The only thing that’s more fun than planning a cruise is actually going. There can be hardships associated with the actual cruising, but the planning can mostly be done surrounded by the comforts of home.
There’s one fairly nearby cruise we’ve wanted to make and never quite managed.
The offshore Mississippi islands have always fascinated us. These barrier islands are about 15 miles off the Mississippi coast, and have been preserved from development as part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. In fact, there is nothing but sand and scrubby vegetation on most of the islands. Horn Island, the biggest, is south of Ocean Springs, which was heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina. The islands themselves have felt the effects of the recent storms, and we’d like to get a look at them before they do as barrier islands do and turn into something entirely different.
These mostly-empty islands have played a much larger role in the history of the region than it might appear now. At one time, there was a huge natural harbor near the present day Dauphin and Petit Bois Islands. Ships bringing settlers and goods to New France anchored there, but in 1717 a great hurricane destroyed the harbor, and perhaps the French dream of a colony in the New World. Petit Bois is now part of the National Seashore, but Dauphin Island is connected by way of a causeway to Mobile, Alabama and is heavily developed on its east end.
One of the reasons we’ve always wanted to visit Horn Island in particular is its association with Walter Inglis Anderson, the brilliant and eccentric painter, writer, and potter of Ocean Springs. When my daughter the artist was still a little girl, she and I took a trip over to Ocean Springs one weekend, and visited the museum
devoted to the vibrant impressionistic paintings of Anderson, and while she was amazed by the riotously colorful works of art, I was struck by a replica of the rowboat Anderson used to cross Mississippi Sound from Ocean Springs to Horn Island. It appeared to be about 10 feet long and crudely made. I’ve seen a picture of Anderson setting out for the island during the last year of his life, steering with an oar, a tiny pillowcase of a sail tugging him downwind, a tarp wrapped around his supplies in the middle of the little boat. That year he survived a hurricane on the island– not a feat we’d like to duplicate.
The painting above somewhat exaggreates the smallness of the boat, but Anderson was not a slave to dull reality. He had a long history of hospitalization for mental illness, though even in those circumstances his genius and industriousness shone through. He escaped from mental hospitals many times, once shinnying down a rope made from bedsheets, and leaving a room full of flying birds drawn with a bar of soap.
His work is bursting with the exuberant life he found on his favorite desert island– a great source of inspiration for those of us who take a lot of pleasure in the wildlife found along these shores.
April is a pretty good month to visit the upper Gulf coast. It’s rarely cold enough to be uncomfortable, and the bugs haven’t yet achieved their usual summertime numbers. April is a fairly dry month along the coast, because summer thunderstorms are yet to become numerous. And no hurricanes! My wife Nancy appears able to get the time off from work, so that’s our present target– 7 or 8 days along that string of offshore islands.
The first thing to look at when planning an expedition like this one is the proper pilot chart.
Even though the islands are relatively close to the mainland, it’s good to know that the prevailing winds are often from the south through the east, most commonly SE at Force 4. This is a good sailing breeze for Slider, and may influence us to leave from Dauphin Island rather than from Ocean Springs, where we might have to sail out hard on the wind to reach Horn Island. Besides, we’d like to visit Petit Bois, which lies between Dauphin and Horn Island. The western part of Dauphin is roadless, so that route carries us along a wild beach, more interesting than the open Sound, and we only have to cross a narrow strait to reach Petit Bois.
Weather is important. Weather Underground has a historic tab that lets you look up past weather in just about any location. If we look up the third week in April in Ocean Springs last year, we see that the average high was 81 degrees, the average low was 63, and the lowest temp recorded that week was 57. These figures will have a bearing on what kind of clothes and bedding we’ll have to take. The average windspeed was 4 mph, which doesn’t sound great until you look at the graph of wind speeds, and see that this average is the result of night-time calms. The sea breeze blew at least 10 mph every afternoon, and sometimes 15 with gusts to 20, so if this pattern holds up, we can expect a little ghosting every morning, and a good brisk sail during the afternoon hours. This is important, as Slider has no engine. There is only a 3 per cent risk of calms here in April, according to the pilot chart. There was no precipitation last year during that week, but we can’t really count on dry conditions the whole trip.
Of course, charts are high on the list of necessities. I bought a waterproof paper chart of Mississippi Sound that has just about every detail you might need, but there are also online charts available, which are handy for picking a good place to go.
GoogleEarth is also a great resource for planning the expedition, since hurricanes have recently altered the shorelines of these offshore barrier islands, changes which may not yet be reflected in the official NOAA charts. For example, GoogleEarth shows a lagoon on the east end of Petit Bois Island that appears to be accessible to shallow draft craft, but the chart does not show this interesting feature. At the other end of the chain of islands, GoogleEarth shows Fort Massachusetts, a brick fort built on West Ship Island and still in a remarkable state of preservation.
West Ship Island is also the only island on which you’re likely to run across any tourists, as a passenger ferry brings people out to the island for day trips and primitive camping. It’s also the only place you’re likely to find potable water in the whole island chain, an important thing to know if you’re sailing a tiny cruising boat like Slider, which can only carry enough water for a few days at a time. But I’ll still have to call and make sure we can replenish our water jugs there, because if not, we’ll be forced to take a day and sail to the mainland for resupply. This is one of the few drawbacks to having a lightweight cruising cat. We just can’t carry the weight of gear and stores that a more burdensome monohull could. Hurricane Katrina washed over West Ship Island with a 35 foot storm surge, so all the permanent park buildings were carried away, and have not yet been rebuilt. Before Katrina, there was a bathhouse with showers, picnic pavilions and other amenities.
Our current plan puts the boat in at the east end of Dauphin Island, from a public ramp there. It’s about 19 miles west to the east tip of Petit Bois– plenty of sailing for the first day. If we anchor at Petit Bois the first night, then it’s 15 miles to the middle of Horn Island, where we hope to spend a night. We’ll drink a toast to the brilliant but sometimes crazy Walter Anderson, and imagine what it would be like to sleep under an overturned rowboat, as he did many times during trips to the island. The next day it’s 16 miles to the west end of West Ship Island. These short passages should allow plenty of time for beachcombing and other irresistable pastimes, as well as a tour of the fort and an ice cream from the snack bar near the ferry dock.
Update: Yesterday Nancy and I visited Ocean Springs, where Walter Anderson worked at the family business, Shearwater Pottery and from whence he rowed to Horn Island. We found a perfect launching area at Davis Bayou Campground, run by the National Park Service, and part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. It struck me I might really like to begin my voyage to the islands from the same place he began his.
When we got home Saturday night, the mailman had delivered my copy of his logbooks, lavishly illustrated with his drawings and paintings. We decided then and there that we wanted to follow in the track of the old artist’s rowboat.
There’s lots of other stuff to do before we’re ready to depart, including updating my checklists of gear for the trip. But there are also repairs and updates to Slider that I need to get organized. I’m eagerly awaiting my new mainsail from Duckworks. I’m working on a deck tent that will give us standing headroom on the center deck. I’m trying to design and build dodgers for the cockpits, so that the crew will be protected from rain and spray– an important consideration, because even though Mississippi Sound is considered protected water (the Gulf Intracoastal passes through the Sound) Slider is not a 400 foot ocean-going vessel. If we run into heavy weather, we want to be able to stay warm and dry. In April the water along this coast is still cold enough for hypothermia to be a concern. Fortunately, the pilot charts show no gales here in April. The northers that sometimes bring strong winds to the coast have run out of steam, and it’s too early for summer gales, which once kept us stormbound for a week behind Shell Island near Panama City, Florida.
Another pleasant duty associated with this kind of cruise is the Scouting Trip. We’ve already taken one drive to Fort Morgan on the eastern side of the pass into Mobile Bay. Launching here would mean adding a few miles to the first day’s sail, but would also mean less driving, since to reach Dauphin Island, we’d need to go north around Mobile and then back south to the island. I think we’ll need to take another scouting trip before we decide. One of the difficulties in mounting a lengthy expedition is that many public ramps do not allow overnight parking, so you have to find a place to store car and trailer.
Lots of other decisions need to be made. Will we fish? We’ll need Mississippi licenses. Will we return along the islands, or should we take a look up along the marshy wild Alabama coastline, with its overgrown islands and twisting rivers? There are menus to decide, the first aid kit needs replenishing, there’s music to pick out and burn to disk.
When it’s all done, I know for a certainty that I will have forgotten something. I always do.
You might be wondering why, in the 30 years we’ve lived and sailed here along the Gulf Coast, we’ve never visited these islands, but the explanation is pretty simple. As a working couple with small children, we rarely had more than a week or two of vacation time. Our boats were larger cruising boats, not suitable for trailering, so we kept them in the water. In order to reach the Mississippi islands would have taken us the better part of a week, starting from our home dock, leaving little time for exploration before it was time to sail home. We generally preferred to go east, where great cruising grounds are only a day’s sail away.
Slider, on the other hand, is easily trailered to new cruising grounds, so a whole lot of fine sailing has opened up to us.
I’ve got one last thing to do before we go. I plan to buy a copy of The Horn Island Logs of Walter Inglis Anderson.
It’s my opinion that every cruise can be made even more enjoyable by having a purpose beyond just the pleasure of sailing and seeing new sights. When we’re sailing down the coast of Horn Island, I’m going to read Anderson’s accounts and look at his paintings, and we’ll try to see the water, sands, trees and wildlife through his remarkable eyes.
We can’t wait!