Off to the Dry Tortugas

For the past several years the Dry Tortugas has been on our to-do list but never accomplished. Jenn was interested in joining us for a trip to the Dry Tortugas but couldn’t come until June. We thought that might work out well, since there tends to be less wind in the Keys during the summer months than during the winter months. Leading up to Jenn’s arrival we had a couple weeks of hot steamy weather with wind and thunderstorms on a daily basis. We were  concerned that the trip might not happen again  this year. But it turned out that Mother Nature was on our side, thus this story of our trip to the Dry Tortugas.

Jenn drove down and met us at Vero Beach. We decided to drive our car to the Vero Beach Marina and leave it there so that we wouldn’t have to make the trip and then rent a car to get back   to the boat after she left, since we’d heading north then ourselves. It worked out well. Since she was going right by Vero Beach on our way south, she could pick us up and save us that extra trip. It also gave her a chance to have a little company for the last several hours of her trip to the Keys. 

After a day of adjusting to our setting Jenn joined us for a dinner at our Tai Chi instructor’s home, Jeff and  Beth Pinkus. Jeff is a great chef and seemed to enjoy the challenge of putting together a vegan dinner on Jenn’s behalf.

The weather forecast suggested that we leave for the Dry Tortugas the next day. Although there were predicted thunderstorms and rain showers everyday, there was not a lot of wind in the predictions, so we decided to take advantage. Our travel plan required that we anchor where the dogs get ashore each day, since Jenn’s dog Kaya would not do her business on the boat. The first day was a short day – 12 miles out to Bahia Honda State Park. 

Anchored by the bridge at Bahia Honda

The sun rising over the Bahia Honda campground as we left.

The next day we traveled the full day out past Key West to a small key called Boca Grande. We didn’t get dumped on by any thunderstorms but did slowdown a bit to avoid one that went by. 

To be avoided

We also slowed down again because our prop picked up a bunch of old line that may have been used for a crab pot. This required stopping the boat and me diving in to cut the line off the prop. It was easily accomplished, and then we were back traveling again. We had another full day the next day going out to the Dry Tortugas.

We were definitely sailing in blue water!

 Once again the weather cooperated. We had 2 foot waves with a light Breeze helping to push us along. We began to see more signs of life along the way. These included three sea turtles, one of which was a large leather back – rare species that we had never seen before. We also had dolphins stop by the boat on a number of occasions to check out our bow wave.

We had officially arrived.

Arriving at our anchorage by the fort at the Dry Tortugas by mid-afternoon, we were able to go ashore, register and then do some snorkeling around the fort. While the water wasn’t as clear as advertised, it was pretty clear, and we saw lots of small fish around the pilings of the docks. Our only hesitation about snorkeling near the fort was because of the many stories about the 10 foot crocodile that lived there. It turns out we needn’t have worried, since they had decided the risks were great enough to force the park rangers to capture the crocodile and move him to a safer location outside the park. 

Former home of the crocodile

One group of residents we found there we had heard nothing about before our arrival. On the island next to the fort we found the nesting site for approximately 40 to 50 thousand sooty terns. In addition there were several thousand brown noddies nesting. The noddies were a particularly interesting member of the local community. They seemed to have no fear of us and a great interest in landing on boats. 

A few of our uninvited guests

Our dogs managed to keep them off our boat most of the time and seemed to have fun barking and chasing up and down deck of the boat to keep them off. At times they hovered over our dinghy as we traveled back and forth to shore and seemed close enough that we thought we could reach up and touch them. The sooty turns were not quite as friendly but managed to fly around the boat constantly. As you can imagine, the noise was constant day and night – birds squawking and flying about. It seemed they never slept during the night even. That is not to say that the birds were annoying. They were actually quite interesting to watch and we were glad to have been there during their nesting season. 

A few thousand of our neighbours.

The second day we waited until we could see that the mooring on Loggerhead Key was available and then motored over. We picked up the mooring and then went ashore and snorkeled on the west side of the key. This was an area where the reef was right at shore, and we were able to swim within 100 feet of shore and see lots of coral and a variety of interesting small fish. Upon returning to the boat we found the mooring line had somehow wrapped around our rudder post, so once again I was back in the water to get things corrected.

The lighthouse on Loggerhead Key

Upon returning to our Anchorage by the fort, we determined that it was late enough in the day with these heat dissipating that and we decided to take advantage of that to do a little of our own touring. I should also mention that the large ferry had left for the day and the other visitors who came by sea plane had also left. (Anchoring in this harbor had its unique feature since seaplanes came in two or three times a day right through the harbor up to the beach so the visitors could get off and tour the island.) 

We got a chance to explore the fort when we were nearly the only ones there. We learned much about this unusual fort that was never really completed for its original purpose of protecting Naval vessels that would protect the the important shipping channels. My first question once in the fort was why build it in the middle of the ocean far from any land. Other forts we had visited all protected some population center like St. Augustine, Charleston, Norfolk, or even Key West. There is a large harbor here which could provide weather protection for the Naval vessels. Major shipping routes pass nearby: ships sailing from the East coast to Cuba, Central America, New Orleans, etc. So we learned something new.

The travel back was reported to be the more challenging aspect of the trip. Since the winds generally blow out of the east, we would be heading into the wind the whole trip back. If the wind is strong and the waves are large, it becomes an interesting adventure. Many people end up stuck at the Dry Tortugas for days waiting for the winds to die down enough to travel. We were far enough from Key West that we were out of phone and radio contact. Our only source of weather information was posted once a day by the park rangers. 

Not exactly rough travel weather!

For us, once again Mother Nature was very helpful. There were some swells coming out of the southeast on the ocean, but if we traveled a more northerly route north of some shallows we could avoid those swells. The winds were expected to be light and the predicted storms never got close. The weather was very sunny. We traveled in northern route and at times noted that the water was like glass. There was no wind – only a puff now and then and any stormy weather was well off in the distance.

We had never anchored in Key West but had heard lots of stories about how unpleasant it was there. We were concerned that coming in late in the day we might have trouble finding a place to anchor. However we needn’t have worried​. We had picked out or most likely spot on our chart and found that it was open to us. We also noted that a couple on a trimaran that had been near us in Boot Key Harbor were anchored right next to us.

Lots of people want to see the sunset from Key West, but few get this view.

Getting ashore by Dinghy was not particularly Pleasant trip. There is no limit to speed for any boats in the harbor, so it was a bit lumpy, and we were careful to be seen by passing large boats. Downtown Key West held no surprises. There were lots of people, lots of drinking, and lots of tourist traps. Having been to Key West many times before, it was as expected.

The next morning we headed out for our last day of travel on this trip. The weather prediction, aside from the normal prediction of showers and thunderstorms, seemed to be fine. Out in Hawk Channel we found the waves not too bad and the wind pretty light, so we considered the possibility of stopping at Sombrero Key for one last snorkel before heading into Boot Key Harbor. 

Sombrero Key Light

When we got there in mid-afternoon, we found all the moorings taken since the weather was so nice. We idled along for 10 or 15 minutes until mooring opened up, and we were able to tie up. The snorkeling here was great; the water was pretty clear and there were lots of fish – probably more fish than we saw at the Dry Tortugas. In fact there were enough fish that Jenn decided to put together a list of all the different varieties we saw. Once we finished our snorkeling, we headed back into Boot Key Harbor another hour’s travel. We stopped and got some fuel, water and ice and ended up back on our mooring – a great trip ended.

Captain Bob

Carpe Diem