The Far Side of the World

Leaving Marathon was a mixed bag, we were again glad to be travelling and on our way with good weather, and sad to be leaving such a nice place with wonderful people. Jim and Sharon Angel aboard “Blue Angel” have been on and off companions for the Loop, and we have stayed in touch. They caught up with us in Marathon, and we had some good times together. Jim was a wealth of knowledge for parts of our trip. Another person I met on the way down in Fort Myers was Harry aboard “Zugvogel”, a 35 foot Morgan sailboat. I called him the “Oldtimer”. Harry is an incredible man, he has a companion with him sometimes, other times he singlehands. I was having a little trouble with my atomic 4 engine and he spotted the problem right away, simply by the sound of the engine.

He walked the deck of my boat and inspected my workmanship (he felt I was a little sloppy in one area, we agreed to disagree on that point), other than that, he was quite pleased with my preparations for what he called “offshore” (Dry Tortugas). He reviewed my course, and added a couple anchorages with excellent directions in and out. Thanks Harry and Jim!

Key West by boat is different than by bus, we decided to go all the way around to a mooring field instead of anchoring so we could get a reasonable pump out, fill with fuel, and see the sights one more time. The instructions to the marina from the mooring field got a little confused, and our dingy got caught in a four knot current (our dingy only travels three), so we had a hard time getting back to the boat, and never did find the marina that day. Another experience.

Whether by chance or design, when we left Key West headed for the Dry Tortugas, our autopilot stopped working. I took it apart carefully, as I have in the past, and instead of finding something I could perhaps fix, I found a small electronic piece detached from the circuit board, and about 10 tiny ball bearings that scattered everywhere. In addition (as if that weren’t enough), there were two more parts that had come off and broken. I declared the autopilot to be toast, and we would have to hand steer in one hour long shifts and be forced to watch everything including dolphins, turtles, birds, sharks and other vessels on this leg, and there will of course be no overnight sojourn. I will order a new one when we get back to the mainland. I wish I had paid more attention when the Oldtimer tried to explain to me how to tie the tiller off manually.

We anchored in the Marquesas Keys for the night, which would be about the closest land (although it is bare, can’t even get the boat in and no one lives here) to Havana, Cuba. Between this anchorage and Dry Tortuga is a huge Blimp very high up, called “Fat Albert”, it is the USA’s eye in the sky, keeping watch for any nasties trying to immigrate. We smiled and waved for the camera.

There will be no photos of the Tortugas, as no photo could depict the accuracy and beauty of the place. Giant Frigatebirds, the only nesting colony in the US, with their huge 8 foot wingspan, weighing about three ounces, they just float above the fort, seemingly night and day. The Sooty Tern, in its mating season now, and there are thousands of them (eighty thousand, I believe they estimate) on a small island named Bush Key, off limits to humans, although we were anchored in front of it for the duration. Night and day, we could hear the birds. These Terns will fly off the coast of Africa when young, and never set down for five years. That’s a long flight!

Fort Jefferson was never actually finished as a fort, although they did use volunteer army, convicts, and slaves to attempt to build it, they did put some cannon in, and housed a famous criminal, Dr. Samuel Mudd here. The only crime he actually committed was to set the leg of the man who shot the then President Lincoln, that was crime enough to get him imprisoned here, eventually was pardoned. The Dry Tortugas was an important place to do with the Underground Railroad, and the courageous efforts of the seven men who fled from bondage at Fort Jefferson were honored by the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program.

The Park Rangers live in the fort, in quarters that are isolated from the public, and get their fresh water from cisterns below the fort, installed when the fort was built to collect rainwater. They work ten days on, and then have four days off. I see a satellite on the roof, so am guessing they get TV, they have a generator for power, and providing ships get here with fuel. The normal assignment time here is three years.

We fish daily, and have been doing some snorkeling and swimming, although there was a large light grey shark in the water beside our boat last night, his fin out of the water, looking just like jaws. The water is so clear we could see the entire fish, and there was no doubt it was a man-eater. Fishermen caught a shark on the bank the other night, and brought him ashore to take pictures. Watching them take the hook out if its mouth was comical. It must have been an expensive hook.

