Shooting the Breeze

On Mobile Bay, a cool breeze is a commodity, as tangible as the sweaty glass of lemonade in your hand and the porch beneath your toes. Before air conditioning tamed the Gulf Coast, people lived where the breeze was strongest and actually built their homes to accommodate it. Searching for a light, chill wind was as much a part of life as buying a carton of milk at the grocery store. Today, it propels us by sail and lets us know when someone is grilling. Still, most people probably couldn’t say from where a breeze comes. The answer is all around us. 

Believe it or not, a strong sea breeze can actually extend around 100 miles inland before dissipating. Although, on average, a sea breeze typically reaches 25 miles inland. The strength of a breeze is determined by the temperature differential between land and sea: the greater the difference, the stronger the land and sea breezes. 

Merriam-Webster defines a breeze poetically as “a light gentle wind” and scientifically as a “wind from 4 to 31 miles an hour.” In our day-to-day lives on the Gulf Coast, the forgotten Mardi Gras beads high in the trees are rattled by sea and land breezes. When talking wind, it is important to remember that wind direction is given by the direction from which the wind comes. (So a sea breeze moves from the water, not toward it.)

Although likely derived from the Old Spanish word “briza” meaning “a cold northeast wind, ” the word breeze was first recorded in English by British explorer John Smith in a guide he wrote for young sailors in which he ranked winds by their severity. Because, if you need to sail to Pocahontas, you better know your way around a breeze.

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Land and sea breezes are weather phenomena that occur around coastal areas. It’s a simple matter of air pressure. Since water has a higher heat capacity than land, land temps might change by tens of degrees on any given day while water temps might only change by half a degree. As the air above land heats up and rises, cooler air above the Gulf or Mobile Bay is pulled inland, creating a sea (or Bay) breeze during the day. A land breeze occurs after sunset when the air temperature above land quickly loses heat but the air above the water remains closer to its daytime temperature.

Mobile Bay Breeze 

  • John Sledge, an architectural historian with the Mobile Historic Development Commission, suggests that evidence of the importance of a refreshing breeze to Mobilians of old lies within the architecture of their homes. Wide halls and transoms above doorways were intentional designs used to encourage air circulation. French Creole cottages often feature wraparound porches with the purpose of giving all interior rooms easy access to the porch and the light, gentle breezes that so often pay a visit. “And in Point Clear, you’ll see things like slatted porch ceilings to increase interior circulation, ” Sledge explains.
  • Ellis Ollinger, a Mobilian and active sailboat racer on the Gulf Coast, says the ideal time for a sail on Mobile Bay is from noon to sunset. “That’s when you’ve got that 10- to 12-knot wind coming out of the south, ” he says.
  • “At the Bama Breeze, you can drink some beer down there, ” drawls Jimmy Buffett in his 2006 tune “Bama Breeze.” According to his sister, Lucy “LuLu” Buffett, the song pays homage to the dive bars of the Gulf Coast, particularly the famous Flora-Bama (although the music video was shot at the ruins of another bar in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi).
  • It could be argued that entire communities exist today, in part, because of the Bay breezes that roll through our area. In the days before air conditioning, the wealthy built summer houses in places such as Spring Hill and Point Clear where cool, refreshing winds from Mobile Bay offered an escape from the summer heat and were thought to prevent the spread of yellow fever.
  • Sea breezes might help explain those daily thunderstorms Mobilians have grown accustomed to. According to WALA chief meteorologist Jason Smith, “Thunderstorms often form along the leading edge of a sea breeze and advance inland as the day progresses. This interaction is one of the key reasons Mobile is one of the nation’s wettest cities.

Text by Breck Pappas

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