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Bad Weather Hampers Search for Missing Boaters in Alabama

Search efforts continue for four people missing after a deadly weekend storm Monday, April 27, 2015, in Dauphin Island, Ala.  (Mike Kittrell/AL.com via AP)
Search efforts continue for four people missing after a deadly weekend storm Monday, April 27, 2015, in Dauphin Island, Ala. (Mike Kittrell/AL.com via AP)

DAUPHIN ISLAND, Ala. — The same thing that turned an annual sailboat race into a disaster on Alabama's Mobile Bay is now hampering the search for four missing boaters: bad weather.

The U.S. Coast Guard said it searched more than 3,000 square miles of water looking for the missing sailors before strong storms forced a halt Monday. Crews planned to be back out when the weather breaks.

Exactly when that might happen is unclear. The National Weather Service said as much as 4 inches of rain could fall by Tuesday night, and forecasters said there's a threat from strong rip currents funneling water away from the coast.

The boat race went awry Saturday afternoon when a powerful storm moved through, killing two people, and officials said it's unclear how long the missing could live in the Gulf.

Capt. Duke Walker, commander of the Coast Guard in Mobile, said survival depends mainly on the individual who is missing and the environment.

"The water temperature, the air temperature, the conditions on the water and then a person's physical makeup," he said Monday. "So we have a lot of different people involved, a range of ages from a young man to an older gentleman."

Authorities haven't identified any of the victims.

Participants in the 57th annual Dauphin Island Regatta said Saturday seemed like a perfect day for sailing until the weather turned deadly.

Gray skies quickly turned black and lightning popped all around. Skipper Susan Kangal said the wind spiked from about 20 mph to 73 mph — 1 mph short of hurricane force — and the 34-foot-long craft she was piloting heeled over on its side.

About the same time, as they were headed back to shore after finishing the regatta, Connor Gaston and father Shane Gaston saw the wind yank the mainsail of their 16-foot catamaran. Within seconds, the boat flipped and dumped the two men into the roiling, frothy bay.

"After that, we were in the water; we were holding on to the boat," said Connor Gaston, 26, of Helena. "The boat's being tossed around. We ended up cartwheeling around about three times."

Unhurt but soaked, the Gastons eventually righted their little boat after about 30 minutes in the water and sailed back to shore with a broken mast. Once the storm passed, Kangal's all-female crew of three women and five teens made it back safely to dock under engine power.

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More than 100 sailboats of varying sizes and as many as 200 people were participating in the regatta when the storm hit. Sponsored each year by area sailing clubs that rotate organizational duties, the race begins in the middle of Mobile Bay and ends about 21 miles to the south near the bridge to Dauphin Island.

Kangal, 52, was at the helm of her ex-husband's sailboat when the wind kicked up about 15 minutes after she got a call about the potential for rough weather. As is a common practice aboard sailboats with engines during storms, she lowered a sail and cranked the motor.

Then, she said, wind hit the boat like a hammer. The boat slammed over on its side, nearly to the point over overturning.

"It was frightening because at that point, in that second that that happened, I was laying on the back of the boat, between the wheel and the aft of the boat, and was standing up straight looking down at the water, watching the water starting to ease over the side," she said.

Both Gaston and his father were wearing life preservers when they hit the water, and they desperately hung on to the boat in case they had to be rescued. The worst part wasn't the wind or the water, Gaston said, but the electricity that danced all around.

"We're sitting there on the boat trying to get away from any type of metal that we could ... ," he said. "And I'm sitting there on the boat just waiting for a flash and a bang, and that to be it."

Steve Zito, commodore of the Mobile Yacht Club, had seven passengers on his boat when the storm hit.

"We were just finishing the race and the wind picked up. I cranked the engine and lowered the sails. It was a massive black wall of water and rain coming right at us," he said.

"I've never seen conditions this intense. It came on so fast," he said.

The start of the race was delayed for more than an hour, Zito said, but the reason was unclear. The National Weather Service issued a special marine warning for boaters about an hour before the deluge, but many sailors didn't consider the skies threatening.

"There was plenty of wind; it was partly cloudy — a perfect day to go sailing, just about," Gaston said.

--Reeves reported from Birmingham, Associated Press writer Jeff Martin in Atlanta and video journalist Johnny Clark in Mobile, Alabama, contributed to this report.

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