Trailer Sailer Trip to The Dry Tortugas, May 2005

{{{Trailer Sailer Trip to The Dry Tortugas}}} {{by Jimmy Harrell}} {{May 24, 2005}} Earlier this year, a friend of mine, Jerry Hardin, contacted me and asked if I would be interested in sailing from somewhere in the Florida Keys to the Dry Tortugas Keys. Jerry is a retired educator from Oakdale, Tennessee. He and I have been sailing buddies for several years since we met at a gathering of small boat sailors in Pensacola, FL. I committed and Jerry contacted other trailer sailors through the internet at . A young couple, Justin Pipkorn and Edith Gillespie, both 71 and from California, signed on. Both Jerry and I are 62 and sometimes had trouble keeping up with them physically. Everyone knows where the Florida Keys and Key West are, but many do not know that there are several keys beyond Key West. The Dry Tortugas Keys are a group of seven small islands about 70 miles west of Key West Florida. The coral and sand islands have abundant marine and bird life, and the reefs are excellent places to snorkel. The islands were discovered by Ponce de Leon in the 1500’s, and the US built a brick and masonry fort there in the 1800’s. Fort Jefferson and the surrounding islands are now a National Park. Between Key West and the Dry Tortugas are several small keys, the major group being the Marquesas Keys which is an atoll which has a protected natural harbor surrounded by the islands. The atoll is located about 20 miles from Key West. We decided to stop there for the night since 70 miles is too far to sail in one day. The core trip plan was set. Sail from near Key West to the Dry Tortugas and back with overnight stops at the Marquesas. From this core, our trip expanded ambitiously. Since we were all retired in no hurry to get back to a job, why not do some island hopping from about the middle of the keys to Key West before heading for the Dry Tortugas? We decided to launch the boats at Seabird Marina on Long Key and take three of four days to get to Key West and possibly take a day and do some snorkeling at Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary about four miles from Big Pine Key. Jerry and I left my home in Putnam County, Georgia early on Sunday May 29 towing his 23 foot sailboat. We arrived at Long Key at about midnight. Justin and Edith had arrived two days earlier and their boat, “Just Right”, was already in a slip. Since the marina was closed, we spent the rest of the night on Jerry’s boat , Vagabon II, on the trailer. The next day, Monday, we raised the mast, rigged, and launched the boat and planned to sail the following day. The weather did not cooperate with winds forecast to be 20 knots and seas four to six feet inside the reef on the Atlantic side of the keys. We delayed the trip one day. On Tuesday, we left Seabird Marina, motored out into Florida Bay, raised the sails, and headed for the Channel 5 bridge to get to the Atlantic side of the Keys. We cleared the bridge and headed west toward Key West following Hawk Channel which is between the Keys and the reefs on the Atlantic side. The winds were light out of the east, and we had a leisurely 32 mile sail, stopping for the night at the Marathon Marina on Boot Key at about 5:30 PM . On Wednesday, the wind was a little stronger, about 10 knots out of the east. We left Boot Key and sailed 12 miles to Bahia Honda Key. We anchored just off the Bahia Honda State Park beach between the Highway 1 bridge and the old Highway 1 bridge. The park has camp sites, a marina, an outdoor shower, a beach, and a souvenir store which sold sandwiches and ice cream. We towed a dinghy to use to get to shore and decided to row to shore and sample the ice cream. Shortly after we got to shore a park ranger informed us that the beach was off limits to dinghys, so we rowed back to the boat and donned fins and snorkel and swam to shore. The ice cream sure tasted good after all that exercise to get to it. We got an early start on Thursday in order to cover the 34 miles to Oceanside Marina on Stock Island, just east of Key West. As usual, the wind was out of the east although it was a little stronger than previously. The forecast was for a 10 percent chance of showers. At about midday a storm hit us. We had seen a dark cloud on the horizon which appeared to be headed our way. We put on foul weather gear and took the first reef in the main sail. As the wind increased, we decided to take a second reef in the main, and we expected some strong wind and rain but nothing to be alarmed about. Before we had finished tying the second reef, it was apparent that the storm was stronger than we expected, and we decided to drop all sails and take it under bare poles. We noticed a large trawler less than a mile away and heading in our general direction. By the time we had the sails down, the hatch boards in place and locked, and ourselves tethered to the boat we were hit by very strong winds which we guessed were around 50 mph. (Local reports said the winds were up to 70 mph.) In spite of its cover, the dinghy we were towing filled with water and was acting like a sea anchor holding the stern into the wind. Jerry started the 5 horse power motor and after what seemed like a very long time was able to turn the bow into the wind. Now, where was that power boat, and did he see us? We thought about contacting him by radio. We had two hand held and one stationary radios on board, but they were in the cabin. Removing the hatch boards to get to a radio was not an option because the waves breaking over the boat could fill up the boat and sink it. (Note to self: always keep one of the radios in