Just Do It

The State of Sailing and Racing in New Orleans Post-Katrina

Published: Southwinds Sailing Magazine
July 2006

It’s interesting that one of the many indelible images from those dark days in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina striking the Mississippi Gulf Coast was of Southern Yacht Club burning to the ground. For New Orleanians though, the truly indelible images come from those rare moments in the long and continuing aftermath when one actually felt hope down to their core, that home, this most unique city in America, might actually survive.

October 24th, was one of those days for the New Orleans sailing community.

A mere stone’s throw from the 17th Street Canal breaches and surrounded by the wastes of Lakeview, Southern Yacht Club, against near insurmountable odds held a regatta, the 156th running of their Closing Regatta.

With the club unreachable through massive heaps of boats and debris along with pools of still standing floodwaters, Southern teamed up with New Orleans Yacht Club to provide water taxis from their dry storage area to Southern’s still green lawns. Dave Erwin, a NOYC Board Member explains, “We rolled out the red carpets so to speak for our neighbors and friends at SYC. The camaraderie between the clubs was unprecedented.”

For the estimated 300 spectators who stood in the shadow of the yacht club’s burned out husk under a brilliant blue sky to witness the 16 PHRF and 30 one-design boats race on the lake – it was a monumental victory. Spirits were through the roof and the rum was plentiful as this community rallied almost defiantly in the carnage.

New Orleans Yacht Club, who watched their internet message board become an invaluable source of information with hits exceeding 30,000 a day, provided another by re-opening their bar to the entire community on November 4th.

Operating under generator power and with volunteer bartenders, amidst the blown out windows, National Guard checkpoints and boats of all stripes on the hard and foundered throughout the marinas – life actually almost appeared normal, except instead of swapping sailing facts and lies, the stories told were of survival, destruction and heroism.

And the stories were plentiful as many yacht club members and board members were out in the mayhem of the first week, putting their boating expertise and knowledge of the surrounding neighborhoods, all inundated by over nine feet of water, into rescuing many people off of rooftops and out of attics.

It was also obvious of how the new New Orleans greeting of “So how’s your house?” was quickly joined by “So how’s your boat?” A serious question for out of the three large south shore marinas, two easily experienced 65-80% losses. According to Benz Faget, a local sailmaker, nearly 50% of those losses came from derelict owners who failed to properly secure their property. Walking along the piers, it wasn’t hard to come across an unsecured boat resting atop a properly secured one.

Faget also describes how during the storm a San Juan 24 beam reached its way out of the marina after escaping her slip only to ground itself on the rip-rap of the breakwater. Another total loss caused by an owner who didn’t care about his property or his neighbors.

In the months since the restoration of at least some order, the New Orleans racing community was undaunted at having to cancel the J/30 North American’s where the hometown crew of Zephyr was to compete for their record fifth consecutive championship, or more importantly, the withdrawal for consideration of the Gulf Coast to host the U.S. Olympic Sailing Trials.

Guy Brierre, who heads the Gulf Coast Olympic Sailing Association, describes how “Writing the letter to withdraw our bid for the Olympic Trials was one of the hardest letters I have ever had to write. I was convinced that we had won the bid until August 29th.”

But as anyone who stood in front of their home for the first time after the floodwaters were pumped out and figured out that rebuilding their lives started by simply picking up that first piece of debris. The sailing community discovered that Southern’s Closing Regatta was that first step on the same road. After that, it came easier as the second and third steps were rapidly taken with two more regattas. All told four were held on Lake Pontchartrain before the end of 2005.

Brierre adds, “The water has a healing power. Whether you are out there racing or just ‘out there’, it is a time to forget your moldy walls, your fragile job situation, the 6 insurance claims and FEMA adjusters. We didn’t just want to go sailing, we really needed to go sailing.”

Nearly nine months post Katrina, the pace has quickened… on the water. New Orleans Yacht Club has started their Wednesday Night Racing, which lasts throughout daylight savings. It follows SYC and the Corinthian Sailing Associations’ first five-week series that hosted 19 boats each night, down from the pre Katrina average of 50.

The Leukemia Cup was also held out on the Lake, where according to Riess Livaudais, the Cup Chairman, they raised over $80,000 – double what they expected.

The community is now actively looking forward to visiting the remains of Gulfport Yacht Club for the start of the Gulfport to Pensacola Race in late June and there can be no doubt that the smack talk is already heating up for this year’s Gulf Yachting Association’s Challenge Cup which is now going to be held in Pensacola.

Today, sitting and having a beer at either NOYC, which finally received land power in late April, or over at SYC’s new triple wide mobile homes, the conversations all now appear similar from the years past, but in reality they are not. The casualness about life that existed before is gone. Everyone now understands not only how much was lost, but also how much more could have been lost without the determination of each individual to get out on the water and resurrect this small aspect of their lives.

This will to race sailboats and come together as a community is hopefully a microcosm of what is happening everywhere in New Orleans and all along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.