Michael Byers for Reader's Digest
The morning of April 25, 2015, arrived with only a whisper of wind. Sailboats traced gentle circles on Alabama’s Mobile Bay, preparing for the annual Dauphin Island Regatta. On board the Kyla, a lightweight 16-foot catamaran whose two hulls were connected by a sturdy trampoline-like canvas, Ron Gaston and Hana Blalack practiced trapezing. Ron 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.
Hana grinned back.
Ron and Hana made an unusual crew. He was tall and lanky, 50 years old, with decades of sailing experience. She was 15, tiny, pale, and redheaded, and she had never stepped onto a sailboat. But Hana trusted Ron, who was like a father to her. And Ron’s daughter, Sarah Gaston, was like a sister.
There were other boats on the water like Ron’s, as well as sleek race boats with oversize masts and great oceangoing vessels with plush cabins. The 18-mile Dauphin Island Regatta had long been an event focused on fun and on passing along the love of the sport from one generation to the next. All told, 125 boats with 475 sailors and guests had signed up, many in teams featuring teenagers paired with older salts. But by the end of the day, it was clear who was in charge: Mother Nature, and she offered a lesson no one would forget.
At 7:44 a.m., as sailors began to gather on the bay for a 9:30 start, the website of the Fairhope Yacht Club, the regatta’s host, posted a message about the race: “Canceled due to inclement weather.” How could that be, on such a calm and beautiful day?
In fact, at 8:10 a.m., the yacht club insisted the regatta was on. Gary Garner, the commodore of the club, said the cancellation was an error, the result of a garbled message.
The confusion delayed the race by an hour. After a false start, the boats were still circling at 10:45 a.m. when the National Weather Service in Mobile issued a dire prediction, this time for real: “Thunderstorms will move in from the west this afternoon and across the marine area. Some of the thunderstorms may be strong or severe.”
Still, only eight of the 125 boats withdrew. “It’s no big deal for us to see a weather report that says scattered thunderstorms, or even scattered severe thunderstorms,” Garner would later say. “If you want to go race sailboats, and race long-distance, you’re going to get into storms.”
On board the Razr, a 24-foot sloop, 17-year-old Lennard Luiten, his father, Robert Luiten, and three friends scrutinized incoming weather reports: The storm appeared likely to arrive at 4:15 p.m., which would give them time to cross the finish line and return to home port safely. Lennard felt thrilled. He and his father had bought the Razr as a half-sunk lost cause and spent a year rebuilding it. Now the crew agreed they had the boat “tuned” just right.
The Razr’s crew members had timed their start with precision and led the field for the first half hour. The small catamarans were among the fastest boats, though, and the Kyla hurtled Hana and Ron forward. On the open water, Hana felt herself relax. She and Ron passed a 36-foot sailboat called the Wind Nuts, captained by Ron’s friend Scott Godbold.
“Hey!” Ron called out, waving.
Godbold wasn’t racing; he and his wife, Hope Godbold, had come to watch their son race and to help out if anyone had trouble. Scott waved back.
Mobile Bay is about 30 miles long and half that wide. A deep channel runs up its center, but much of the bay is so shallow an adult could stand on its muddy bottom. On the northwestern shore stands the city of Mobile, dotted with shining high-rises. The mouth of the bay is guarded by Dauphin Island and the Fort Morgan peninsula. Between them, a gap of just three miles of open water leads into the vast Gulf of Mexico.
During the first half of the race, Hana and Ron chased his brother and nephew, Shane and Connor Gaston, who sailed on an identical catamaran. Conditions were ideal. The winds had steadily picked up, but the water was smooth.
“We’re smokin’!” Ron told Hana.
At about 2 p.m., as they arrived at the finish line, Hana looked back and laughed. Ron’s brother was a minute behind them.
“Hey, we won!” she shouted.
Typically, once crews finish the regatta, they pull into harbor at Dauphin Island for a trophy ceremony and a night’s rest. But the Gaston brothers decided to sail home in their twin boats to beat the storm; others made the same choice. The brothers shared sandwiches and bottled water, then headed north along the bay’s western shore.
Shortly before 3 p.m., Ron and Hana watched as storm clouds rolled toward them from the west. “We may get some rain,” Ron said, a characteristic understatement.
By now, the storm, which had first come alive in Texas, had crossed three states to reach the edge of Mobile Bay. At the National Weather Service office in Mobile, meteorologists watched it advance on radar. Jason Beaman, the meteorologist in charge of coordinating the office’s warnings, noted the unusual way the storm kept gaining strength rather than blowing itself out quickly. “It was an engine, like a machine that keeps running,” he said.
Under the Dauphin Island Bridge, a three-mile span that links the island to the mainland, Ron’s daughter, 17-year-old Sarah Gaston—also in the race—struggled to control a small boat with her sailing partner, Jim Gates, a 74-year-old family friend, as wind and rain came over the bay.
“We just were looking for any land at that point,” Sarah said later. “But everything was white. We couldn’t see land. We couldn’t even see the bridge.” The pair watched as one of their sails ripped in slow motion, as if by some invisible hands.
Farther north, Ron and Hana were getting closer to the Buccaneer Yacht Club, about seven miles away. Lightning crackled. “Don’t touch anything metal,” Ron yelled to Hana. They huddled on their boat’s fabric deck.
Less than two miles behind, Shane and Connor disappeared behind a curtain of rain.
Within moments, the rain caught up with the Kyla. It came so fast and was so dense that the world seemed to be reduced to a small gray room, with no horizon, no sky, no shore.
Then, without warning, the winds rose to 73 miles per hour—almost hurricane strength. Ron and Hana never had a chance to let down their sails.
The front of the Kyla rose from the water. The catamaran stood on its tail for an instant, then flipped sideways. The bay was only seven feet deep at that spot, so the mast jabbed into the mud and snapped in two.
