The Dry Tor­tu­gas

24.6285¡ N, 82.8732¡ W

SAIL - - New Boats - By Mark & Diana Doyle

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 pro­tec­ton of the Mar­que­sas.

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 high­speed 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 high­end 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!

An easy overnight sail from Key West, the Dry Tor­tu­gas ex­ert a unique, if arid charm

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