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Mississippi Gulf Islands: A World Away From Shore

Once home to a litany of Confederate gunrunners, pirates, and 1970's drug smugglers, Mississippi's barrier islands are an escape to solitude.

Horn Island beach

A small runabout is perfect for beaching or taking crew ashore on these remote islands. (Photo: Troy Gilbert)

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.

Gulf Coast map

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.

Painter Billy Solitario

Painter Billy Solitario strikes a familiar pose with his toes in the sand and brush in hand. (Photo: Troy Gilbert)

"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.

Ocean Springs music scene

Ocean Springs' Government Street is now home to a burgeoning music and restaurant scene. (Photo: Troy Gilbert)

The historic downtown of Ocean Springs, rising on a slight bluff, was more-or-less spared from the cataclysmic destruction of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Today it's quietly booming, with the hipster feel of Austin, Texas, in its infancy. Only blocks from the marina, Government Street is growing into a music and restaurant scene. Home to the legacy of the famous painter Walter Anderson, and Shearwater Pottery, Ocean Springs has always been an arts town.

Casting off the Hatteras, McCaffrey films footage of the big boat as he follows in the whaler helmed by Nate, a local man-about-town and friend of the guys from the coast. Across the entrance to the back bay as we convoy southeast, high-rise hotels and their casinos command the coast in Biloxi, a different world from genteel Ocean Springs with her beachfront dotted with private homes and the Ocean Springs Yacht Club.

Horn Island doesn't appear to be much on the approach — only 14 miles long and a quarter mile wide with several outcroppings of dunes, pines, and periodic oak trees. We slide in at the "fat" west end of Horn. Almost pure beach on three sides, giant sandy swaths that reach out 25 yards in each direction, lee coves populated by brown pelicans, ospreys, and a myriad of other sea birds startled only by periodic redfish in the shallows. The southern shore pounds with surf, while the north can be as quiet as a Pennsylvania pond, but with water temperatures averaging above 80 degrees in the summer, 60 degrees in deep winter.

Pine on Horn island painting

Artist Billy Solitario has focused on the Mississippi Gulf Islands throughout his career, such as in this painting of a pine tree on Horn Island.

Solitario's career as a painter was made when he started painting these island scenes, and he's obviously ready to dig his toes in the sand. He wants to paint, but mostly talks of redfish and wading for oysters at the mouth of the inner lagoons. Mayfield wants to boat, and he's the skipper, so we round Horn Island to the south. At the eastern point there's a secluded shoreline and no one is concerned that anyone will be there. There's an unwritten rule that each island is claimed by the coastal town that lies due north. Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian get Cat Island; Gulfport gets Ship Island; Biloxi gets the western side of Horn Island, and Ocean Springs gets eastern Horn. With the prevailing winds and currents tending to be from the east, the western cove of Horn can be filled with locals on weekends using it as a lee shore in strong easterlies. But today we have light winds.

The eastern shore of Horn is magical. The Gulf of Mexico crashing a stone's throw to the south is a solid white noise behind dunes that rise 20 feet. The perfect crystalline quartz sand that thousands of years ago washed down from the Appalachians rests here now awaiting rabbit and ghost crab footprints — and ours. Solitario sets up his easel almost immediately in the pine straw and sand beneath a run of pine trees that are home to massive osprey nests. The chef and biologist walk down the beach discussing foraging on the island, while McCaffrey sets up his camera and starts filming. I explore the dunes for sun-bleached driftwood for tonight's campfire.

Around the campfire at Horn Island

Gathered round a driftwood fire, the crew discusses what it must be like for the lone park ranger who lives on Horn Island. (Photo: Troy Gilbert)

Walking a few steps inland, everything is left behind and you're alone and solitary. A distant squall throws off lightning and my feet dig deep into the white sand. There are no human footprints. Up a small rise, I find a quiet lagoon fed by springs and rainfall. I follow rabbit footprints until the dunes and light scrub give way to the pink and black sand of the flats, peppered with thousands of seashell shards. When I find the beach, the Gulf of Mexico is rolling as the tropical breeze freshens from the south. It's entirely likely that we're the only people on this island.