the cockpit.) About that time, the trawler was barely visible and passed a few hundred yards off our bow. Our next concern was where we were, how close to the shore. I checked the mapping GPS and it was displaying a lost satellite signal message. The water and rain and clouds were apparently blocking the signal. I had never had that happen before. The water depth would give us some idea about how close to shore we were. Checked the depth sounder and it was reading zero which obviously was wrong because we were still floating. The magnetic compass was still working, and we had mentally noted the wind direction and our direction of travel. It was time for some dead reckoning. When the storm hit, we were about 2 to 3 miles from shore. The wind was blowing us east parallel to the shore. It probably took us 15 minutes to get the bow into the wind. During that time, we were traveling no more than 3 mph in the direction of the shore. That would put us no closer to shore than 1 mile. This was a comfortable margin. At this distance we would have deep enough water to keep from running aground which would be a very bad thing in the kind of winds and waves we were experiencing. So our decision was to head west, parallel to the shore, using the magnetic compass. I kept a lookout while Jerry drove the boat. We were now seriously worried about Justin and Edith. Their boat was two feet shorter and weighed about half what ours did. About an hour later, the winds subsided to an estimated 35 mph, low enough that I was able to quickly remove the hatch boards and retrieve the radio microphone from the cabin and replace the boards. After a few calls, the trawler came back and said that they had been in touch with “Just Right” and that they were OK and that they were worried about us. He asked about our condition. I told him that we were two tired, wet, and scared souls tethered to the boat and hanging on but were otherwise OK. He said that he would relay the message if he could. About two hours after we first started this ordeal, we got a call from “Just Right”. Based on GPS readings, we located them barely visible as a speck on the horizon behind us. By this time the wind had settled down to something very manageable. We bailed out the dinghy, got out of the foul weather clothing, which was just about as wet inside as on the outside, and all was well. A short while later, I asked Jerry if he saw what I saw. Yes, there was another storm on the horizon coming toward us. The foul weather gear went back on, the hatch boards went back in place, the radio microphone was in the cockpit, and we waited for the worst. It fizzled. There was just a little rain and hardly any wind increase. By the time the new storm was over, we were near the channel entrance to Oceanside Marina, which was on Stock Island just east of Key West. This was a tricky entrance but Jerry had been in before on a previous trip and expertly piloted “Vintage II” in with “Just Right” following closely. Everyone at the marina was talking about the storm, and they were a little amazed that we were out in it in such little boats. One power boater had been near the Marquesas Keys when it hit. He said that the waves were 15 ft. or more. In addition to the airport report of 70 mph winds, several others said they would have guessed 70 mph. We found out later that several docks in Key West were damaged. After a while we started swapping lies about storms. Since most of the liars were power boaters, we asserted that we were sailors, and that the storm was no big deal. It was now late afternoon and we cleaned up and headed for happy hour at The Hickory House, a restaurant and bar that was within walking distance. After dinner, we walked somewhat steadily back to the boats, gathered wet clothes and headed for the laundry mat. By bed time we had clean and dry clothes and the boat was in reasonable order. We checked the weather radio. The news was not good. Winds were forecast to be 15 to 20 mph with seas up to 7 feet. This was not the conditions we wanted for the trip to the Dry Tortugas since we would be beyond the coral reefs which offered some protection from the Atlantic waves. Previous wave forecasts had been on the low side. The next morning we decided to spend another day at the marina, caught a bus to Key West and toured the area. Next day brought us the same forecast, so we decided to spend a second day at the marina. On Sunday, May 8, we left Oceanside Marina. After we got out into Hawks Channel, we turned west and crossed the Key West ship channel and headed for the Marquesas Keys, about 25 miles away. As we approached the Marquesas, we located what we thought was the channel into Mooney Harbor, inside the atoll. The tide was going out, and we got stuck on a sandbar. The wind was forecast to clock from the east to the north and northeast during the night. We would be exposed. We tried the motor then kedging off. Nothing worked so we put out two anchors and waited for high tide which was at midnight. Meantime, Justin and Edith had found the channel into the harbor and spent the night at an idyllic anchorage inside Mooney Harbor. While Jerry stood watch, I went below to rest. I fell asleep and Jerry didn’t wake me until midnight. Jerry was pretty wet from waves breaking over the side. We tried to get off again at midnight to no avail. . The next high tide would be at 9:30 AM and it was to be about a foot higher than the midnight tide. There was nothing else we to do but wait so, we went below and went to sleep. Early the next morning we were ready and anxious as high tide approached. We tried at about 9 AM and