PxPixel
Go-to Islands Destinations: The Dry Tortugas - Sail Magazine

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

HB96k_EP

Sea Eagle’s HB96 inflatable SUP

What SUP?Dinghies and kayaks are all very well, but there’s nothing like a stand-up paddleboard for exploring interesting new shorelines while giving you a good workout. Sea Eagle’s HB96 inflatable SUP makes a fine addition to your boat’s armory of anchorage toys, either on its ...read more

DSC_0031-43

Charting the USVI and Spanish Virgins

When my friends and I booked a one-way bareboat charter with Sail Caribe, starting in the U.S. Virgin Islands and finishing in Puerto Rico, we were a little nervous about what we would find in the aftermath of hurricanes Irma and Maria—even seven months later.When our plane ...read more

SailRepairKit

Know How: Sail Repair Kit

Despite your best efforts, there will inevitably be times when your sail gets damaged while at sea and needs to be repaired. First, no matter what the job, you will need to do a quick damage assessment, a task that requires a flat wooden surface, sharp scissors and a helping ...read more

01-061018ROAC-8149

Coming of Age at the Atlantic Cup

Midway through the final race of the inshore portion of the 2018 Atlantic Cup, the three boats in the lead—Mike Dreese’s Toothface 2, Mike Hennessy’s Dragon and Oakcliff Racing, representing the Long Island Sound-based sailing school of the same name—suddenly broke free from the ...read more

01_silken_2018-03-08-0052

North U’s Regatta Experience Program

“Want to check the keel?” North U Coach Geoff Becker calls to me from back by the transom. We’ve just suffered our worst finish in the regatta and are absolutely flying on our way back to shore, spinnaker up and heeling at an angle that feels like maybe we’re tempting fate. ...read more

Navy-Sand-Dune_1080

Tucket Footwear’s Giller Shoes

Just for KicksMove over Crocs, there’s a new plastic shoe in town. Unlike the aforementioned fashion crimes, Tucket Footwear’s Giller shoes are made for boating. Water will get in, yes, but it will also run straight out again via rows of “scuppers” in the uppers and a dozen drain ...read more

01-m3113_git170829-294

France’s Maxi-tri Ultime class

It’s hard to believe how far foiling has come since the Moth class figured out how to reliably take to the air in the early 2000s.Was it really only in 2013 that the America’s Cup was dragged kicking and screaming into the foiling world by Emirates Team New Zealand back in San ...read more

GGTobagoCays

Cruising: Guadeloupe to Grenada

Our Dream Yacht Charter delivery started as a “wouldn’t it be fun if” idea. Those are usually misguided, if not downright stupid. But a Bali 4.3 named Jumelles (French for “twins,” appropriately) needed to leave Guadeloupe to do heavier charter work in Grenada, and as soon as I ...read more