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Racing the Storm: The Story of the Mobile Bay Sailing Disaster

When hurricane-force winds suddenly struck the Bay, they swept more than 100 boaters into one of the worst sailing disasters in modern American history

The morning of April 25, 2015, arrived with only a whisper of wind. Sailboats traced gentle circles on Alabama’s Mobile Bay, preparing for a race south to the coast. On board the Kyla, a lightweight 16-foot catamaran, Ron Gaston and Hana Blalack practiced trapezing. He tethered his hip harness to the boat, then leaned back over the water as the boat tilted and the hull under their feet went airborne.

“Physics,” he said, grinning.

They made an unusual crew. He was tall and lanky, 50 years old, with thinning hair and decades of sailing experience. She was 15, tiny and pale and redheaded, and had never stepped on a sailboat. But Hana trusted Ron, who was like a father to her. And Ron’s daughter, Sarah, was like a sister.The Dauphin Island Regatta first took place more than half a century ago and hasn’t changed much since. One day each spring, sailors gather in central Mobile Bay and sprint 18 nautical miles south to the island, near the mouth of the bay in the Gulf of Mexico. There were other boats like Ron’s, Hobie Cats that could be pulled by hand onto a beach. There were also sleek, purpose-built race boats with oversized masts—the nautical equivalent of turbocharged engines—and great oceangoing vessels with plush cabins below decks. Their captains were just as varied in skill and experience.

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