The “Ship Trap”

Passage Maker - - Seamanship -

Be­cause of its lo­ca­tion, the Dry Tortugas quickly be­came a ma­jor ship­ping chan­nel in the 1800s, con­nect­ing the At­lantic Ocean wa­ters with the Gulf of Mex­ico. This al­lowed Span­ish ex­plor­ers and mer­chants to travel along the Gulf Coast of Flor­ida. With its shal­low wa­ters, com­bined with in­creas­ing traf­fic, strong cur­rents, and nu­mer­ous hur­ri­canes, this ship­ping chan­nel un­for­tu­nately be­came known as a “ship trap.” More than 250 doc­u­mented ship­wrecks lit­ter the Dry Tortugas with their pre­cious cargo. The sal­vage op­er­a­tion in­dus­try, known as wreck­ing, quickly grew and be­came the main in­dus­try that con­trib­uted to the build­ing of Key West. Light­houses were even­tu­ally built to warn mariners off the reef. The light­house on Gar­den Key was con­structed first but was even­tu­ally de­ter­mined to be in­ef­fec­tive. Soon af­ter, a new light­house was built on Log­ger­head Key. This light­house was in­tended to be taller and stronger and be po­si­tioned on the most dan­ger­ous key and reef. While some of the wrecks in the Dry Tortugas, like the Ger­man sub­ma­rine U-2513, lie in 200-plus feet of wa­ter and re­quire tech­ni­cal div­ing skills, there are a few wrecks suit­able for open-wa­ter cer­ti­fi­ca­tion and snor­kel­ing as well, such as Brick Wreck and the Wind­jam­mer. One of the most pop­u­lar wrecks in the Dry Tortugas, Wind­jam­mer is lo­cated less than a mile south­west of Log­ger­head Key. Built in 1875, this three-masted, iron-hull ship, Avanti, was car­ry­ing lum­ber when it struck Log­ger­head Reef and ran aground af­ter a nav­i­ga­tional er­ror. The 261-foot ves­sel lies in two main wreck­age fields and is the most com­plete wreck site in the park. The wreck acts as an ar­ti­fi­cial reef, at­tract­ing col­or­ful fish, co­ral, and the oc­ca­sional go­liath grouper or st­ingray. Mak­ing fo an ex­cel­lent snorkel or dive, the depths range from zero feet, where a small piece of wreck ac­tu­ally breaks the sur­face, to just 20 feet of wa­ter.

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