“So, do you guys get much swell around here?” I ask Elliot Brett, a member of the New Orleans Yacht Club, as we move a boat around the club’s marina on the eve of the first weekend of Mardi Gras Race Week.
“No, none really” Brett says, as we pull up along the face dock at the New Orleans Yacht Club.
“Except for that one time,” fellow yacht club member Riley Stogner says with a laugh. “Then we got about 30 feet.”
Everyone onboard has a good laugh. I guess after 10 years it’s acceptable to crack a Hurricane Katrina joke down in New Orleans (though as a fish-out-of-water Yankee like myself, I wouldn’t be the first to do so). I was in town for Mardi Gras Race Week, a regatta put on by the New Orleans Yacht Club and held over two weekends on Lake Pontchartrain immediately following the city’s storied Mardi Gras celebration. It was Friday, the night before the first weekend of racing, and I was helping the folks get ready, inflating the marks and shuffling around boats.
But more than just covering the regatta—and hopefully getting to do a little sailing—I was in town to assess the state of the sailing scene in New Orleans, 10 years after the city was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Everyone knows the stories, as they were reported in real-time on the nightly news—the looting, the riots, the moment the 17th street levee was breached, the scenes of the huddled masses in the Astrodome. But like many things, after years out of the nightly news limelight, New Orleans is out of the public conversation.
So, with the boats tied up, we returned to the yacht club and got to talking about the storm over some beers. “It was like being a journalist in a war,” Brett says. “There were helicopters everywhere, Humvees going down the street, guys with guns. It was wild. I knew lots of guys that didn’t have any power at home, so they didn’t leave Bourbon Street for weeks, since the bars had their electricity back,” he adds with a chuckle.
This seems to be the general feeling in New Orleans, especially among sailors—it was devastating, but you’ve got to get back up, rebuild, and keep going. Laugh it off and keep going.
The tricky part is rebuilding. Sure, you can pick yourself up by your bootstraps all you want, but when you’re dealing with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, it takes more than gumption and a good attitude. It takes time. In the case of the city’s West End waterfront, it’s safe to say it takes at least 10 years.
“There are plenty of people around here that don’t realize that five miles down the coast there are marinas that are full of boats,” Stanton Murray, a yacht broker and a lifelong New Orleans resident with deep ties to the boating scene, tells me the next day as we drive around the West End, where the New Orleans Yacht Club and the Southern Yacht Club are located.
But after the storm, due to a number of varying factors, from political entanglements to bureaucratic headaches, no rebuilding has been done. Out in front of the New Orleans Yacht Club, many of the docks are still mangled. Most of the West End has no shore power or water and here and there a mast sticking up from the water indicates a boat that sank in its slip and hasn’t not been touched—10 years on. Many of the sailors here do their boating a bit under the radar.
The Municipal Yacht Harbor, a once bustling 595-slip marina in the West End, now offers about 160 slips that can be obtained at a heavily discounted rate due to the fact that there are no utilities. “If we get to rebuild it how we want then the boats will come back,” Murray says. Two other public marinas in the Orleans Parish have been rebuilt since the storm, and there have been other marinas rebuilt along the Mississippi coast. Just around the corner from the West End, there is a new marina in Bucktown. But for the West End, the concentration of effort has been placed on rebuilding the 17th Street Canal to protect the city from future flooding—the land that lines the Canal, once prime real estate, is now the staging ground for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and resembles one large industrial construction site.
During its heyday, the West End of New Orleans was a hotbed of boating and social activity that could rival any East Coast city. The Southern Yacht Club, founded in 1849, is the second oldest yacht club in the United States (right behind the New York Yacht Club). The waters of Lake Pontchartrain have been the training grounds for 12 Olympic sailors, who have brought home seven Olympic medals (including their first ever in 1932 Games). Prior to Katrina, the West End hosted one of the biggest Wednesday night racing scenes you could find, with an average of 65 boats racing each week. There are more than 30 weekend regattas held on lake Pontchartrain, distance races held in the Gulf of Mexico and competitions between yacht clubs from Texas to Florida. The Higgins boats, the landing craft used in the D-Day assault, were tested in the West End. The third oldest restaurant in New Orleans was in the West End (I say was because it didn’t survive Katrina), and it was once the home of a thriving jazz district fed by the city’s streetcars—Louis Armstrong used to regularly play in the West End. Suffice it to say, the area has seen better days.
