A living history of racing on the Gulf Coast began when sailing morphed from commerce and transportation to recreation and sport over 150 years ago. Oysters and shrimp were still harvested by vessels under sail as yacht racing and clubs on the Gulf Coast followed the formation of the New York Yacht Club in 1844. Clubs in New Orleans and the Alabama and Mississippi coasts followed within a few years and this included the great-granddaddy of distance racing in the western hemisphere – Southern Yacht Club’s Race to the Coast.
First officially run on July 4, 1850, Southern YC’s regatta is the oldest and still active point-to-point distance race in the United States, and the second oldest regatta after New York YC’s Around the Island Race which traces its roots to 1845. Coursing from New Orleans’ West End in Lake Pontchartrain through the Rigolets and into the open waters of the Mississippi Sound, the Race to the Coast first gained structure as bankers and cotton brokers with their families, fled the heat and yellow fever epidemics of the city. New Orleans being accessible only by boat until the invention of railroad bridges in the mid-19th century, naturally the men on these schooners began to place wagers during this annual transit. With the formation of the Southern Yacht Club in 1849, the race was officially born.
Today the regatta traces the same course as it did before the Civil War. The 50nm steeplechase format is sailed by crews including Olympic silver medalists and Transatlantic single-handed sailors in a myriad of PHRF Handicap boats. Each of the segments of this historic race offers unusual challenges, from the quiet winds on a lake that can turn squirrelly in no time, to the wind on the nose while dealing with an incoming 5-knot current through the marsh. The stretch through the Mississippi Sound offers the beauty of sailing along the barrier islands making up the Gulf Islands National Seashore, yet the oyster shoals of Merrill Coquille and Square Handkerchief are always there to keep the helmsman honest. Finishing at the Gulfport Yacht Club on the Mississippi Coast, the regatta is now incorporated and scored together in the Sawgrass Series, and acts as a feeder race for the 100nm Gulfport to Pensacola Race the weekend of June 27-28.
The Pensacola Race is also legendary on the Northern Gulf Coast with up to 100 boats sailing south and east along the Gulf Islands to the sugar sand beaches of Florida’s panhandle. Run since 1949, this is a true offshore regatta with boats sailing outside the protection of the barrier islands and into the deepwater of the Gulf of Mexico. The area around the Mobile Bay Sea Buoy is notorious for light winds overnight, so tactics almost require crews to gamble on whether the breeze will fill offshore or closer to the coast in the morning hours.
With so few remaining bluewater regattas on the Gulf Coast, the Gulfport to Pensacola Race has become one of those graduation regattas for young or up and coming sailors looking to build an offshore resume and perhaps a crew slot for the Mexico Races and beyond. For cruisers, it can be a weekend-long excursion that ends with sailors enjoying the hospitality of the Pensacola Yacht Club and their legendary bushwhackers. An important touchstone for this coast’s culture, crewing while racing or cruising these regattas is a real adventure tying one directly to the past and the men and women who raced on schooners over a century before.