking system worked.

The principal race officer, Tom Batty, said organizers also have added links for key weather websites on a single page to give captains a single source for weather updates, and everyone on board a boat will be required to wear a life preserver at the start of the 18-mile race.

“That way everyone on board will know where their life jacket is even if they decide to take it off five minutes later,” Batty said.

Sailor Tom Long plans to return to the race this year even though his sailboat lost its mast as the storm hit last year.

“I was fortunate,” said Long, of Leesburg in northeast Alabama. “If we’d have had sail up we’d have been swimming, too.”

The Coast Guard has yet to release a final report on the incident, but Batty said many of the changes made so far this year resulted from meetings with the agency.

“A lot of this comes through the Coast Guard helping us with being very proactive with this race, finding out where people are and who they are,” he said.

Batty said race officials expect more than 100 boats to participate in the race this year, and he and other organizers have been watching the weather for days. The competition can be postponed or canceled if skies are too threatening, he said, but the forecast calls for clear skies and calm winds on race day.

Yacht clubs rotate sponsorship of the race each year, and the Mobile club is putting on the regatta this year. The Fairhope Yacht Club was in charge last year when the race turned deadly, but Batty said organizers weren’t to blame for what happened.

“I wouldn’t do anything different this year than they did last year,” he said. “It was just one of those things that happened.”

Long said three boats from his sailing organization, the Rome Sailing Club, entered the race last year, and two sank. He said the weather that erupted that day was a “freak storm,” and he is happy with changes made this year.

“It’s safety-oriented. I don’t see any downside,” he said.

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