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

daviscards

Davis Instruments: Quick Reference Cards

CHECK THESEIf you’re sailing with new crew this summer or your kids have suddenly and inexplicably started to look up from their phones and take an interest in the finer points of cruising, these Quick Reference Cards from Davis are a great way to further their boating education. ...read more

01-rbir18-596

Another Epic Round Britain Race

There are basically two kinds of offshore sailboat races out there: those that take place annually, like the Fastnet and Chicago-to-Mackinac races; and those that take place every other year, like the Transpac and Newport-Bermuda race, in part so the competitors have sufficient ...read more

01b_WALKING-KEDGE-OUT-cmykpromo

Getting More Use From Kedge Anchors

If you are cruising, you need at least two anchors on board for the simple reason that you must have a backup. Imagine having to slip your anchor on a stormy night with other boats dragging down on yours, or having your rope rode severed by some unseen underwater obstacle, ...read more

SailAwayCharter

How-to: Navigating on a Bareboat Charter

So you graduated from navigation class where you practiced dead reckoning, doubling the angle on the bow and maybe even celestial nav, and you now feel well prepared for your first charter trip. Well, you won’t be doing any of that on vacation—not past the first day, anyway.Most ...read more

04-Turtle-rescue

Turtle Rescue in the Vic-Maui

Strange and often wonderful things can happen in the course of an offshore sailboat race, and one of the strangest and most wonderful things we’ve heard of recently took place during the 2,300-mile 2018 Vic-Maui race, from Victoria, British Columbia, to Lahaina, Hawaii.It ...read more

dorcap-open-blue

ATN Inc: Dorcap

COOL SLEEPYou’re fast asleep in a snug anchorage, forehatch open to catch the breeze, when you’re rudely awakened by a sneaky rain squall. Now you’re not only awake and wet, you’re sweltering with the hatch closed. Sucks, right? That’s why ATN came up with the Dorcap, an ...read more

HIGH-RES-29312-Tahiti-GSP

Ask Sail: Who has the right-of-way

WHO HAS RIGHT-OF-WAY?Q: I sail in Narragansett Bay, which is a relatively narrow body of water that has upwind boats generally going south and downwind boats generally going north. When sailboats are racing, the starboard tack boat has the right-of-way over the port tack boat, so ...read more