It might seem that 10 years is an absurdly long time to wait for action, but relatively speaking it isn’t really—for two reasons. First reason is that when it comes to dealing with FEMA, there are so many levels of bureaucratic red tape to deal with that things take a long time. The week before I arrived the city had just dedicated a new firehouse, which makes the fact that some docks haven’t been put back together yet a little less surprising.
The second reason is that even if the city wanted to fix the docks themselves, they can’t. When working with FEMA, everything has to be left as is until the grant is finalized and the money is handed over. If the folks at the yacht club rolled up their sleeves and fixed the docks by themselves, the entire rebuild would be out of pocket. No FEMA check, no help from the government. So the only option is to sit and wait. (I guess you can throw in a third reason, former mayor of New Orleans Ray Nagin, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison for wire fraud, bribery and money laundering related to bribes from city contractors after Katrina.)
“We’re optimistic. We’ve seen some dark times, but now there is light at the end of that tunnel,” Murray tells me. “Dealing with the federal government is difficult, but we’re doing it. We really thought this was going to happen before the end of 2014, but we’re confident that it will be resolved soon.”
The next day at the yacht club, as we wait for the wind to settle down and the weather to cooperate so we can get a race in, I stand on the docks and chat with Buzzy Brennan, a sailor as dug in to the New Orleans sailing scene as you can get. He is a third-generation Brennan, a hardcore boating family and the ones behind the Easterly boats, designed and built by Buzzy’s father in the Bucktown area of New Orleans about two miles from the yacht club. There are six Easterly 30s tied up to the docks for race week, one of which is his.
“My father built these boats, first one was built in the backyard,” Buzzy tells me, pointing to the boats. “My boat was in my brother’s boatyard during Katrina. We showed up the next day and the boat was gone. We found it four miles away in someone’s front yard. We put it on a flatbed, and half an hour later it was back on the hard in my brother’s shop.” (I should note that Buzzy’s brother, Donny, is the shipwright for the US Olympic Sailing team.) Before long Buzzy’s boat was back in the water, and he was back to sailing. Not even the ravages of the hurricane could keep him off the water.
Talking to Brennan, and indeed everyone I had the pleasure of meeting to during my time in New Orleans, gave me a good sense of just how the sailing scene is handling itself in the wake of such a devastating storm. Two days earlier, as I’d cruised through the marina past a mast still sticking out of the water in the slip where the boat had sunk a decade ago, I thought of it at first as the New Orleans sailing scene waving a symbolic white flag in defeat; mangled and irreparable docks, boats destroyed and left where they lay like nautical headstones in a marine graveyard.
But after my time talking with Brennan and others of the people who make up the New Orleans sailing community, I realized I couldn’t be more wrong. Sure, the sailing community was dealt a bad hand in 2005 when the city’s waterfront got an unwanted makeover from Katrina. And yes, the progress to rebuild has been slow, and for many quite frustrating. But that’s not going to stop sailors from doing what they love—sailing. Like the scrappy band of resistance fighters in Red Dawn, the sailors of New Orleans refuse to lie down and admit defeat. You want to ruin their marinas, twist their docks, sink their boats or carry them miles away and leave them in the road? Fine, but don’t think for a minute that will keep them off the water. The New Orleans sailing scene may be down at times, but don’t think for a minute that they’re out.
Mardi Gras Race Week, Small Boat Sailing in the Big Easy
Mardi Gras Race Week grew out of the Mardi Gras Regatta, which started racing in 1969. In 2008 organizers changed the name of the event to the Mardi Gras Race Week and expanded it to cover two weekends and include more boats. The thought behind the event is that boats coming back from racing in Miami and Key West can stop in New Orleans, enjoy the Mardi Gras festivities and then do some sailing. Attendance peaked in 2011 when the fleet included an impressive 115 boats. The first weekend of the event is the One Design weekend, and is open to Viper 640s, Vanguard 15s, VX Ones, Etchells, MC Scows, Finns, J/22s, Rhodes 19s, Melges 24s, Hobie 33s and more. The second weekend is for the PHRF division, and is open to PHRF spinnaker and non-spinnaker, PHRF sport boats and PHRF multihulls. For more information on the event, go to mardigrasracing.org.