We are anchored on the east side of Fort Jefferson on Garden Key in the Dry Tortugas, a group of islands on a coral bank about 70 miles west of Key West in the Florida Keys. The islands were named the Tortugas (turtles) by Ponce de Leon in the 1500s when he found an abundance of turtles here. He and his men were overjoyed at the sight of so many turtles - loggerheads, green, leatherbacks - not just because of their natural beauty and grace when swimming through the water, but because they provided good meat. Chartmakers later added the "Dry" to the name to signify that there is no fresh water on any of the islands. Garden Key lies in the center of the bank, near Bush Key and Long Key (which are connected, and which are sometimes connected to Garden Key by a sand bank that comes and goes through the years as hurricanes pass through). Garden Key is the home of Fort Jefferson (seen here in an aerial view), while Bush Key and Long Key are bird sanctuaries, Bush inhabited primarily by brown boobies, masked boobies and sooty terns, and Long Key by frigate birds. About 4 miles to the southwest lies Loggerhead Key, home to a tall lighthouse that marks the reef-strewn waters as a warning to passing mariners.
This is our second visit to the Dry Tortugas. We first came here in early 2005, on Liberty during our first sailing sabbatical, on the way from Key West to Isla Mujeres, Mexico. We spent about a week then, and truly loved being here. The sandy islands have an abundance of palm trees and other tropical vegetation; the water is warm, clear and blue; there is living coral and plenty of fish; the anchorage is totally surrounded by islands or fringing reefs, and the holding is good. We really feel like we're cruising tropical waters when we're here, a sharp contrast to the first six weeks when we were in the Texas-Louisiana ICW and the Gulf of Mexico. We like to call it our first stop in paradise.
We arrived here early Friday morning, March 14, after a 4 day passage from Louisiana. We were tired, but excited, so after getting the anchor set, we lowered the dinghy from its davits, hoisted the Yamaha 15 hp outboard from its bracket and lowered it to the transom of the dinghy, hooked up the fuel tank, grabbed a quick lunch and headed ashore. We quickly located a National Park Service ranger who confirmed that the fees were unchanged from our last visit - $5 each for the adults, good for up to one week, and the boys are free - quite a bargain. Chris and Josh were digging in the sand within minutes (seconds?) of beaching the dinghy, and we all enjoyed being on dry land for the first time in days. The island was filled with tourists, as it is daily between 10:30 and 3 pm when the two fast catamarans, Yankee Freedom II and Fast Cat, bring about 200 visitors from Key West to see Fort Jefferson. The island is also served by seaplanes that come and go with tourists on shorter time schedules and longer budgets. Garden Key is home to a campground also, which seemed filled with campers during this visit. There are typically about 5 or 6 pleasure boats in the anchorage, some sail, some power, some sport fishing. But even with all that, somehow it is quiet and tranquil here. And when the fast cats leave, it seems like we have the place all to ourselves.
During our 6 days here, we played on the beach, snorkeled around the moat wall and through the remains of the old coaling docks, visited with other boaters, campers, park rangers and the occasional tourist, and rode out a couple days of bad weather. The boys never tire of digging in the sand, making sand castles and "dribble castles" (made by dribbling wet sand from a clenched fist, Christopher's specialty), collecting hermit crabs and generally enjoying the beach. Nancy's capacity for relaxing on the beach pretty much parallels the boys' capacity for playing on the beach, and Dave does his best to spend time sitting with Nancy, playing with the boys, and reading - but his fidgety nature seems to call him away from too much beach time. The boys swam a couple of times outside the moat wall surrounding the fort, and one day we decided the water was just warm enough to join them for a snorkel through the old coaling docks. During the early 1900s, the US Navy used the Dry Tortugas as a coaling station for its ships and as a major anchorage in the large area of 50' depth water north of Garden Key. (There are even a couple of named rocks in the Tortugas - Iowa Rock and Texas Rock - that got their names when they were "found" by US Navy warships.) What remains of the coaling docks are the rusting, coral covered iron legs and braces that provide a habitat for several kinds of coral, sea fans and fish and a good snorkeling spot for curious humans. The boys love identifying all the fish - from snappers to parrotfish. We even saw two sting rays.
