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
Once home to a litany
of Confederate gunrunners, pirates, and
1970’s drug smugglers,
islands are an escape
BY TROY GILBERT
Bay St. Louis
Cat Island Ship Island Horn Island
GULF OF MEXICO
Left: 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.