Goodland to the Dry Tortugas

Calm day on the Gulf
Flat calm on the Gulf of Mexico

I have wrestled with what exactly to make out of this blog and have decided that since I am on a long sailing trip this is a sailing blog at least for the time being, and so I will include more of the actual sailing part of my travels.

Leaving Goodland
Sailing from the Calusa Island Yacht Club in Goodland, FL

My transit from Goodland to the Dry Tortugas started out from the Calusa Island Yacht club right at sunset on the 24th of March.  I was escorted out to Coon Key Pass by Ted and Sarah on the Little Manatee with Sarah snapping pictures the whole way–something that I am grateful for because it is very difficult to get an outside perspective of the boat while underway.  I had meant to leave earlier in the afternoon, but all of the last-minute chores combined to delay me late enough that I barely had adequate light to clear the pass.  I motorsailed to get out into deeper water before fatigue overtook me.

Little Manatee
Little Manatee escorted me all the way to Coon Key Pass

The tide was falling and I am sure that I touched bottom at least once where my chart showed that I should have had 5 feet.  It was just a kiss between keel and mud–not even enough to really be one hundred percent sure that I had really touched, but enough to change the motion of the boat in a way that I was sure wasn’t a wave.  That set me on edge for the next half hour until I had cleared the shoals at Cape Romano.  It was pitch black at this point and I was barreling southward at 5.5 knots with full sails and the engine running half throttle.  I sure didn’t want to get stuck in such an exposed location even in the settled weather that I was enjoying.  There was supposed to be enough water, so my only thought was to keep the boat moving and try to find a route out with only 6’s or higher on the chart.  Even though my boat only draws a little over 4 feet there was about a 1-foot chop running, which could be enough to make me touch in a spot that might otherwise have had just enough clearance.  I don’t have a depth sounder and often joke that I never know exactly how deep the water is until my keel touches the bottom–my fiberglass “depth sounder”.  On a dark night in shoal water it would be comforting to have a little digital readout telling me how much water was between my keel and the bottom, but there are also a thousand other complications that would be nice to have at one point or another…

As soon as I was past all of the shallows I cut the engine and enjoyed the velvety silence of the black, moonless night.  Cavendysh‘s speed dropped to 4.5-5 knots without the rackety, sooty diesel banging away.  Her masthead light eerily illuminated a swatch of water on alternate sides of the boat as she rolled.  The silty water looked only inches deep in the light from the tricolor.  I set the windvane to hold a southeasterly course; monitored things for a while; scanned the empty horizon; and then went below to get a quick nap.

The wind slowly dropped through the night.  I napped for between 15 and 25 minutes at a stretch and each time that I awoke it seemed as if we were moving a little more slowly than the last time.  Luckily the wind shifted forward of the beam as it died, increasing our apparent wind.  I had to adjust the windvane 5 or 6 times during the night to keep us on course.  I always have vivid dreams on those nights when I am frequently up–the division between dream and reality sometimes gets as indefinite as my bleary vision.  It was a gentle night and the boat was moving well–not quite a “magic carpet ride” sort of night, but close.  The best way that I can describe those nights when the boat is moving effortlessly at hull speed over a smooth sea is to use the phrase “magic carpet ride”.  At those moments I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else in the world.  The best ones are on moonlit nights when the boat glides smoothly over a sea of liquid silver without any fuss or rolling–just the sound of water chuckling along the hull as miles tick away and are lost in the wake.

Light air sailing on the Gulf
Light air sailing on the Gulf of Mexico

By morning I was sailing south south east closehauled on a flat sea.  I can’t remember ever being on an open body of water out of sight of land where it was any flatter than the Gulf was that morning.  Cavendysh didn’t roll a bit.  If it weren’t for the sound of the water trickling by the bow I could close my eyes and imagine that we were still tied up somewhere.  I have been in marinas and had more pitching and rolling.

By noon all of the wind had died.  We were making the barest headway.  If I put the helm over it would take Cavendysh almost five minutes to make a 90-degree turn.  Still, the sails weren’t slatting.  Normally out on open water when the wind dies there is enough sea left over to keep the boat rolling, which causes the sails to slam back and forth.  This is harder on the gear than a rollicking sail in a stiff breeze because every slam of the sails causes chafe–on the outhaul, the topping lift, the sheets, the halyards–everything gets jerked from one side to the other every few seconds.  Besides all of the wear on the gear the noise from slatting sails drives me nuts, so I was grateful that we were just sitting peacefully out in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico that day.

I used the calm to my advantage.  I caught up on sleep first because it wasn’t too hot and I felt confident that I would not be run down in the day time since I was a stationary target and quite visible with all sail set.  Later on, I added a chafe patch to the #3 genoa where it sometimes contacts the spreaders.  I read a book and wrote in my journal and log–things that I don’t always do as often as I would like when I am underway.  And, I spent some time just appreciating this totally peaceful day out in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico!  It really was remarkably calm.  The only ripples on the surface of the water were caused by great schools of 18-24 inch long fish–mackerel, I think.  A couple of schools came close enough for me to see the fish closely–clearly suspended against a background of deep blue Gulf water, but I am not an expert in identifying fish and I had no fish guide onboard.