We joined a tour group from the Yankee Freedom II one morning to learn (or re-learn) the varied history of the fort. Built as a Civil War Fort, primarily by slave labor until 1863, the fort was never totally completed and never saw battle. In fact, it never received its full supply of canons. But its mere potential threat was enough for its success in keeping Confederate ships from crossing the Gulf to Florida. Of great interest to the boys was that the fort was used as a Civil War prison, and its most famous prisoner was Dr. Samuel Mudd. Dr. Mudd set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth after Booth shot President Lincoln. Dr. Mudd claimed that he didn't know who Booth was at the time, but the government did not believe him, convicted him of conspiracy and sent him to Fort Jefferson. Conditions were not good at the fort and residents were plagued by a Yellow fever epidemic that had also killed the medical staff. Dr. Mudd offered his services, and for this, he was pardoned and released from prison by President Johnson. He was not fully exonerated, however, and maintained his innocence until his death in 1883. His family continued to fight for him, even after his death, until 2006 when the case was closed for good. That is one history lesson our boys will never forget.
On our second day at anchor, Dave commissioned our new watermaker, a Spectra Ventura 150, that we bought used and had installed back in Kemah, TX. The water in the marina and Galveston Bay, and in the ICW and Mississippi River, is too dirty to run through the watermaker, so we held off using it until we found clear blue water. Other than tightening a couple of hose clamps to stop leaks, the commissioning process was uneventful, and we now have the joy of virtually unlimited fresh water on board. The Spectra is a reverse osmosis watermaker that forces sea water through a membrane with pores large enough for water molecules to pass through, but too small for salt molecules. The result is fresh water - six gallons per hour - at a cost of just 9 amps of electricity per hour of run time. With our KISS wind generator spinning and making electricity, the time to make water is when the wind is honking.
Another highlight of the Dry Tortugas is its underwater residents - specifically, a group of very large goliath groupers. There are seven of them in the anchorage, ranging in size from 4 to over 6 feet long and upwards of 500 - 600 pounds. On our last trip here in 2005, we remember only one, and he used to hang out under our boat at anchor. This trip, we often had four or five of them hanging around under the boat and the dinghy (when at anchor, we typically leave our dinghy floating in the water next to or behind Liberty, clipped on with a short line). The grouper seem to appreciate dinner scraps, but really go for the fish remains when Dave cleans fresh caught fish. A fish carcass lasts less than a couple of seconds before being swallowed whole by a big grouper. They themselves never worry about becoming someone's dinner, as they are a protected species - they must be released whenever they are accidentally caught by a fisherman.
Dave had the opportunity to feed the groupers twice during this stay, both after successful fishing expeditions in the dinghy. Dinghy trolling is a first for us, and so far it seems to be a good way to catch fish. Dave, Chris and Josh head out in Justice, with Chris and Josh holding fishing poles and dragging lures about 50 - 75 feet back while Dave motors slowly along the edge of a reef in 5 to 15 feet of water. We tried this twice. The morning of our second day here, we had 3 barracuda strikes from fish ranging from a couple of feet to over four feet long. Luckily, two spit the hook close to the dinghy, but the third had to be dragged a while until it settled down enough for Dave to get the hook out. Barracuda are good eating (smaller ones only; larger ones in some areas can have the ciguatera toxin that makes them quite poisonous), but with their large, sharp teeth Dave is nervous about dealing with them at any size in a rubber dinghy! Our last catch of this dinghy trolling trip was a nice 10 lb grouper, which provided a very delicious dinner that night. The second time we tried trolling from the dinghy we also caught a grouper, about 4 lbs, that supplemented a couple of porgies we bummed off a commercial fishing boat anchored at Garden Key the day before we left for Key West. Whenever we sail we drag from two to four lines (two poles and up to two hand lines), and on our last trip Dave almost always carried a spear gun while snorkeling (especially in Belize), but trolling from the dinghy was not a technique we used to keep fish on the table and in the freezer. We hope to be successful with dinghy fishing - check out the fishing log to see if we are!
