Dry Tortugas trip
We left Boot Key Harbor (Marathon) on March 9th; we had a 10 knot wind from the SE so were able to sail to Newfound Harbor, anchored just past the harbor, just west of Ramrod Key in about six feet of water just in front of a bridge.
Day two we sailed to Key West, and motored around Fleming Key. It’s a long ride around to the Key West Mooring field, and the field is a long ride from the Marina Office and showers in the dingy. The field was not a quiet one, I would not have gone that far out of my way on the return trip, except we had to order and receive an auto pilot.
We went to town for final provisions, and arranged a pump-out of our holding tank. There are no supplies, or garbage disposal in the Tortugas, so we wanted lots of water, food and supplies as we had no idea how long we were going to stay. As soon as we had weather that looked good to us, we left.
The weather window (East winds, 10 – 15 knots) came on Thursday, March 12, so we sailed about 25 nautical miles to the Marquesas, and planned to anchor there for the night. The winds were quiet for the last part of the trip, and looked like they were going to stay that way, so instead of going the two miles up to the NW corner of the island, I anchored on the SW corner (see chart). This was a mistake, as the winds picked up later in the evening and we rocked hard, we did not drag anchor, but I was worried (had to get up and check the plotter several times). On the return trip, I went up to the NW corner and anchored, but by then the Gulfstream had moved closer, almost touching the island, and it was an extremely rough night. There were about 6 boats anchored, and a large trawler dragged, then moved right back alongside us and reset his anchor. I turned my light on him, and he looked amazed he was so close (don’t know why, I had two anchor lights out, he must have been preoccupied), so he pulled up anchor and moved over a bit. I’m glad it wasn’t me that dragged; it was a tough night to be out and about.
When I first looked at the chart, it looked like we could pull right into Mooney Harbor and anchor, in the middle of the island. This is not feasible, I was told by several cruisers. I wanted to take the dingy in and check the depth, but the seas were bad enough both trips that I did not.
We arrived at the Dry Tortugas on March 13 (Friday, 50 nautical miles). I had read conflicting information on the entrance channel to Garden Key. There is a channel in front of Fort Jefferson on the East side that was closed in from a Hurricane a couple years ago. Some folks say it is open again, some say it is not. I took the sure route in, and went around the North end of the Key, and right around it, and entered the anchorage from the South. That channel (the one on the East side) is definitely open now, the Key West Cruise boats use it, and I left through that channel. That’s not to say the next storm won’t close it in again.
It had been an unusual winter in Florida everyone kept telling us, with at least one cold front a week coming through, which brings high winds from the North and makes the Gulf extremely uncomfortable, with warnings out continuously. This part of March was no different, so when we arrived it was very crowded. The East winds that had been helping me prevented these folks from leaving; it would be hard slogging for them headed east, back to the mainland. I was pleased with my shoal draft Morgan (4’) as I was able to find a comfortable spot to anchor without getting to close to anyone, and got right close to Bush Key. The winds settled to about 2 knots for the next couple days, so most of them left.
The Park Rangers were very friendly folks, as soon as they arrived someone made sure to get in touch with us and let us know there was a candlelight tour of the Fort planned for about 1700 hours. We had just pulled in at 1600 and were tired and had work to do so we declined, but appreciated the offer.
There are birds in the Dry Tortugas. This is a nesting spot (for some, the ONLY nesting spot in North America); they have their own island (Bush Key) where humans are not allowed. When we were there, more than 80,000 (estimated) Sooty Terns were mating. They make a lot of noise, we were close to them, remember, but it was somehow soothing. For me, the bird highlight was the Giant Frigatebird. They have a wingspan of 6 – 8 ft, and weigh about 3 ounces. They just hover, floating on air drafts all day over the Fort. Makes me wonder what the history is, why are they there?
Fort Jefferson is on Garden Key, an unfinished fort that the US used volunteers, slaves, and the military to try and build it. In the end, nature won, the fort was never completed nor used for the intended purpose. There is a walking tour, you can take a stroll around the fort, both inside and out, and it is wonderful to see, and read, and use your imagination. Dr. Samuel Mudd was imprisoned here (he’s the doctor who set the leg of John Wilkes Booth, so he was declared a criminal, later pardoned), and parts of the tour is dedicated to him. This do it yourself tour, as pretty much everything else on Garden Key should be done before 10:00, or after 15:00 hours, as there are two Key West Fast boats that bring tourists, and lots of them, and they overrun everything during those hours.
There are composting toilets on Garden Key by the campground (there are seven campsites) that are closed during tourist hours. The campers just have to hold it during those hours, everyone else can go back to the boat! There is no fresh water for use anywhere on the Dry Tortugas (that’s why it’s Dry). There are no facilities for garbage, you take away everything you bring, and anything you forgot to bring, you do without. No stores, no water, no trading, no coast guard, sounds like Paradise.
VHF radio does not receive the Coast Guard or NOAA weather forecast. There is a dock for the two big boats that come in daily, on that dock is a small office that has a VHF receiver (not for broadcast, no mike) that must have an extremely high antenna, it will receive, so can be used for the weather forecast, and they post the forecast daily.
Payment is on the honor system; you put $5 in an envelope, put your boat name on it, and leave in a box. The same is true for the campers. There are always a few small fishing boats that camp, and anchor their boats to land, just by the dingy landing facility. If you have no luck fishing, you may be able to trade a little spicy rum for a couple fish, just don’t let the Park Rangers overhear you.
There are shipwrecks around, you can dingy close and snorkel or dive. You can take your big boat to Loggerhead Key and tie to a ball, but must return to the anchorage at night. We chose to keep our snorkeling close to the Fort, reasons include the local fish, see below. Snorkeling around the Moat was interesting, and tested our abilities. I got a close up of a four foot barracuda, that was enough wildlife for me!
I went fishing with the dingy a couple times, and was never skunked. Only caught about 1 – 2 pounders, but when cleaned and fried, they tasted great. I did not get any lobster, it turns out I am not allowed to fish for lobster (with either my ‘tickler’ or my speargun) in the Dry Tortugas. You are not even supposed to keep shells you find, they want to keep the protected area completely natural. Folks were always fishing from shore, and one night just before dusk one caught a large shark, about five foot long. There was a lot of screaming and hollering on the shore while they rolled the shark around to take pictures, and then put on steel gloves to remove the hook and get it back in the water. The next night there was a shark fin close to our boat, and since the water is so clear we could see the entire fish. What a sight that was.
Our weather window to return needed either West winds or no winds, so when we saw a SW wind forecast for the 17th and light winds for the 18th, we took it and bid our farewell. It turned out to be not quite enough wind and we had to motor sail coming back, but made good time with the jib helping. We arrived at the Key West Mooring field on the 18th in the afternoon, and had to stay over a week due to high North winds, so we lucked out with our weather.
It was a fascinating trip, and absolutely one of the highlights of this trip that we will never forget.