‘This storm did not just appear out of the blue’

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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 near-hurricane-force winds pummeled the Dauphin Island Race on Mobile Bay.

Conditions on Mobile Bay quickly deteriorated when the line of storms moved through.

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 Al.com.

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?

The storm was forecasted, yet it caught many sailors by surprise.

“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 Weather Brains, 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 Mississippi and Alabama in the hours preceding the race. At 5 a.m. the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center issued a tornado watch for coastal Alabama until noon. At 1:35 p.m. it updated the watch to severe thunderstorms with 2-inch hail and 70-mph gusts until 9 p.m.

“Thunderstorms on the Gulf Coast are a way of life,” Spann says. In fact, one weather source reports that Mobile Bay and its vicinity experience thunder an average of 100 to 110 days a year. Spann says typical summer thunderstorms — called “air-mass” thunderstorms — indeed can “come out of the blue,” with little warning in localized conditions where warm air rises and cold air sinks to create an isolated thunderstorm. These are the “garden variety” storms many Gulf residents think of when they think of a thunderstorm.

But this storm was part of an “organized thunderstorm complex” that formed over Louisiana early on the morning of race day and remained very well-organized as it moved east along the coast into the afternoon, Spann says. Weather radar depicted the system as a “bow echo” with a shape like an archer’s bow, which identified it as a “mesoscale convective system” with powerful and destructive straight-line winds.

On the water, this kind of storm “can kill people,” Spann says. “It did kill people.”

Spann, who spearheaded the effort to educate Alabamans about severe weather — tornados, in particular — after the April 27, 2011, storms that spawned 62 tornados in the state and killed 252 people, says skippers in inshore races need to keep their ears glued to the NOAA weather channel on their VHF radio when a system like this is in the neighborhood. (All of the Dauphin Island racers were required to carry a VHF.) And they would be well-advised to use smartphone apps that sound storm and tornado warning alerts, as well as a weather radar app that depicts storms moving into the area. “That’s worth its weight in gold,” he says. “It could have saved someone’s life.”

Libby Hoffman and crew made it through the storm aboard the Catalina 36 MKII St. Somewhere.

Spann says organizers of sporting events — motorsports races, NCAA basketball playoffs, football games — increasingly are hiring meteorologists for the duration of an event to advise them on weather threats. On the weekend of April 25, one of Spann’s meteorologist colleagues was at Birmingham’s Barber Motorsports Park for a major race, consulting with the organizers on the tornado/severe weather forecast.

“It’s not that expensive,” he says. “A lot of retired National Weather Service meteorologists do this. They’re seasoned veterans. … They can save you in so many ways.” Or, he says, organizers could seek support from NWS’s Mobile office.

Spann says the crux of the problem is this: The science in advance of the storm was good — the forecast was sound — but either the racers didn’t get the information or they got it and didn’t understand it or didn’t listen to it. “It’s clear to me that they weren’t paying attention to the weather that day, and this is a big deal,” he says. After the 2011 storm that killed so many in Alabama, he and other meteorologists came to the same conclusion: Too many people either missed or didn’t pay attention to the tornado watches and warnings that the weather service issued.

An Integrated Warning Team made up of weather service meteorologists, emergency managers and broadcast weathermen met to plan for future large-scale weather events and prevent a replay of the 2011 tragedy. The team even brought in behavioral psychologists to look for ways to better communicate weather information. Spann has concluded that the best way to get the word out is to put a $30 weather radio and a $5 smartphone weather alert app in the hands of as many people as possible.

Who should be responsible for tracking the weather before and during a race, and who should be liable for weather-related accidents if someone drops the ball? The Racing Rules of Sailing authorize a race committee to postpone or abandon a race before its start for any reason, including weather, and to stop the race for — among other reasons — “foul weather” after the start.

Yet the rules also are clear: “The responsibility for a boat’s decision to participate in a race or to continue racing is hers alone.” That’s a reference to skippers, who must be keenly attuned to the weather and know their own capabilities and the capabilities of their boat and crew to exercise that responsibility properly.

In most cases, when skippers register for a race, they sign an agreement assuming sole responsibility to determine whether to start, continue or finish a race, and a waiver releasing the yacht club of liability or responsibility for any race-related damage or injuries to their yacht or crew. “Anyone trying to bring claims against the organizers have an uphill battle unless they can show reckless or intentional conduct,” says Todd Lochner, an Annapolis, Maryland, maritime lawyer who has represented yacht clubs and yachtsmen.

But weatherman Spann says he isn’t blaming anyone for what happened on Mobile Bay. He just wants to make racing safer, and, in his opinion, an event of the magnitude of the Dauphin Island Race needs a consulting meteorologist, and skippers need to be acutely aware of the weather to protect themselves and their crews against killer storms. “If I had been in that event, I would have taken responsibility for myself and the people on my vessel, and I would have gone in,” he says.

At least eight boats sank or were disabled in the storm.

The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency says the joint police-Coast Guard investigation could take three to six months.

Efforts to contact yacht club commodore Gary Garner, race management committee chairman Randy Fitzpatrick-Wainright and regatta chairman John Hirsch by phone at the club and by personal e-mail were unsuccessful. The club held a memorial service for the lost sailors May 6.

In a statement on behalf of sailing’s national governing body, executive director Jack Gierhart said, “Our commitment to safety at sea is paramount at US Sailing. As with past incidents, we look to assist the sailing community and advance the safety of the sport by learning from this tragedy.”

Authorities identified the recovered bodies as those of Kris Beal, 27, of Pineville, Louisiana; Adam Clark, 17, of Mobile; Robert Delaney, 72, of Madison, Mississippi; William Glenn Massey, 67, of Daphne, Alabama, and Robert Thomas, 50, of Pickens, Mississippi. Jimmie Charles “J.C.” Brown, 71, of Mobile, remained missing.

“Our thoughts go out to the deceased sailors, missing persons and their families as they navigate through these very difficult times,” Gierhart says.

This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue.