Go-to Islands Destinations: The Dry Tortugas

Author:
Publish date:
Fort Jefferson, a six-sided fort situated in the Dry Tortugas National Park, Fla., 68 miles west of Key West, seen in this picture shot Thursday, July 1, 2004. Nicknamed "Gibraltor of the Gulf of Mexico," the 150-year-old fort was never fully completed and never fired upon. During the Civil War, Fort Jefferson served as a Union military prison whose most famous prisoner was Dr. Samuel Mudd, convicted of complicity in Abraham Lincoln's assassination. (Photo by Andy Newman/Florida Keys News Bureau)

Fort Jefferson, a six-sided fort situated in the Dry Tortugas National Park, Fla., 68 miles west of Key West, seen in this picture shot Thursday, July 1, 2004. Nicknamed "Gibraltor of the Gulf of Mexico," the 150-year-old fort was never fully completed and never fired upon. During the Civil War, Fort Jefferson served as a Union military prison whose most famous prisoner was Dr. Samuel Mudd, convicted of complicity in Abraham Lincoln's assassination. (Photo by Andy Newman/Florida Keys News Bureau)

The Dry Tortugas

By Mark & Diana Doyle24.6285° N, 82.8732° W

Yep, they’re out there, 70 miles from Key West…the wrong way!

In the 1500s Ponce de Leon named this cluster of seven islands the “Tortugas,” acknowledging their abundant sea turtle population. “Dry” was sagely added to warn of a lack of fresh water.

Preserved as Dry Tortugas National Park, this outpost’s heyday was during the Civil War, but Fort Jefferson is still maintained, boasting a hexagonal citadel rising on an otherwise empty Gulf of Mexico horizon. For intrepid sailors, this remote destination can be a once in a lifetime experience, or an engaging layover en route to Cuba, Mexico or Central America.

Weather is key to a safe and enjoyable visit because the transit and anchorage are both exposed. Choose a slow-moving, high-pressure system with a week or two of predicted calm. Then monitor the weather once you’re there, adjusting your planned return date if necessary. Trust us, we know. In 2002, we were forced to bail early in deteriorating conditions, worried we would miss our own Key West wedding!

There are two routes from Key West, one running north of the Marquesas Keys, Half-Moon Shoal and Rebecca Shoal, and the other going to the south. Both routes are equidistant, easy to navigate and provide complementary protection. Taking advantage of prevailing wind patterns, the south route is preferred outbound, departing Key West at the calm of dawn, then leveraging any building winds and seas over the last third of open water for a downhill spinnaker finish. The north route makes for a better return, covering the exposed first third in the morning in calm winds and seas, then as conditions build, benefiting from the protection of the Marquesas.

Dinghy Dock at Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas National Park

Dinghy Dock at Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas National Park

Many sailors also opt to break up the longish transit or extend their itinerary by anchoring at one of the south route’s fair-weather shoal anchorages, such as Woman Key, Boca Grande or Marquesas Keys.

Services at the Dry Tortugas are nonexistent, so be sure your water tanks, fuel tanks and larder are full. Don’t be afraid to over-provision in case your return is delayed by unexpected weather. There is no VHF, cell or internet service, but rangers post NOAA weather info daily at the visitor center. The main island, Garden Key, and the more remote Loggerhead Key have rangers in-residence. You won’t need to obtain a visitor permit in advance, simply dinghy ashore when you arrive to check in for your park pass and obtain QR-scan brochures on the park’s rules and activities.

The Fort Jefferson main anchorage (South) is large and accommodates many boats. At first assessment— with no land to the east, southeast or south—the anchorage feels exposed and unprotected. However, a shallow reef completely surrounds it, protecting vessels from waves, if not the wind. The bottom is marl, so use your big-boy anchor and a lot of chain to prevent dragging during high, sustained winds.

Despite the fact that they are, quite literally, in the middle of nowhere, there is plenty to do in the Dry Tortugas. Key West day-trippers arrive by either high-speed ferry or seaplane from mid-morning to early afternoon, to swim, snorkel, kayak, explore the historic fort, camp or watch the wildlife (ranging from sharks and rays to sea turtles, a nesting colony of frigate birds and sooty terns).

Thus, “visiting hours” are a good time to nap, read or do boat projects, although lunchtime and the ferry remain an important part of your daily Dry Tortugas routine, providing a fairly high-end but nominally-priced lunch buffet, ice-cold drinks, clean heads, garbage drop-off and freshwater showers!

Ultimately, the real rewards of visiting come during the mornings and evenings, before or after the ferry and seaplanes come around, when the island transforms. You are now “inside the attraction, outside operating hours,” in a quiet haven for the anchored sailboats and tent campers. The fort and island are yours to explore, walking the moat, climbing the towers or watching the sunset.

And what a sunset! Sitting in our cockpit with the silhouette of Fort Jefferson and the sun setting over the Gulf of Mexico, was the first time we witnessed the elusive green flash!

June 2017

Save

Save

Save

Related

albintoilet

Gear: Albin Pump Marine Toilet

Head Start Is there room for a new marine toilet? Albin Pump Marine thinks so, having just introduced its line of Swedish-built heads—ranging from compact to full-size models—to the American market. The toilets feature vitreous porcelain bowls and either wooden or thermoplastic ...read more

07n_45R2699

Multihull Sailor: Classic Cats

If you’re looking for a decent sub-40ft cruising cat, you have few choices when it comes to new-boat offerings. It is a well-known fact that the multihull market has taken off in a way very few could have predicted. Despite Hurricane Irma’s recent destruction of a large part of ...read more

TOTW_PromoSite

SAIL's Tip of the Week

Presented by Vetus-Maxwell. Got a tip? Send it to sailmail@sailmagazine.com Thanks a bunch  This scene is very calm and seamanlike. No frantic rope throwing or shouting. As he passes the line to the gent on the dock, the crew on the boat says, quietly and clearly, “Would you ...read more

mcarthy-and-mouse

Experience: McCarthy and the Mouse

Sitting at the helm in a light breeze, my arms crusted with a fine rime of salt, my skin so dry I’d lost my fingerprints, I heard a clatter and a curse from below. There were only three of us a thousand miles from shore and only one on watch at a time. Usually, the off watch lay ...read more

2018-giftGuide

2018 Holiday Gift Guide

Brass Yacht Lamp Does someone on your gift list spend the whole winter missing the warm days on the water? Let them bring a little bit of nautical atmosphere home with this new lamp from Weems & Plath. The glass enclosure means the flame cannot be blown out even by ...read more

image001

Opinion: On Not Giving Up Sailing

E.B. White was 64 when he wrote his now-famous essay “The Sea and the Wind That Blows,” which begins as a romantic paean to sailing and then drifts, as if spun around by a pessimistic eddy of thought, into a reflection on selling his boat. Does an aging sailor quit while he’s ...read more

1812-JeanneaueNewsVideo

Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 410

Designed by Marc Lombard, the Sun Odyssey 410 shares much in common with her older siblings including of course, the walk-around deck. Other features that set the 410 apart from other models being introduced this year include the 410’s “negative bow” shape allowing for a longer ...read more