Sailing Cristina: Week Three
In our third week of sailing, we made the 70-mile trek to Dry Tortugas National Park before backtracking north up the Keys. The Dry Tortugas did not disappoint, wowing us with spectacular beaches, history, and marine life. We enjoyed five blissful days off the grid before returning to civilization to ring in the New Year at The Perry Hotel & Marina.
Day 15: Marquesas Keys to Dry Tortugas National Park
I slept fitfully, worrying about our anchor and the fishing boats crowded off our stern, until we left, just before sunset, for Dry Tortugas National Park. The Dry Tortugas islands are a remarkable place. Located about 70 miles west of Key West, a cluster of islands sits isolated from the development and crowds of its eastern cousins. Called the “Dry Tortugas” for their abundance of sea turtles and lack of freshwater, the islands were first added to marine charts when the Spanish mariner Ponce de León came upon them in 1513.
In the 1820s, the United States realized that control of the islands would mean control of navigation around the Gulf of Mexico, so they began to fortify the islands. Fort Jefferson still stands today, a red brick behemoth built to the very edge of Garden Key and surrounded by a large, murky moat. Construction of the Fort began in 1846 and continued for nearly 30 years. Despite the effort, the Fort was never finished, although it was used as a prison for Union army deserters during the Civil War. By 1874, the Army had abandoned the Fort.
The islands were designated as a wildlife refuge in 1908, a national monument in 1935, and finally a national park in 1992. Today, you can explore the Fort, as well as the old buildings on nearby Loggerhead Key, but the true attraction is the abundant marine and birdlife. Coral reefs ring the islands, old wrecks play host to schools of brightly colored fish, sea turtles poke their heads above the surface, Goliath Grouper and lemon sharks patrol the piers, and the skies are dotted with frigate birds, brown boobies, pelicans, and terns.
The only ways to reach the park are via private vessel, seaplane, or ferry. The ferry arrives each day at 10:30am and leaves at 2:30pm. During those hours, Garden Key can be a bit crowded but once the ferry departs for the day, the key is blissfully quiet with only a handful of campers in the campground or boaters come ashore to wander.
We had an awfully rough, rolling day on our way to the Dry Tortugas and were beyond relieved to pull into the popular anchorage off Garden Key. Boats are allowed to anchor anywhere within 1 mile of the light on Garden Key and most vessels seem to congregate in the bay just off the main dock. We took the dinghy ashore and wandered the island before returning to our boat for the evening.
If you’re traveling with a dog, good news - you can bring your pup to shore on Garden Key! Dogs are allowed, on-leash, anywhere outside the Fort, so they’ll have plenty of space to sniff and stretch their legs. Lulu especially enjoyed sniffing the hermit crabs that scrabble across the sandy island paths.
Day 16: Dry Tortugas National Park
After a leisurely morning on the boat, we packed our things for a day at the beach and headed ashore. We spent the day reading, lounging, and snorkeling off the northeast side of Garden Key. There are ruins of an old coaling dock off the beach that now offer a perfect little snorkeling spot. Coral and sea fans coat the old pilings and fish swim about beneath the rusty poles. I spent some time snorkeling the ruins and loved watching a Smooth Trunkfish feeding in the sand. I also spotted four very large Rainbow Parrotfish and one hefty Barracuda.
After our day at the beach, we returned to Cristina and brought her around to the north side of the key to avoid some of the large swell coming from the south. There is an old channel that became closed off by sand infill from hurricanes. We anchored on the edge of the channel, hoping to sit in the deep water. Our first attempt failed as our anchor slid down into the depth of the channel. Our second attempt held, although we nervously checked the anchor again and again, afraid we’d be blown onto the ruins - great for snorkeling, not great for a boat!
The night was silent, apart from the lapping of water against our hull, and the stars spectacular. The milky way was truly milky, a brilliant wash of white across the sky. No lights distracted from the glittering stars other than the sweet little cluster of swaying mast lights across the island from us, resembling a group of fireflies frozen mid-flight.
Day 17: Dry Tortugas National Park
In the morning, we headed for one of the two mooring balls at Loggerhead Key. Within the boundaries of the park, you must either be 1) anchored within 1 mile of Garden Key, or 2) attached to one of the provided mooring balls. We snagged the ball on the East side of Loggerhead Key and went ashore briefly to look at the old lighthouse and picture-perfect beaches. I wish we had stayed longer as it was a charming little island, ideal for a picnic lunch and swimming.
We continued on to the mooring at the Windjammer Wreck to the southeast of Loggerhead Key. Tyler and I snorkeled the wreck which was awash in fish and coral. Hundreds of small fish schooled and hid in the nooks and crannies of the wreck as sea fans waved lazily in the current. We spotted a few more Rainbow Parrotfish, a couple of Ocean Triggerfish, a Porcupinefish, dozens of Butterflyfish and Tangs, and a Lemon Shark. The highlight was a large, glittering Queen Angelfish.
