Mississippi Gulf Islands
A World Away From ShoreBy Troy Gilbert
Published: June/July 2014
Once home to a litany of Confederate gunrunners, pirates, and 1970's drug smugglers, Mississippi's barrier islands are an escape to solitude.
Faulkner sailed them, as did the pirate Jean Lafitte. They were the first islands Jimmy Buffett knew and dreamt of as a kid in Pascagoula, and the muse for the art of Walter Anderson displayed in the Smithsonian. Mississippi's Gulf Islands were the rallying point for 60 British frigates prior to their failed invasion of New Orleans and, like then, seeds and tropical driftwoods still push north from the Caribbean and South America onto their sugar-sand beaches.
With Cuba the nearest landfall to the south, they string the entire coast of Mississippi, long and narrow islands — Cat, Ship, Horn, and Petit Bois — an important first line of defense for the coast from hurricanes. Visited mainly by locals looking for good fishing or overnight beach camping, these sandy spits of dunes and lagoons are wholly protected as a National Seashore and Wildlife Preserve and stunning in their beauty and history. Forming the boundary between the Gulf of Mexico and the Mississippi Sound, they're located between seven and 12 miles offshore from quaint, historic coastal towns offering everything from antiquing to casinos, and are an unheralded and forgotten cruising ground.
Due east lie Alabama's developed barrier islands and the heavily trafficked waters of the panhandle of Florida, but cruisers rarely take the time to travel the few extra miles to these empty islands. Except for pleasure boats on day trips from the coast, or transiting back to New Orleans, only shrimp boats and oystermen plying the sound skirt their shores.
A Gathering Of Friends
Chef Matthew Mayfield and coastal artist Billy Solitario needle each other as they've done since childhood as they lug 40-pound bags of ice from the pink bait shop in Ocean Springs onto the 48-foot Hatteras owned by the Mayfield family, and the 21-foot Boston Whaler we planned to use as a scat boat.
"So Matthew, are you a fisherman?"
"Well, I don't know, Billy. What constitutes a fisherman?"
"I don't know. Do you consider yourself one?"
"Well, I fish. What constitutes an artist?"
These two grew up together on the Mississippi coast running the barrier islands, a childhood playground and now their professional inspiration. Mayfield is a classically trained chef from the Culinary Institute of America, and Solitario a renowned artist with a studio in New Orleans. Next, Dr. Bob Thomas, director of the Environmental Program at Loyola University, and James Beard-nominated filmmaker Kevin McCaffrey arrive from New Orleans. They unpack their cameras and gear and pass it to us along piers rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina.
The new arrivals secure bunks in the Hatteras while the hometown guys joke on the dock with the shrimpers who've already finished their early morning trawling. You could figure the age of these men and women, like coastal oaks with their roots deep in the salt and dusted by white sand, by the big storms they've weathered. This marina is a small world in a small town on a coast that has endured everything.
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If You Go: Marinas And Clubs
The entire coastline of Mississippi is populated by transient-friendly yacht clubs, including three of the five oldest clubs in the United States as well as $94 million in new state-of-the-art marinas. The Gulfport Small Craft Harbor is a good resupply or overnight destination and the marina can accommodate vessels up to 140 feet. The Gulfport Yacht Club is only three blocks from downtown Gulfport. Two BoatUS Cooperating Marinas, Bay Marina in Bay St. Louis and Fort Bayou Marina in Ocean Springs, offer a fuel discount and a discount on transient dockage, respectively. www.BoatUS.com/ServiceLocator