Publish date: April 2006
*Note: All individuals quoted in this article have been listed as anonymous, as even today there is serious bad blood between many of the participants in the Lightship. With the loss of life and the many lawsuits which followed, myself and my editor deemed it best to go this route.
Twenty-three years ago the New Orleans Lightship Race, one of a series of offshore races that made up the Gulf Ocean Racing Circuit (GORC), became a cautionary tale for all who sail or race in waters anywhere.
In April of 1983, thirty-eight vessels began the 200nm course that would take them from Gulfport, MS to the mouth of the Mississippi River where the competitors would pass the New Orleans Lightship to port. They would then return by way of passing the Mobile Sea Buoy to port and subsequently follow the southern edges of the Gulf Islands westward until turning back north at Ship Island to finish just outside Gulfport Yacht Club.
Out of the diverse classes of sailboats that started the race, only six boats managed to finish, and what follows is a reconstruction of the harrowing and tragic adventure that has become lore along the Gulf Coast.
As anyone who has lived on the Gulf Coast for any period of time knows, April can be one of the most beautiful months with temperatures generally resting in the lower seventies, which are then frequently reinforced by cooler high pressure systems moving down from the north. On this April evening the conditions for sailing were reasonable, though forecast to turn ahead of one of these reinforcing fronts, but predictions were for nothing in the Gulf over 10 feet.
As such, the race went on as scheduled with only a few vessels not starting because of the forecast. According to one crewmember before they headed out to the start, “One of our skippers came up and announced he wasn’t going on account of the forecast. This seemed rather ominous to me as the guy had this aura of being very competent, but many dismissed him out-of-hand.”
The race commenced around dusk in a medium southerly breeze with conditions that continued to worsen throughout the race as the cold front approached from the north. For most, the breeze began freshening in a big way past Ship Island and in the vicinity of the Chandeleur Islands, as evidenced by a ’37 Heritage One Ton, which had started the race with a #2 and before even reaching the Lightship had dropped down to a #4 with two reefs in her. A C&C 34 named Patricia was in ‘survival’ mode even before the first mark, reaching around the course with a blade and no main.
Nearby, a Hobie 33 named Carnival Time lost her port spreader close to the Chandeleur light. The crew made several attempts climbing the mast to repair the dangling shroud, but to no avail. Because of this “stroke of luck”, Carnival Time dropped out of the race and limped downwind back to Gulfport. Arriving in port the crew was shocked to discover that several other boats had already returned without their masts and stories began to arise of catastrophes on the water.
A S2 7.9 which was rolling in the steadily worsening conditions had already caught another vessel, the Stella Maris, when the weather truly turned. According to one member of her crew, “The stints on the helm got shorter and shorter as it was luff up the face, bear off to near knockdown on the backside and then try to do a controlled round-up to complete the cycle. Short of the lightship, a shroud started to part and we turned back in the black of night. Using dead reckoning, we somehow did not retrace our course and slid east and went over Dogs Key Pass. Brother, was that wild! But what the hell, we were inside.”
Nearing the first mark, a C&C 40 had a small electrical fire and lost most of her electronics. A crewmember states that, “We don’t know how hard it blew but probably pretty close to 40. Some of the rigs reported as high as 65. Seas were around 15 ft and I mean a real 15, so the front sides were like 30.”
Two vessels, including a Chance ’39, both either lost their mast and/or rigging and dropped out of the race. “The race was going well but our rig broke about 2 miles shy of the light.” A crewmember details, “We were carrying a #3 and a double reef but were honestly talking about whether to put up a full size 1.5oz or the storm chute nicknamed Darth Vader. After we cut the rig loose we motored up the MRGO back to New Orleans.”
Many others fought on.
According to a crewmember on Slot Machine, a Lindenberg 30, “Conditions continued to worsen throughout the race, and after rounding the lightship, and the Mobile Bay sea buoy, it was a deemed safest to just get home rather than dropping out and threading through one of the minor passes in the islands.”
According to everyone, turning past the Mobile Sea Buoy is when things really started to hit the fan. The combination of the cold front carrying with it 50+ winds and the shallower waters near the Gulf Islands created an irresistible formula for disaster.
Back on the Heritage One Ton a crewmember reported that, “By the time we got to the Mobile buoy, the breeze was a steady 30+ from the south and we were afraid to jibe, so we tried to tack. I say tried because the first time a huge wave slapped us back onto starboard tack, so we got up more speed and slammed it around between two waves in time for the second wave to force us around onto port and back west.”
On the C&C 40 a crewmember recalls, “The next leg from Mobile to Ship Island was downwind in real steep seas, we got pooped every fourth or fifth wave so that the cockpit completely filled. One wave was so bad that it stove in some of the companionway boards which really freaked out the below deck denizens who weren’t feeling too chipper anyway. But, we must have been far enough behind to miss the really bad conditions on the leg along Petit Bois Island where everyone had problems.”
Another crewmember recalls, “I would like to say that we were great seamen and all of that, but most of us puked around the course and just did the work that we had to do to get back. I remember sitting a watch with my watch captain. He was steering downwind in puffs up to 60 knots when he said ‘hey, look at this’. He was turning the wheel but nothing was happening. The boat was just sailing with the sails, max reef on the main and a storm trysail.”
Another states, “I can also tell you about sailing the boat downwind under storm jib alone and turning the wheel and nothing happening at all. Or I can tell you about being down in a bowl in the waves so that to see the sky you had to look straight up. Actually that’s about all that I can tell you, because other than being sick and tired I don’t really remember too much. I remember trimming sails when it was my watch, but of the thirteen of us on the boat that I was on, at least ten of us were sick most of the way, and the guy who owned the boat told me later that the only reason that he didn’t get sick was that he was too scared to let that happen.”
According to a crewmember on a Pearson 424, “Our anemometer was pegged at 63 knots for one period and we were surfing at 15+ with a storm jib.”
Another participant witnessed that, “A Creekmore had lost it’s rudder just inside of the Ship island channel and he had to anchor and ride it out. Had he been outside there is no telling what might have happened. The Lord watches after sailors and fools, and I know that HE was watching after many of us that weekend.”
Back onboard Slot Machine, “Rogue waves started coming in earnest. On top of the 12ft sea running at the time, occasional monsters would come through, breaking on top. It was one of these waves in particular that came through and seems to have been the harbringer of disaster. The wave broke, and flipped her stern over bow. In the same motion, the rudder was broken off. The boat came up, rig intact, but no steerage. A sea anchor was deployed, but it did not bring the bow into the wind. Slot Machine had no control, and was broadside to the breaking waves. The crew got below deck, wedged themselves into place with sails, and tried to stow all potential projectiles. A Mayday was put out, but in the middle of communication with the Coast Guard, the boat rolled again, this time the mast hit the bottom, and communication with the Coast Guard ended.”
Around this point, on another boat, a J29, a 20 year old Tulane student, Nelson Roltsch, climbed from below deck. The stories vary, but he was apparently wearing a lifejacket and a harness. He was unclipped and moving to another point, but did not have a chance to hook on when a wave hit. He was washed overboard and once he was off the boat, “there was no way to get to him, and no way for him to get to the boat.”
As this was happening, the Heritage One Ton was also in a precarious position, “We sailed along the south side of the islands, the rollers were forced higher and higher as they met shallower bottom, until they were breaking completely over the boat every third time. At Petit Bois pass, the shit hit the fan. Our forestay tang sheered with a loud bang and the only thing holding the mast forward were a baby stay and the jib luff. We quickly ran halyards forward to the surviving jib-tack horns and cinched them tight, saving the mast. No longer able to sail, we began motoring north, with huge help from the now following seas, to try to find the pass and put in at Pascagoula. It was the middle of the night now, and you couldn’t see a thing, but you could hear each wave as it approached like a freight train. It’s amazing how attuned and accurate yours ears become at moments like this. We heard the next wave coming, but instead of it being behind us, it was above us. The wave broke over the first set of spreaders and the boat pitchpoled stern-over-bow into a fully inverted position.”
Within the next hour Slot Machine started pounding on the beach of Petit Bois. “Timing was critical, as one by one the crew ran off the boat through the surf, avoiding being crushed under the boat as it came off the next wave. We set up a shelter in the dunes with a liferaft and a sail.”
On the inverted Heritage, a crewmember recounts, “When the boat finally rolled to one side enough, the keel took over and righted the boat, two of our crew hung precipitously from the pulpit. Several of us ran on deck, I was still unconscious having been knocked out below. They pulled the first crewmember back in, one to go. I guess I should mention that at this time our second crew still hanging over the side played line for Georgia football and weighed in the 350 range. It took all four to get him back in the boat.”
Now precariously attempting to shelter themselves on Petit Bois Island, a skipper of Slot Machine recounts, “We were eight souls aboard Slot Machine during the Lightship Race. All survived the foundering suffering some degree of hypothermia having been exposed to rain and 42 degree temperatures on Petit Bois. Our watch captain who was at the helm during the pitchpole, but harnessed to the rail suffered cracked ribs when he bent the stern pulpit and broke through the lifelines during the pitchpole.” A Coast Guard chopper was eventually able to evacuate the crew of Slot Machine to Gulfport after a few hours on the island.
Back on the Heritage, “We fired a flare, concerned that we might be going up on shore. A rescue helicopter was already out there and led us the short distance to the pass. Amazingly the engine had kept running while we were inverted! Inside the pass, the waves instantly went from 15′-30′ to 1′. Coast residents, save your barrier islands – that’s why they are called BARRIER islands.”
Behind the worst of the action a crewmember on the C&C 40 states, “The sun came up before we got to Mobile and it was a glorious sight. Those big seas with the tops being blown off were incredible. I had been driving for quite a while in the dark, so once the sun came up so did some other drivers. The wind started to back off and we were able to fly a chute before we got to the turn to Gulfport. When we got to the dock it was night again and all these wives and mothers were asking us if we had any information regarding their loved ones. A lot of people had not been heard from so everyone feared the worse.”
Another states, “I was in that race in the vicinity of where Nelson was lost. I’ll never forget the sight the next day of the rescue planes searching back and forth for him to no avail.”
Another recounts, “As I recall we never knew that Nelson was lost until Monday. I think that we just trudged off of the boat and into the car, heading for Mobile. I remember that I fell asleep in the bath tub. When we first heard that he had been lost my initial response was that that could not have happened on the boat that I was on, but after thinking more carefully, it began to dawn on me that it could have happened to anyone, on any of the boats, and that it was amazing that it didn’t happen more often.”
Tragically, Nelson Roltsch was never found. An accomplished sailor, well-liked and with fiery red hair, he had won a national scow championship at age 16. He had entered Tulane in 1981 and had spent the summer as a charter captain, having earned his US Coast Guard Captain’s License at age 18.
Today Tulane University is proud to continue to remember Nelson by having renamed the annual Windjammer Regatta to the Nelson Roltsch Regatta. It is well attended and very competitive.