Fort Jefferson is an awesome structure of over 16 million handmade bricks that were shipped down from Pensacola. The mortar to hold them together was made with coarse local sand, ground coral, sea water and a bunch of extra lime to offset the salt. Thirty years after the first brick was laid, while it was still under construction, the fort’s tremendous mass caused the entire structure to start sinking into the sea. Frustrated engineers called an immediate halt to the boondoggle and not a single additional brick was added to the structure. By that time rifled cannon with the power to blow right through the fort’s thick walls had been introduced to warfare so it was obsolete anyway. Though never completed, the fort did function as a prison for a number of years. Its most famous prisoner was Dr. Samuel Mudd, the poor guy who set John Wilkes Booth’s leg after Booth shot President Lincoln and jumped off the balcony at Ford’s theater.
Seven islands comprise the Dry Tortugas. Garden Key is home to Fort Jefferson and serves as the headquarters of the National Park Service, where we signed in on arrival. The fee is a mere $5 per person for a seven-day stay. A great deal!
Plan to visit the fort several times while you are there. Its strength derives from dozens of perfect arches that set up very inspiring photo ops. The fort takes on a new feel as the light and weather change.
When we were done visiting our fellow sailors, Jack and I launched our windsurfers and sailed around the fort to celebrate our arrival. Later we all snorkeled the waters at the base of the seawalls protecting the fort on its east and north sides. The snorkeling here is great, even for beginners, as the water is shallow and warm, and the currents mild, even at the change of tides.
There are two other islands just a tern’s-egg throw from Garden Key—Bush and Long keys, which have merged to form one island in recent years and are full of sea birds. From March to September, Bush Key is the nesting ground for as many as 100,000 sooty terns, an energetic, raucous bunch that never seems to sleep. A low-hanging cloud of them swirls and chatters over the island at all hours of the day.
When Jack and I returned, Lady P leapt onto Jack’s board and then sailed off with us to see the birds. The whirling terns barely noticed us as we skimmed along the shore. Lady P was mesmerized; she had never seen or smelled anything like it in her life. Sailing downwind of the nesting area is not recommended. A hundred thousand birds produce a lot of guano. Even Lady P shook her head and snorted at the odor.
The only other island of significance in the Dry Tortugas is Loggerhead Key, two and a half miles west of Fort Jefferson and the home of a tall black–and-white lighthouse surrounded by soft white sand beaches. Stick to the channel here to avoid White Shoal. You will need to scout the east side of the key about 100 yards offshore anywhere south of the boat dock for a spot to drop the hook. Anchoring on the north side is prohibited. Be sure to find a sandy patch to drop your hook on. If you hit the sand you will find good holding in 15 feet of water. In our cat we were able to anchor in a sandy patch just 50 yards out and then walk ashore to the glistening white beach. Ah, the joys of having a cat!
One day very soon there will be mooring balls at both Loggerhead Key and Fort Jefferson, and anchoring will be prohibited, so be sure to check at the park headquarters on Garden Key for information and restrictions, as they do change from time to time.
We love snorkeling the patch reefs that lie about 100-200 yards off the lighthouse on the western shore of Loggerhead Key. The corals are healthy and vibrant, the multicolored tropical fish are plentiful and varied, and the water is often crystal clear. If you have a field guide for tropical fish, bring it along. You will see dozens and dozens of different species in these waters.
Almost every time I’ve snorkeled here I have been greeted by at least one goliath grouper in the 100-pound range, a few schools of tarpon with fish from 20 to 150 pounds and, most fun of all, hawksbill turtles. Yes, there are also some big lobsters, but please don’t molest anything you see in this underwater wonderland. Everything is protected.
Despite their location, the islands are not as remote as they once were. Two high-speed ferries bring tourists and campers from Key West every morning around 1030, which can be very useful. On another occasion when I sailed to the Tortugas with my other sister and her partner, bad weather would have caused some problems had I not been able to send them to Key West on a comfortable ferry while I sailed home in stormy conditions with Lady P at my side. The boat was struck by lightning and I lost all my electronics, including the autopilot. After that I was almost run down by a waterspout. But that’s another story.
This time around the weather again became more challenging just before our return to Naples. Double-reefed on a broad reach, we roared off across the Gulf with 22-27 knot winds and made great time back. The 7- to 10-foot seas made for a wild ride at times, but I was still happy to be at sea with more good memories of one of Florida's most unique cruising destinations.