MB blows the conch nightly at sunset. Some nights another boat will respond and they sound like Bull Moose for about 15 minutes. We sit in the cockpit and watch the sunsets, I have yet to see the green flash, but am still watching and hoping. There are two commercial catamarans that come back and forth daily with tourists, and they overrun the place between 10:00 and 15:00, so that’s a good time to stay on our boat, or dingy over to Loggerhead Key. There are five islands here, we are only allowed on two of them, the rest are for the birds and protected coral. I tried to get a bag of ice from one of the commercial boats, and it is not allowed, and they won’t budge. I guess they could lose their license, and they have a gold mine here as it is, so why chance it? So it is true, we can get nothing here. Stay length depends on the provisions you can carry.

Our last snorkeling adventure used up the last of the film in my underwater camera, and the last two pictures are of a four foot long Barracuda, face to face with me! I turned and beat it back to shore as fast as I could, looking behind me and losing my breath all the way, I, of course, had swum out too far. But I lived, and will have unbelievable photos when I get them developed!

WE SAW THE GREEN FLASH in the Marquesas Keys at the anchorage on our way home. There was only one other boat and us, anchored a fair distance apart; MB was playing her conch as always, when bang! We saw it. I now feel part of the magic.

We are back at City Marina in Key West, getting our autopilot problem fixed, getting rid of bags of garbage, will re-fuel, will re-provision, then travel fairly steadily towards home. How sad and wonderful at the same time. Of course, we still have over 2,000 miles to go, with many more adventures to go. Stay tuned!

We love you all,

Joe and Mary Beth Amelia

S/V “Pot ‘O’ Gold”

2 Responses to “The Far Side of the World”

  1. Karen Says:

    Sad for you – Happy for us – We wish you safe journeys and can not wait to see you move closer and closer to this BEAUTIFUL ISLAND – I think you have been gone so long you are suffering from amnesia. Glad you are alive and not shark bait.
    Lots of love Karen, Trevor and the kids’

    PS. Thank Rylan for his prayers that probably kept you alive as you swam like prey from the Barracuda!

  2. John Rankin Says:

    I enjoyed your story of going to the Dry Tortugas. In 1983 we chartered a Hunter 32 and did a six week trip there, starting from North Fort Myers, via Marathon and Key West.

    In the Marquesas, we had the greatest difficulty finding a holding ground. The Bruce anchor, great for our home waters, was no good whatsoever in coral.

    On the Marquesas-Tortugas leg we had two adventures. First, my wife Jane called me up to the cockpit and said “there’s something wrong with the boat, it doesn’t feel right. A look at the knotmeter showed 2 knots, but there was a brisk following breeze. A look over the stern showed a lobster pot dragging behind, and I had to get the mask and snorkel out and dive overboard to cut the thing free. The stern was crashing down on me as I cut it free. It was a scary time.

    The other thing was that we had difficulty finding the Tortugas. I estimated we should be there, but no sign of them. In 83 Loran was in style, but the Tortugas were too far out for it, so I had bought a RDF (radio direction finder) and dragged it up on deck where it seemed to say that the Tortugas were almost 90 degrees to our left. We turned, and almost immediately there they were. We didn’t realize that there is a significant wind-driven current around the Tortugas, and it had carried us miles to the North of our DR track.

    We stayed at the Tortugas for a week or so. A riot nearly broke out between motorboaters who wanted arc lights and loud music, and sailboaters who wanted starlight and silence. There were threats of shooting, and we kept our heads down.

    As I was rowing home one day, I noticed pork chops and other meat products in a long line floating past me. It turned out that my darling wife, who has a very sensitive nose, had thrown overboard all the meat. The frozen beer we had packed in the cooler must not have been enough to keep it edible. So we had to head back to Key West.

    Another adventure on the way home. We were going to overnight it to KW, but a strong blow set in, and in the dark I noticed that when I held onto the lifelines my hand would tingle. Turned out that the nav light bulbs had been replaced with auto bulbs, and were grounding onto the lifelines and mast. By this time the battery was pretty well dead and it was blowing like stink. So we tacked onto the offshore tack, reefed down, and jogged towards Mexico overnight at low speed. In the morning all was well, but we were glad to get back to KW and a nice meal by the wharf.

    John Rankin

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