On Monday afternoon, our fourth day in the Dry Tortugas, the wind started to blow, first hard then harder. It didn't stop until Wednesday, and we saw from 25 to over 35 knots during much of this time. When the wind blows like that it's loud, the boat bounces around, and we rarely go to shore, both because the dinghy ride will be very wet in the waves and because we want to be on board if our anchor releases from the bottom. We're hanging on a new main anchor for this trip, a 25 kg (55 lb) Rocna anchor, which replaces our 20 kg (44 lb) Bruce. The Bruce still hangs on the bow as the secondary anchor, but the Rocna, from New Zealand, is heavier and of a new design that sets and holds better than other older anchors. The Rocna held great during this blow and we will sleep better knowing it provides our link to Mother Earth.
On Monday when the wind was starting to blow hard, we heard a sailing vessel, Coaster, call the National Park Service (NPS) to let them know they hoped to be in the anchorage by 2:30 pm. The afternoon came and went without the arrival of Coaster, and later we heard them calling again, this time for assistance. For some reason the NPS radio was unable to hear Coaster, but we were, so we got on the radio and offered to act as a radio relay. Coaster is a Westerly 29, crewed by a couple from Wisconsin (Paul & Ellen), that had sailed from Isla Mujeres six days earlier bound for Florida. It was supposed to be a two day trip. They left Mexico with a failed transmission, intending to sail the entire way, until their forestay broke. With US Coast Guard assistance they repaired the forestay, but the east winds picked up too much for them to be able to sail the northeast course into the Dry Tortugas. About 12 miles out, and exhausted, they were calling for help, hoping the Coast Guard or another vessel would tow them into the safe anchorage of the Dry Tortugas. We relayed these messages to the NPS, who was speaking with the Coast Guard by telephone. The NPS vessels on site were too small to go out into the now large seas to try to tow them in, and the Coast Guard will rescue a crew by removing them from a boat, but will not send out a cutter to tow a boat in. By the time Coaster called for help, the seas were too big for anyone to risk pulling up anchor to go out to help them, and they were on their own - and we had to be the ones who passed on these messages. Dave even dinghied over to a large fishing boat in the anchorage to ask them if they could go out to get Coaster, but they could not. By the evening, the winds were blowing to nearly 30 knots, and Coaster had hove to (set their sails to settle down the motion of the boat, permitting it to drift slowly) and was drifting to the north-northwest about 15 miles west of the Dry Tortugas. Our last radio contact with them was at 10:30 pm, although we heard a broken transmission around midnight. We were very worried about them, and a few days later learned through the NPS that they had been towed to safety at Marcos Island near Naples, FL, on Wednesday. After spending several hours on the radio with them, we felt a connection and were very relieved to learn of their safe landfall.
One of the attractions of open-ocean sailing is the self-reliance one must have. No license or experience is required to buy a sailboat and leave the safe confines of near-shore waters - we proved that when we bought Liberty, a 41' sailboat, four years ago, with no sailing experience, and then left on our first sailing sabbatical just 11 months later. With a lot of prayers and luck we survived nearly 3000 miles, including two Gulf crossings, and we have experienced winds over 40 knots twice at sea. We prayed and hoped for Coaster's safety, but also acknowledged that in setting sail from Mexico, they took responsibility for their own safety. We've been told that "your boat will scare you to death before it will kill you", and we were glad to learn that Coaster protected its crew and brought them to safety.
Now on Wednesday, the winds have settled down and we are preparing for a day long sail to Key West tomorrow. It is 70 miles. With good wind, we can make it before sundown.
Aerial View of Dry Tortugas, courtesy of Dorine Olive
Lighthouse on Loggerhead Key
Entrance to Fort Jefferson on Garden Key
Chris & Josh building their sand pool
Chris skim boarding, a favorite beach pasttime
Josh's Hermit Crab collection
Josh with Civil War Cannon
Josh & Chris on a Rodman Smoothbore Cannon
Goliath Grouper seeking the shade of our boat
Goliath Groupers waiting to be fed
Red Grouper caught trolling from the dinghy
Liberty at anchor at Garden Key
Sunset in the Dry Tortugas