Hana flew off, hitting her head on the boom, the horizontal pole attached to the mast. Ron landed between her and the boat. He grabbed her with one hand and a rope attached to the boat with the other. The fabric deck, now vertical, caught the wind like a sail.
As the boat blew away, it pulled Ron through the water, away from Hana. He faced a surreal decision: Let go of the boat—or Hana.
He let go of the boat.
Hana and Ron both wore life jackets, but eight-foot swells crashed on them, threatening to separate or drown them. The two wrapped their arms around each other, and Hana tucked her head against Ron’s chest to find a pocket of air free from the piercing rain.
About 30 miles north, a Coast Guard ensign named Phillip McNamara stood his first-ever shift as duty officer. As the storm bore down on Mobile Bay, distress calls came pouring in. Several times, he rang his superior, Cdr. Chris Cederholm, for advice about how to respond.
“By the third call, it was clear something big was happening,” Cederholm said recently. When he arrived at the station, he triggered a “mass rescue operation” protocol, summoning a response from air, land, and sea.
As authorities scrambled to grasp the enormity of the storm, hundreds of sailors on the bay struggled to survive it.
The wind flipped the Luitens’ Razr, slinging the crew—Lennard, Robert, 71-year-old Jimmie Brown, and teenage friends Adam Clark and Jacob Pouncey—into the water. Then the boat barrel-rolled, and Lennard and Brown were briefly scooped back onto its deck before the keel snapped and they were tossed once again, this time in the other direction.
Brown struggled in a raincoat. Lennard swam around the boat, searching for his dad, whom he found with Pouncey. After about 20 minutes of being rocked by the waves, Lennard struck out for the shore to find help.
As the Razr’s crew struggled, an experienced sailor named Larry Goolsby, captain of the 22-foot boat Team 4G, was in sight of the finish line when the storm came his way. The gale rolled the boat over twice before a much heavier 40-foot vessel appeared. It was moving with all the force of the storm at its back and bearing down on the smaller boat’s three-person crew.
“They’re going to hit us!” one of them shouted just as the bigger boat smashed into the Team 4G, running over it and then dragging it along.
The crew had managed to jump into the water just before impact. Goolsby had grabbed a rope dangling from the charging boat and swung himself up onto its deck. Reeling, he looked back to see his crew members in the water, growing more distant by the second. They weren’t wearing life jackets. Goolsby snatched a life preserver from the deck of the runaway vessel and dived back into the water, hoping to save his friends.
Normally, a storm’s hard edge blows past in two or three minutes; this storm continued for 45 minutes.
A dozen Coast Guard ships responded, along with several airplanes, helicopters, and a team that prowled the coastline on all-terrain vehicles.
Near the Dauphin Island Bridge, a Coast Guard rescue boat picked up Sarah Gaston and Jim Gates. Like Ron and Hana’s boat, Sarah and Jim’s had bucked them into the water, though they had been able to drag themselves back onto the wreckage. Sarah had suffered a leg injury and hypothermia, and as her rescuers pulled her onto their deck, she went into shock.
Ron and Hana were still in the middle of the bay, where they had been bobbing in the water for an hour. They tried to swim for shore, but the waves and current locked them in place.
To stave off the horror of their predicament, Hana cracked dark jokes. “I don’t think we’re going to make it home for dinner,” she said.
“Look,” Ron said, pulling a phone with a waterproof cover from his pocket. At the same moment, Hana pulled out a GPS unit that she had tucked into her life preserver.
Ron struggled to dial with his wet fingers and handed the phone to Hana, who called 911. A dispatcher answered: “What is your emergency and location?”
“I’m in Mobile Bay,” Hana said.
“The bay area?”
“No, ma’am. I’m in the bay. I’m in the water.”
Using the phone and the GPS, and watching the blue lights of a patrol boat, Hana guided rescuers to their location over the next hour and a half.
As an officer pulled her from the water and onto the deck, Hana asked, “This boat isn’t going to capsize, too, is it?”
Shane and Connor Gaston had also gone overboard. Three times the wind flipped their boat before the top of the mast eventually broke. With the other sails lost, they used the far smaller jib sail, often used for balance, to slowly wend their way toward the western shore and onto land.
Meanwhile, the crew members of the Team 4G clung to their one commandeered life preserver, treading water until they were rescued.
As the sun started to set that evening, Scott and Hope Godbold sailed into the Coast Guard’s Dauphin Island station with three survivors of the regatta. Behind Scott’s sailboat, they pulled a small inflatable boat that held the body of a sailor not as lucky. He was one of six people who died that day. Forty more people were rescued.
After leaving Hope and the survivors at the station, Scott was joined by his father, Kenny Godbold, who had come to bring Scott diesel fuel for his boat. Together, they continued the search on their way back to their home marina. Scott had in mind a teenager he knew: Lennard Luiten, who remained missing.
The mood on the boat was somber. Thankfully, Lennard’s father had been found alive, as had his friend Jacob Pouncey, but the two other Razr crew members—Adam Clark and Jimmie Brown—had not survived.
By this point, Lennard would have been in the water, without a life jacket, for six hours. Night had come, and the men knew the chances of the boy being found alive were remote.
Scott eased his boat into the bay and headed north. An hour into the trip, a voice drifted over the water: “Help!”
Hours earlier, the current had swept Lennard seaward. He had swum toward an oil platform, but the waves worked against him, and he watched the platform move slowly from his south to his north. There was nothing but water and darkness, and still he hoped: Maybe his hand would find a crab trap. Maybe a buoy.
Now, in the pitch black of night, a boat slowed, and a flashlight was shone into his face.
“Is that you, Lennard?” Scott yelled out.
Yes, Lennard replied. It was.