From Windjammer, we search for the mooring on the west side of Loggerhead Key but discovered it was located in 1 foot of water and would be no use to us. We made a final run down to the mooring ball at The Maze but weren’t able to grab hold of the ball. Tyler jumped in to explore the site (better for scuba diving with coral formations starting at 29 feet and going deeper) while I held the boat steady until he was ready. He came aboard and we headed back to Garden Key after a fantastic day of exploring.
We nestled Cristina into a spot in the now-calm harbor and took Lulu ashore. Tyler explored the Fort while Lulu and I searched for hermit crabs and watched the sunset. Off the dock, we watched two ginormous Goliath Grouper and a handful of Lemon Sharks feast on fish scraps thrown in by fishers. Then, it was back to the boat for dinner and sleep.
Day 18: Dry Tortugas National Park to Boca Grande Key
We left at dawn after a quick trip ashore for Lulu to use the potty. The wind was light and the seas calm, so we motored our way to Boca Grande Key. After a full day of travel, we dropped anchor in the channel off of Boca Grande. While the windless day had made for pleasant motoring, it did nothing to keep the bugs away and we were overwhelmed with biting no-see-ums. Tyler took Lulu ashore and returned looking as if someone had emptied a pepper grinder over his head - he was absolutely coated with small black no-see-ums! We burned our citronella candle and attempted to distract ourselves with quinoa bowls and Netflix, then we crawled into bed and pulled the covers tight against the biting nuisance.
Day 19: Boca Grande Key to The Perry Hotel & Marina, Stock Island
Light crept into the sky as we began our trek back to The Perry Hotel & Marina on Stock Island. As we approached Key West, we heard a call over the radio notifying the U.S. Coast Guard of a migrant “chug” approaching Fort Zach State Park, the southernmost tip of land on the island. Coat Guard chatter ensued and we gleaned that the migrant vessel was carrying around 20-25 people. More discussion on the radio indicated that the boat was taking on water.
As Fort Zach came into sight, we could see three boats huddled off the point. Our route took us relatively close to shore and, as we approached, a Coast Guard vessel passed just off our bow, heading out to sea. The boat was packed to the gills with people, all huddled together with bright orange life jackets around their necks. They headed straight for deeper water where they planned to rendezvous with a large Coast Guard cutter.
Unsure of exactly what we had just witnessed, we did a bit of research online. Based on our reading, it seems that Florida has seen a significant increase in the past two years of migrant vessels attempting to reach the United States from the south, boats that are typically coming from Cuba or the Dominican Republic. With problems exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis, migrants are attempting to reach U.S. soil to claim asylum. As they attempt to reach land, they are often intercepted by the Coast Guard. If they are apprehended at sea, the individuals are transferred to a large Coast Guard cutter and are immediately transported back to wherever they came from. An immediate return is simpler and far less costly than allowing individuals to enter the U.S. immigration system. From what we read, it seemed likely that the individuals we crossed paths with were being driven back to Cuba.
Immigration politics aside, we can all understand the desire for a better life. Imagine making the decision to leave Cuba in a rickety old vessel to make the 90-mile trek to Key West. Imagine the darkness, the damp, the rolling waves, the warm, nervous bodies clustered around you. Perhaps you plan to arrive under the cover of darkness. But your boat begins taking on water, you make slower progress than you’d hoped. The sun comes up and you can see land, but the light means others can see you, too. And then, less than half a mile from land, you are stopped. On New Year's Eve day, on the verge of reaching what you hoped for, on the cusp of that better life, you are stopped. You are taken back. What awaits you? Watching this moment unfold was deeply tragic.
Eventually, we made it to our destination, feeling extra appreciative of our freedom of movement and the warm, safe harbor awaiting us. We rang in the New Year at The Perry Hotel with some reflection and another lovely meal at Matt’s Stock Island Kitchen & Bar.
Day 20: The Perry Hotel to Marathon Marina, Marathon Key
We woke feeling semi-rested - at midnight, after we had gone to sleep, the marina had come alive with a chorus of blasting horns and had startled us awake. After a morning lap swim (gotta get exercise when you can!), a few walks with Lulu, and breakfast from the coffee shop, we headed north. Strong winds and rolly seas made for a bit of a rough, slow ride. We pulled into the Marathon Marina at dusk and busied ourselves with chores - showers, dinner, cleaning, a bit of blogging.
Day 21: Marathon Marina to Indian Key State Historic Park
Heading north past Marathon we entered a new stretch of the Keys. We had our sights on an anchorage at Long Key but a combination of swell and crab pots rendered the area unpleasant. We continued on and eventually made our way to Indian Key State Historic Park. We snagged one of the free mooring balls off the island and headed ashore. When we arrived, we found a sign announcing a self-guided audio tour of the island, so we downloaded the app and began. The tour turned out to be excellent - it took us on a 40-minute trek around the entire island, retracing the roads that existed when Indian Key boasted a lively settlement. The settlement thrived off the salvage economy in which “wreckers” would collect goods from shipwrecks and turn them into the local government in exchange for a portion of the value of the goods. It was a fascinating and informative history that gave insight into what the Keys used to be. As dusk fell, we returned to our boat for some dinner and Netflix.