With years of childhood experience that make them fearless, Mayfield and Solitario break out a paddleboard and fish one of the inner lagoons known to house redfish and a stray alligator or two. Standing on the dunes, watching and waiting, the rest of us discuss the unbelievable ability of the island's rabbits, deer, and raccoons to have survived the 30 feet of storm surge that covered this island only nine years ago. It's mystifying even to the biologist.

By campfire, the shadows play on the dunes and the Mississippi coast is quiet in her distant lights while Mayfield cooks a simple dish of redfish in the coals. The Sound washes on the shore and a few periodic shrimp boats slide past. The discussion turns to the single lone park ranger who's lived on Horn Island for the last 30 years and how his world reminds us of the late author and environmental advocate Edward Abbey, and his experience in the deserts of Utah.

From Horn, On To Ship, Cat, and Bay St. Louis

On the Gulf-side beach in the morning, the surf is salty and warm, and we prepare to move on. Only a few miles to the west lies Ship Island with her massive Civil War fortress that still guards the coast. Ship Island was quickly conquered by the North in 1862 and the fort was turned into a prison camp for Confederate prisoners. The island's natural harbor was then used again as a staging point for the capture of New Orleans — the Yankee Navy succeeding where the British Navy failed some 50 years earlier. The fort and beaches make Ship Island of interest to tourists who arrive daily via charters from nearby Gulfport, and while excellent anchorages abound, Ship doesn't have the remote, quiet feel of the other islands, until after dusk.

Cat Island is another quick run from the coast — originally named "Isle Aux Chats" for the multitude of raccoons on the island that were mistakenly identified as cats by French explorers. Cat Island is "T" shaped and the only one in the chain that breaks from the narrow and long shape of the rest of the barrier islands. White-sand beaches, palmettos, pines, and oaks abound, but the southwestern cove of the island is pure marsh and swamp. Overnight camping is allowed, although a small interior portion is still privately owned and posted. From the beaches of Cat, the transformation to the marshy coastline of Louisiana begins. The water turns darker with the influx of the muddy water from the mouth of the Mississippi. Continue a few miles further. The Louisiana barrier islands of the Chandeleurs await, while to the northwest, the deepwater Rigolets Pass opens up and leads into Lake Pontchartrain and then the New Orleans marina district of West End.

Local crafts

French cuisine

French influences that give the region its flavor can all be found in evidence in Bay St. Louis. (Photos: Troy Gilbert)

Only eight miles north of Cat Island is Bay St. Louis and her namesake town. The perfect bookend for any Gulf Island expedition with its quiet oak-lined streets, waterfront seafood restaurants, antique shops, and history dating back to French explorers in 1699. Bay St. Louis and Ocean Springs have been thrust into the vanguard of a coast still searching for its identity after the storm. Each of us onboard the Hatteras lost something to Katrina, and we understand that as we motor back home and to our cars. It's one thing to look on a map or read a newspaper story and distantly understand the importance of these islands, Mayfield explains, "it is another thing to dig your feet into the sand and hear those nesting seabirds, and really get that these islands are not only here to protect us, my family, the casinos, or an oil and gas refinery, but that there's an important relationship here. We have to help these islands protect us."

In one of those thick Southern skies where you can truly feel the height of the atmosphere above, the sun sets and their shores sparkle in crazy blues. After only a mile of heading back north, the islands again become quiet and plain. They are real magic hidden in plain sight, waiting to be explored and experienced.

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.

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Troy Gilbert

Contributing Editor, BoatUS Magazine

An award-winning feature writer, Troy has authored four books of boating stories, and on regional cooking. You can find him either typing on his back porch in Lakeview, New Orleans, while sipping wine from his grandparents old wine glasses, or traveling throughout the Gulf Coast, Caribbean, and Europe writing about boating, culture, and his passion, competitive sailing.