again were unsuccessful. We decided to wait for 9:30 and try again. If we did not get off this time we would probably have to call for a tow which would have been very expensive. I was beginning to think that we were not going to get off without help. Just before 9:30 we felt the boat float. We quickly got the motor running and tugged on the anchor. We were moving. I retrieved the anchor in record time and Jerry motored “Vagabon II” out to deeper water. We radioed “Just Right” and told them we had gotten free and were headed west toward the Dry Tortugas. They reported that they had just finished breakfast and would be pulling anchor shortly. They caught up after an hour or so and the two little boats were on the last leg to the Dry Tortugas. We were beyond the outer reefs which up until now had offered some protection from the higher waves from the Atlantic. The waves were forecast to be 4 to 6 feet, and it was a rough ride with waves at least a foot higher as we approached the Dry Tortugas. According to my GPS, we sailed a total of 52 miles that day and anchored in the harbor next to Fort Jefferson with about 20 other boats. Our two boats were less than half the size of any of the other boats in the anchorage. We were very tired from being tossed around all day by the waves that sure looked like more than 7 ft to me. We ate supper, watched the sun set and went to bed as soon as it was dark. The next day we went ashore and did a self guided tour of Fort Jefferson, on Garden Key. For pictures of what we saw, check out ths web site: . We did not do any snorkeling nor did we visit any of the other islands because of the weather. We needed at least two days and maybe more to really enjoy the place, but the forecast for the next few days had the wind out of the east and getting stronger each day. We felt that we would be OK if we left the next day. If we waited another day, we might be stuck there for several days waiting for a weather window to get back to Key West. This coupled with the constant east meant that we would have a rough ride motoring directly into the wind to get back to the Marquesas in the daylight. Going back under sail would have meant tacking and taken probably a day and a night to make the trip. At the least we would have arrived at the Marquesas in the dark which would have made it difficult to find an anchorage with all the shallow water. Anyway, after one day at the Dry Tortugas, early in the morning, we headed west for the Marquesas. Winds started out at about 10 mph on the nose and increased to 15 during the day. Waves started at 3 to 4 feet and built to 4 to 7 feet by the time we reached the Marquesas about 13 hours later. We motor sailed all the way, a rough and uncomfortable ride. We were very cautious while trying to get into Mooney Harbor because the last time we were here, we spent the night aground. Since we were on a rising tide, it would be easier to get off if we did touch. Our depth sounder had worked intermittently since the big storm so we did not want to depend on it. “Just Right” was behind us because they had decided to take the waves at an angle to make for an easier ride. Justin had given us GPS way points taken from their previously successful approach two days earlier. I stood on the bow and watched for shallow water while Jerry drove the boat slowly. The water was clear for 4 or 5 feet. Using Justin’s we approached what we thought was the channel. I yelled shallow water and Jerry turned the boat around and we tried another approach about 100 feet further east. Again we found shallow water; and again. Then we saw a local commercial fishing boat approaching from about 200 yards to the east of us. He went right in without any trouble. So we followed him, and there was the channel. It was very easy to see once we got close to it. We went in and anchored. The anchorage was magnificent and well protected from the waves, very quiet and peaceful. Shortly two other commercial fishing boats entered and anchored. An hour or so after we anchored, we saw “Just Right” on the horizon. At the approached, they ran into shallow water and retreated. We talked to them on the radio, gave them directions and after a couple of attempts they also found the channel and came in. There few bugs were kept at bay by insect repellent. I think that the best part about cruising is spending the night in anchorages like this. The next morning, May 12, we left the Marquesas and headed east directly into an east wind of 10 to 15 knots. This was another day of a rough ride into mostly 4 to 7 foot waves. We wore foul weather gear all day, and waves were splashing into the cockpit constantly. Some waves were definitely over 7 feet. Counting the distance out of Mooney Harbor and into Oceanside Marina, we covered 33 miles. I think the second best thing about cruising is spending the night in a marina with clean showers and flush toilets after being poun
ed by the waves all day. Happy hour found us again at the Hickory House Restaurant. After a couple of Margaritas, the discussion centered around plans for the rest of the trip back to Long Key where the vehicles were parked. The forecast for the next few was for the wind to be out of the east and 15 to 20 knots. This meant beating into the wind and waves the same as we had done for the past two days. That did not sound appealing to any of us. Someone suggested that we rent a car and drive to Long Key, pick up the vehicles, load the boats, and call this trip a success. This idea was unanimously accepted and this is what we did. The next day we loaded the boats and headed north with the boats in tow.