Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Dry Tortugas and Back to Key West

70 miles west of Key West is a cluster of LITTLE Islands called the Dry Tortugas National Park. Garden Key is the main Island & home to Fort Jefferson National Monument. The fort was never finished but they did use it has a prison during the civil war, It has a fascinating history. There are many wrecks to dive amongst the coral reefs surrounding the area, and it is home to many nesting birds and sea turtles. They do have a section of the fort they have converted for the two park rangers and the 4 staff personnel “living” there during their assignment to the Island. Other than that there is no one living on the Islands. There are two catamaran ferries that take people over from Key West for day tours they get there at 10:30 & leave at 3:45, so during that time the Island might have 100 people. A few of those people bring camping gear to stay for a few days. BUT for visitors there is NO running water or facilities (a few porta cans for the campers). You must bring all your own food & WATER. Then there are the boaters that come over for the wonderful experience to be in such a remote and beautiful place. We of course are able to bring water & food, and have toilets on board  .
We left Key West on Thursday 4/29 at 7:30 AM, and getting away from the mooring ball was much easier than tying up to it. It was a cloudy morning and the forecast was for a small chance of rain, but the winds were right so we decided it was still a good window to head over taking the southern route. We have 1-2 foot confused seas so the boat is rocking some, which lulls me to sleep. By 2 we are turning northwest and the winds pick up so we are able to sail doing 7+ knots. The area we’re sailing through is next to a Navy air training zone, and a couple of F16’s (?) do a very CLOSE fly over at about mast height with some wing waggling and inverted flying, then come back for a second pass. Pretty cool, and VERY loud. We wonder if they think we’re someone they know, since they seemed so friendly. By 5:30 we are anchored out in front of Fort Jefferson and it starts to rain. They only get 10 inches of rain a year here and we are glad to get a little shower to rinse the salt spray off the boat.

Friday looks to be a beautiful day, enjoy a leisurely morning get the dinghy out & go ashore after lunch. We meet two other couples traveling together on a Gemini Catamaran Donna & Patrick & Mel (Melanie) & Roger from Big Pine Key, a few Islands up from Key West. They have already toured the fort so Steve & I go on a self guided tour. Afterwards we meet up with the other couples and they tell us to come in earlier on Saturday and blend in with one of the groups from the Ferry for a guided tour, as they give a little more insight to the fort than just reading the different plaques posted throughout. After visiting for a while Steve & I go back to the boat to get our snorkel gear and make plans to go over to their boat later for cocktails. I thought it was warm enough not to wear my wet suit, but after a little while I got cold so got out. Steve wore a wet suit top so was able to stay in longer. Later we go over & enjoy cocktails & snacks & stories on the other boat, before heading back to our boat for dinner.

Saturday we get to the Island just after the ferries dock and hook up with their guided tour, they are shorter than the one Steve & I did on our own but they do point out some things we missed and give some info that we did not read about. Like how many boats they get with people leaving Cuba and the wet foot/dry foot rule. As it turns out IF the boats are stopped in open water everyone gets sent back to Cuba. IF they can get one foot on dry land then we take them in, give them $10,000.00, and Insurance and they can stay. This only works if you are from Cuba, as it is our government’s way to spite the Cuban government. Steve & I go snorkeling again. Then meet up with the other couples and visit on shore and tonight they come over to our boat for cocktails and snacks. And share some knowledge about the Keys, as Mel & Roger live here full time & Donna & Patrick ½ the year.

Sunday morning as we come up into the cockpit, we see a partially submerged fishing boat by the dinghy landing beach. Sea Tow is there with a diver trying to float the boat & pump her out. Then a sea plane is coming in for a landing, so we decide we need to get ashore to see what happened & check out the plane. The other couples had the same idea & were on the beach trying to find out what happened to the sunken boat. The boat is one of 3 small (20 footer) fishing boats that came out from Key West with a group of 12 friends for a couple days fishing. On their way back in from a day of fishing & luckily close by, this particular boat either hit a coral reef OR a container coming in the channel the evening (still daylight) before and it tore a gouge in the bottom of his boat. Knowing he was taking on water he raced into the dock area and got the bow of the boat onto shore but the hole in the stern put the back port side of the boat under water. Sea Tow floated the boat & patched the hole and they towed the boat back to Key West. While the owner & his friends unloaded everything from that boat onto the other two and somehow managed to get all their equipment and gear and themselves loaded except for two cases of beer that Mel & Rodger gladly accepted.  They were really happy since they were running low due to being weathered in longer than expected. After that excitement was over we got to watch the Sea Plane take off, now if just a boat with some Cubans tried to land we would have seen all. We go back to the boat for a late lunch and plan to go over to the other boat for cocktails later. Spend the afternoon relaxing in the shade of the cockpit reading. We get a weather report & looks like the next few days the winds will be right on our nose for the trip back to Key West. We decide that even with 15-20 knot winds the shoals will keep the waves manageable, so we will leave Monday morning. The other boat, being smaller, decides it would be too much for them & will be staying another day or two before heading back. We say goodbye exchanging contact info and make plans to stop by Big Pine Key on our way up to Marathon to visit again.

Monday 5/3 we are heading away from the anchorage by 6:45 AM on an overcast morning, once outside the channel and away from the protection of the Island we are beating into 5-6 foot waves for the first hour. We then turn north, as we will be taking the Northern route back, hoping the shoals will keep the waves down. We try to sail but we are pinched too tight so we are motoring with the main up, the seas are now down to 3-4 feet and we are plowing through bouncing our way back with 15-20 knot winds on the nose. By noon the waves are down to 2-3 feet but wind is still blowing on the nose and it is still a bouncy ride. By 1 we turn south & are heading for Key West, seems strange going back to a familiar port as this is the first time doing that since leaving Kemah. By 3 PM we are at the outer channel marker, 4 PM passing the cruise ships, 5 PM at the mooring field where we pick up our same mooring ball and hook it & get the line through & up to the bow to tie off like we have been doing this for years in spite of the 15 knot winds. After listening to the motor and bouncing around the boat for 10 hours we have a nice cocktail in the cockpit and enjoy the quiet, talking about what a great trip we just had.

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