(Disclaimer: This 170 mile open water ride is NOT for beginners! Do NOT try this ride alone or without carrying extra fuel and at least a marine radio or a PLB! …scratch that, you better have both a marine radio and a PLB!)
We started this adventure in Biloxi, Mississippi on a beautiful Saturday morning. The Sound was reasonably smooth when Mike, Wade and myself left the Kuhn St boat ramp around 9:30 in the morning. We headed west, hugging the coast towards Gulfport, then making a turn south in the direction of Cat Island. After a short, uneventful ride we beached our skis at the north tip of Cat Island, on the west shore. We explored for a few minutes, took some pictures, and knowing we had a long way ahead of us, departed towards West Ship Island.
As was to be expected for a Saturday, Ship Island was fairly busy. The ferry and dozens of other boats were there. We beached our skis near the pier and walked up to explore the well preserved Fort Massachusetts. A quick look over the South ramparts confirmed – the Gulf was smooth, so off to the pièce de résistance – the Chandeleur Islands!
Above: Departing from the Kuhn St. pier in Biloxi, MS
Above: Glassy conditions on the MS Sound
The nearly 17-mile ride from West Ship to the Northern tip of Chandeleur was made even more enjoyable by the sight of big sharks, pods of dolphins, basking stingrays so thick you could almost walk on them and even a loggerhead turtle. The water was smooth enough to maintain an easy 35 mph cruise without getting wet. Though we could have gone faster, our main concern was fuel, so we tried to keep it at a reasonable speed.
Once we reached the north tip of Chandeleur, we pulled up on the seemingly endless crystal clear flats to the west and parked the skis near the beach in smooth as glass water. As we parked, we observed a lone dolphin swimming around in about knee deep water about 100-feet to our west. The Chandeleur Islands are amazing and being that they are eroding at an alarming pace, they may not be around for much longer. Visit this place while you can! During our roughly 30-minute stay, we only saw two other boats, one heading towards Mississippi off the east shore, and a small boat that was just beaching as we departed. Seclusion would be an understatement compared to other islands in the area.
As tempting as it was to explore more of this magnificent island chain, we had a few more islands on our agenda, so we loaded up and made our way towards the East tip of Horn Island. About 10 miles into our venture, we stopped for a short break. After a quick discussion, a decision was made to head straight north for the west tip of Horn Island instead, so that we could ride east along the north shore. As was to be expected, the western beaches were covered in boats reminiscent of a Walmart parking lot on Black Friday. We continued our ride until we found a quiet stretch of beach on the North side of the island, just west of the Ranger Station.
Above: Arrival at Ft. Massachusetts on west Ship Island
Above: Garrisoned only by the NPS, Ft. Mass silently guards the entrance to the MS Sound
Once rested and refreshed, we kept pushing East towards Petit Bois Island. After partially refueling the skis from our jerry cans and the obligatory photo op, we head eastward into Alabama. We decided to try our luck on the south side of islands again, but after getting fairly beat up by some good waves, we decided to hop back on the north side once we hit the west tip of Dauphin Island. After riding the nearly 15-mile stretch that is Dauphin Island, we finally reached the marina near the bridge. We all topped off our tanks for the last leg of the ride and the ride home. When we pulled out of the marina the wind had picked up, and once we crossed into Mobile Bay, we were greeted with the typical nasty Mobile Bay chop.
Our last island on the list was Sand Island. This island has an abandoned lighthouse, right at the entrance of Mobile bay. It is approximately four and a half miles south-southeast of Fort Gaines. The sea was rough but we managed to get close and take a few pictures. Unfortunately, the sea also claimed a valuable piece of equipment that now rests on the bottom of the Gulf. It turned out to be a costly day for Mike on the water, as the drone had a mind of its own shortly after takeoff. It flew about 200-feet away, then abruptly came back towards him, nose diving into the Gulf a mere 20-feet away from his ski. It immediately began to sink, and was impossible to attempt a retrieval.
It was starting to get late in the day, so we rode back towards the Dauphin Island bridge. A slight misread of the GPS by Mike put us in some shallow water, maybe less than a foot deep in some points, just west of the bridge. Mike ended up just getting off his ski and walking it back to deeper water, roughly 300-feet back where he came from. Wade and myself found a little shortcut to the north and were able to get to deeper waters much faster. We couldn’t blame Mike about the little snafu with the route, he was probably somewhat distraught over the drone accident.
Above: Twenty miles off shore and nearing the Chandelure chain of islands
Above: A visit to the crystal flats of LA, via the Chandelure Islands
After we were all back together again in more suitable depths, we had a brief discussion about what time it was, and our plan from there. It was 5:36 p.m., and we had to decide if we wanted to stop and eat, or just head straight back. At this point, we had maybe two hours of daylight left, so we decided it would be smart to just head back. This turned out to be a very wise choice! We began our nearly 50-mile ride back to Biloxi, which would prove to be a brutal 2 hour and 15 minute ride.
We all knew that this would be a rough ride home, but a few minutes in we realized that it would be a test of endurance. We were hitting 2-3 foot whitecaps about every second, drenching us with every hit, and rattling the spine pretty good, too. It took us over an hour to reach the Mississippi line, averaging only about 13 mph.
Luckily, once we reached the Pascagoula area, we stopped getting dowsed by every other wave and could finally resume something resembling touring speed. Riding straight into the setting sun did not make things any easier, and seeing the GPS screen was not an option. Fortunately, Mike knew the area very well, and was able to guide us back in the right direction with no issues. As it turns out, each one of our GPS unit’s batteries died back around Pascagoula, and we didn’t even notice.
Above: In memory of the BIP tactical field drone: Though she rest in Davy Jones’ locker, may she never be forgotten
Above: The Sand Island Lighthouse standing tall and showing the way into Mobile Bay, AL
Finally, we came around the last bend of land near the Ocean Springs area, and could see the casinos on the horizon. The sun was dropping fast, and so was visibility. Both Mike and I have navigation lights on our skis, so we would have been fine if we got back at dark. But Wade was not prepared for a night ride, so he rode in the middle, hoping not to run across the 5-0! As we pulled into the channel between Deer Island and the Golden Nugget, the sun had set, and we barely had enough light to load up the ski’s and get them back in order to be towed home.
Despite all of that, this was an amazing ride and well worth it. We managed to cover 170 miles and visited seven islands in the states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
“North GoM Barrier Island Hop” a trip Report by Axel, can be read in its original entirety at PWCTrailfinder.com.