By Lauren Nicholson • C36/375 Mahayana Photography by Drew Nicholson
A must-see for anyone rounding the Florida peninsula is Dry Tortugas National Park, a group of seven small islands about 70 miles west of Key West, and the location of the U.S.’s largest all-masonry fort as well as spectacular diving and snorkeling.
After living in Marathon in the Middle Keys for two years and never making it out that way, we finally had the opportunity to go after moving up the Gulf coast, when a few boaters in our new marina off Tampa Bay mentioned their plans for an extended trip this past May.
We jumped at the chance and began making plans for procrastinated repairs and necessary provisions. After several weekends of getting Mahayana ship shape, and with weeks of food and beverages aboard, we set sail in our 1985 C36 MKI hull #493 from our home port of Bradenton, FL. Southbound, we planned to make a few short stops down the Gulf coast before jumping off Captiva Island for an overnight voyage to the far flung islands of the Dry Tortugas. We were a fleet of one Catalina, an Island Packet, a Beneteau, and an Endeavour power cat.
The trip out of Redfish Pass was to be about 120 nautical miles, or about 24 hours at 5 knots of speed for us, which is usually what we would average under power with no wind. As we left the pass at 0800 we had some good NE wind but ended up being broadsided by opposing NW waves for the first several hours, a little uncomfortable but we got used to it and the sun was shining (however our cat was not amused). By 7:00 pm we were able to shut down the motor and enjoy a smoother ride under full sail. It did get a little rolly again as we progressed through the night, though we were able to sail at about 5 knots under full sail with no motor for about nine hours until the sun came up.
Land ho! Fort Jefferson was spotted in the distance and grew bigger and bigger until we entered the channel at Garden Key from the north and headed around to the anchorage on the south side. My husband Drew and I did pretty well overnight exchanging 2-hour shifts, which was aided by May’s late sunset, a full moon rising as the sun set, and occasional VHF chatter with our companion boats.
Fort Jefferson is a looming monstrosity of a fort and was quite important to the Unites States back in the 1800’s when an essential shipping route extended from New Orleans south into the Gulf, west of the Dry Tortugas and back up the east coast of the U.S. Unlike other forts on the mainland, Jefferson had to fend for itself and could not rely on nearby strongholds to come to its aid if attacked, therefore being built as one of the largest forts in the U.S.
The anchorage on the south side is a popular spot and the most protected, although some larger boats may find more breathing room south of that toward Bird Key Harbor in depths of 20'+. We found a great spot in about 10 feet of water near our fellow boats and set the hook. Holding was good with sand and grass, with the bottom visible when calm. Although it seems exposed on several sides, the surrounding shoal is shallow enough to the block the ocean swells in settled weather, though minor rollyness should be expected.
After the long overnight journey we were invigorated by the clear blue water surrounding Mahayana and promptly jumped in for a swim. It was a perfect day for bobbing around on the noodles as our friends dinghied around and everyone acclimated and relaxed.
The next day, snorkeling and diving was the priority as the party jumped aboard Corkscrew, a 44' Endeavour power cat who was part of our group, and made the short run over to Loggerhead Key to pick up a free mooring ball near the triple-masted Avanti shipwreck, a popular dive site. It should be noted that we found the current quite strong here and precautions must be taken with respect to the tides, though a couple who went there another day said it was not bad. At the time of writing there were only 2 mooring balls in the area, one at the wreck and one near Loggerhead Key, first come first serve, two-hour time limit. No anchoring is allowed near these sites. The only anchoring is within one mile of the Fort on Garden Key.
After snorkeling and diving this amazing wreck in 0-20 feet of water (it pokes above the surface), we moved ashore to Loggerhead Key for some of the most fabulous snorkeling in the Keys along Little Africa. This is a coral beach on the north side of the island where you can walk right in (with footwear) and enjoy the underwater sights in just a few feet of water. The assortment of fish and corals was vibrant and colorful, absolutely amazing, against the stunning backdrop of Loggerhead Key Lighthouse and the crystal blue sea. From the Garden Key anchorage at the fort, you can come by dinghy and beach it on the south side of Loggerhead Key and walk across the island to snorkel, the north side is all coral. The best snorkeling is along the coral beach between the lighthouse and the ruins of an old shack, and also out between the two markers.
Back at the anchorage later that evening we enjoyed a wonderful cocktail party altogether and the perfect fiery sunset that the Florida Keys are famous for (sorry, much better than Mallory Square!).
The next day we ventured to the fort and took a tour. A ferry from Key West arrives in the morning full of tourists and provides a short tour and a long tour. We took the short tour which was a brief presentation of the fort, but would probably do the longer one next time as they actually give you a walking tour of the fort. Tours are free. The history is rich and awe-inspiring, though I could not do it justice with limited space here.
There are a couple white sandy beaches around the fort from which to launch your own snorkel excursion, as there is abundant exotic sea life surrounding the underwater walls of the fort. Seaplanes come and go from Key West bringing supplies and tourists, and there is ample bird-watching as Garden Key, which supports the fort, gives way to Bird Key, which is a bird sanctuary.
As we left the next morning for round two of overnight sailing, we definitely felt like we could have stayed longer. There were more snorkel spots to explore and more relaxing to do! But it was time to get back to reality. This time we did another 120 nautical miles and entered San Carlos Bay at Fort Myers Beach to spend a couple nights on a mooring ball there before continuing up the GICW and back to Bradenton. It was a wonderful trip and we are hoping to make it an annual or bi-annual adventure. See you there someday! Feel free to email me if you have any questions about planning your own trip to the Dry Tortugas or the Keys: email@example.com.
If you go be advised that there are no amenities in the Dry Tortugas. It is called “Dry” because there is no fresh water on the islands. There is no food, fuel, provisions, medical support, trash disposal, showers, phones, docking or marina facilities. There is a fort, a tour, a small gift shop, and a restroom and that is it. Primitive tent camping is allowed. Each boat must register ashore and pay $10 per person regardless of length of stay.
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View From The Bridge
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The Florida Keys Less Traveled: An Adventure to the Dry Tortugas
By Lauren Nicholson [C36/375]
A must-see for anyone rounding the Florida peninsula is Dry Tortugas National Park, a group of seven small islands about 70 miles west of Key West, and the location of the U.S.’s largest all-masonry fort as well as spectacular diving and snorkeling....
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