Skip to main content

Go-to Islands Destinations: The Dry Tortugas

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

00LEAD-Thomas-on-%22Melody%22-2004

The Extraordinary Life and Mysterious Disappearance of Thomas Thor Tangvald

The first boat Thomas Tangvald ever owned was just 22 feet long. She was an odd craft, a narrow plywood scow with a flat bottom, leeboards on either side, and square ends—little more than a daysailer with a rotting deck and tiny cabinhouse tacked on. Thomas paid just $200 for ...read more

VIPCAshowbynight

USVI Charter Yacht Show Showcases a Flourishing Industry

As the U.S. Virgin Islands continues to attract sailors seeking to charter and explore the pristine territory on their own, the immense growth and expanded options for a crewed yacht or term charters have exploded here over the past five years. Last week, the USVI Charter ...read more

Screen-Shot-2022-11-21-at-9.48.33-AM

Personal Locator Beacon Wins Top Design Award

The Ocean Signal RescueME PLB3 AIS Personal Locator took top honors at the 2022 DAME Design Awards, while Aceleron Essential, a cobalt-free lithium-iron phosphate battery with replaceable and upgradeable parts, won the first DAME Environmental Design Award. Announced each year ...read more

tracker

EPIRB in the Golden Globe Race

Tapio Lehtinen’s boat sank early this morning southeast of South Africa while racing the Golden Globe Race, a faithfully low-tech reproduction of the 1968 Sunday Times Golden Globe. The boat went down quickly and stern-first according to the skipper’s emergency transmissions. ...read more

99640-victoire-de-charles-caudrelier-a-bord-du-maxi-edmond-de-rothschild-r-1200-900

Victory, Tragedy in the Route du Rhum

The 2022 Route du Rhum was a highly anticipated event in the ocean racing calendar, but few could have predicted exactly how challenging, dramatic, and tragic it would ultimately prove. French yachtsman Charles Caudrelier took home gold aboard the Ultim maxi trimaran Maxi Edmond ...read more

DSC_1879

Boat Review: Lyman-Morse LM46

Lyman-Morse has been building fine yachts in Thomaston, Maine, ever since Cabot Lyman first joined forces with Roger Morse back in 1978. With experience creating and modifying boats built of various materials, backed by its own in-house fabrication facility, the firm has ...read more

01-LEAD-SPICA-Forest_3

Know-how: All-new Battery Tech

Until very recently, the batteries in sailboats used some form of lead-acid chemistry to store energy. Different manufacturers used different techniques and materials, but in the end, the chemistry and the process by which the batteries charge and discharge electricity remained ...read more

01-LEAD-Bill-Sailing2

At the Helm: When Things Go Sideways

I don’t like sea stories. My number one goal on every passage is to get the crew back in one piece. My number two goal is to get the boat back in one piece as well. If I can’t do both, I’ll take the former. Do this long enough, though, and things are going to happen, no matter ...read more