A little breeze came up towards sunset.  It was a southwesterly, making my course closehauled.   Through the night the wind veered around to the west.  Since there were large numbers of fishing boats, I let Cavendysh follow the wind around until we were sailing slightly north, which kept several miles between us and the fishing fleet.  At one point during the night, though, I awoke to find that we were headed north.  The wind had switched all the way around to the northwest.  The fishing fleet was only a loom on the horizon, so I tacked over and set the windvane on a course directly for Garden Key.

Approaching Garden Key
Approaching the Dry Tortugas.

The next day the wind changed back to the west, keeping us closehauled and barely laying our course.  At least there was wind!  We closed the final 50 miles in fine style, making 4 knots or better all the way.  I spotted land about 3 hours before sunset.  There isn’t much to see from seaward at the Dry Tortugas–the lighthouse on Loggerhead Key and Fort Jefferson are the only things that really stood out.  The rest of the cays are barely above water and there are very few trees.  I started the engine and motorsailed the final 5 miles to ensure that I would make an anchorage before dark and to replace some of the battery charge that I had used during the passage.

Fort Jefferson at sunset
Fort Jefferson at sunset

I followed the well-marked channel into a wide, sandy anchorage that already held three other cruising boats.  It was just getting dark as I was preparing to drop the hook and I asked one of the boats that was already there if there were any obstructions that he knew of.  There weren’t, so I went off a courteous distance and dropped the hook and sails in the very last bit of twilight.  As I tidied up the boat and set my anchor light a few fishing boats came in and anchored farther to the south of where I was.  Soon there were 6 of them running generators and bright lights.  The crews were talking, smoking, and cleaning gear.  I was happy that I hadn’t anchored in that corner of the anchorage!  It had taken me just over 48 hours to sail 90 short miles.  It had been a relaxing passage, but I was still very much looking forward to an uninterrupted night’s sleep.

View of Fort Jefferson from first night's anchorage
The view of Fort Jefferson from my first night’s anchorage

When I awoke the next morning my first order of business was to shift the boat over to the anchorage at Garden Key so that I could be close enough to dinghy ashore.

Inflating the dinghy
Inflating my dinghy in the cockpit–just enough room!

I anchored across from the ferry dock on a sandy bottom in about 25 feet of water, putting out a 10 kg Rocna anchor on 33 feet of chain and about 125 feet of nylon rode.  There was plenty of swinging room with only three other boats in the anchorage and my only other concern was the federal mooring buoy, to which I had a little less 200 feet of clearance, but only when I swung directly towards it.   I inflated my dinghy for use for the first time since leaving  Dunkirk, NY.  I couldn’t believe that I had made it this far without using the dinghy!  I had only inflated it a couple of times to clean it and to play around while my boat was moored in Goodland.  Other than that, it had just been something that I stepped on each time I had to get anything out of the forward cabin.  I think of it as a pool toy rather than a serious dinghy, but it stows compactly, is light, and was cheap (used!)–all things that appealed to me when I set out, since I wasn’t really planning on making such a long voyage!

Dinghy on the beach at Garden Key
Cavendysh is the middle boat in the background–behind her dinghy

I was almost put off visiting the Dry Tortugas after having read an article in a Marco Island local paper that made it sound as if there were too many rules and permits for the visit to be an enjoyable experience.  The article said that tenders were prohibited in the park.  Well, how are visiting boaters supposed to go ashore?  That didn’t sound right, so I looked up the rules on the National Park Service website.  My eyes glazed over after a few minutes reading about permits and prohibitions, so I just decided to go to see how bad it really was.

My visit to the Dry Tortugas turned out to be a delightful experience–really a highlight of the trip so far.  The park rangers were friendly and helpful.  I was met soon after having landed my dinghy on the beach (I tied my dinghy to the sign indicating where dinghies ought to be landed) by a ranger who directed me over to the pier where the ferry lands to fill out my permit and pay a fee.  The fee was only $5 per week per person–very reasonable, I thought–and the permit was filled out while a ranger told me a few of the most important rules (don’t swim in the channel, don’t anchor on coral, call a ranger before visiting the other cays) and told me the best spots to fish and snorkel.  The whole process was totally painless and the rules didn’t seem nearly as onerous as the web had made them sound.  Fort Jefferson was really worth the trip.  It contains about 6 million bricks, which is an impressive sight to behold, and is the most modern fort of its’ type in existence–really the pinnacle of masonry-shielded fort technology.  Advancements in gun technology rendered the fort obsolete before it was finished.  There is a good collection of written history in the visitor’s center, which is also air-conditioned and a good place to spend the heat of the day.  If one prefers to have a guided tour it is easy to tag along behind a group of ferry passengers as they get shown around the fort.   Speaking of the ferry–it offers a sandwich buffet lunch for $5, which includes a make-your-own sandwich (the chicken salad is very good), fruit, cookies, chips, and a drink.  The ferry is also the only place to use toilets during the day.  Remember that all waste needs to be packed out of the park.  There are no trash receptacles on the island.

I spent four memorable days in the Dry Tortugas–much longer than the overnight that I had originally planned.  Below are some scenes from around Fort Jefferson.

Entrance to Fort Jefferson
The main entrance to the Fort
Fort Jefferson wall
A view from the top of the Fort Jefferson walls
Lighthouse at Fort Jefferson
The old lighthouse on the top of the wall of Fort Jefferson
Fort Jefferson moat
A view of the moat at Fort Jefferson
Coral at Fort Jefferson
A view of the clear waters over the moat wall at Fort Jefferson, with Loggerhead Key in the distance.

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