Sailing regatta became race for life after powerful storm
DAUPHIN ISLAND, Ala. (AP) -- At first it seemed like a perfect day for sailing on Mobile Bay. Skies were partly cloudy and rain was in the forecast, but there was plenty of wind to propel a boat across the murky, choppy waters.
Then, in what seemed like an instant, a yearly regatta turned into a race for life.
Gray skies quickly turned black and lightning popped all around. Skipper Susan Kangal said the wind spiked from around 20 mph to 73 mph - 1 mph short of hurricane force - and the 34-foot-long craft she was piloting heeled over on its side.
Around the same time, as they were headed back to shore after finishing the 57th annual Dauphin Island Regatta, Connor Gaston and father Shane Gaston saw the wind yank the mainsail of their 16-foot catamaran. Within seconds, the boat flipped and dumped the two men into the roiling, frothy bay.
"After that we were in the water, we were holding on to the boat," said Connor Gaston, 26, of Helena. "The boat's being tossed around. We ended up cartwheeling around about three times."
Unhurt but soaked, the Gastons eventually righted their little boat after about 30 minutes in the water and sailed back to shore with a broken mast. Once the storm passed, Kangal's all-female crew of three women and five teens made it back safely to dock under engine power.
Others weren't as fortunate. Two people caught in the storm are dead, and four others remain missing. Another round of strong storms forced authorities to suspend air and water searches on Monday, but officials encouraged anyone who was willing to walk along the shore looking for signs of the missing.
About 20 relatives of the missing sought shelter at a state sea laboratory on Dauphin Island, where aid workers set up cots for them to sleep during the hunt for survivors.
"This very difficult, very difficult for all of them," said Michael Brown of the American Red Cross. "There is still hope."
More than 100 sailboats of varying sizes and as many as 200 people were participating in the regatta when the storm hit Saturday afternoon. Sponsored each year by area sailing clubs that rotate organizational duties, the race begins in the middle of Mobile Bay and ends about 21 miles to the south near the bridge to Dauphin Island.
Kangal, 52, was at the helm of her ex-husband's sailboat with seven others aboard when the wind kicked up about 15 minutes after she got a call about the potential for rough weather. As is a common practice aboard sailboats with engines during storms, she lowered a sail and cranked the motor.
Then, she said, wind hit the boat like a hammer. The boat slammed over on its side, nearly to the point over overturning.
"It was frightening because at that point, in that second that that happened I was laying on the back of the boat, between the wheel and the aft of the boat, and was standing up straight looking down at the water, watching the water starting to ease over the side," she said.
Both Gaston and his father were wearing life preservers when they hit the water, and they desperately hung on to the boat in case they had to be rescued. The worst part wasn't the wind or the water, Gaston said, but the electricity that danced all around.
"We're sitting there on the boat trying to get away from any type of metal that we could ...," he said. "And I'm sitting there on the boat just waiting for a flash and a bang and that to be it."
Steve Zito, commodore of the Mobile Yacht Club, had seven passengers on his boat when the storm hit.
"We were just finishing the race and the wind picked up. I cranked the engine and lowered the sails. It was a massive black wall of water and rain coming right at us," he said.
"I've never seen conditions this intense. It came on so fast," he said.
The start of the race was delayed for more than an hour, Zito said, but the reason was unclear. The National Weather Service issued a special marine warning for boaters about an hour before the deluge, but many sailors didn't consider skies threatening.
"There was plenty of wind, it was partly cloudy, a perfect day to go sailing just about," Gaston said.
Reeves reported from Birmingham, Associated Press writer Jeff Martin in Atlanta and video journalist Johnny Clark in Mobile, Alabama, contributed to this report.