Our Time At Anchor In The Dry Tortugas

Knowing that we didn’t have the weather to get all the way to Mexico, we went as far as the Dry Tortugas, to wait there for our next window. It ended up being two long, challenging weeks of wind and cold fronts.

At least three back door cold fronts (unusual weather, that we are learning about), generated by low pressure systems, came through while we were anchored (it may have been four, but we lost count or blocked it out). All had winds that were sustained in the 30 knot range, with gusts in the 40s, and our favorite, that had sustained 40 knot winds, with gusts up to 56. We have come to realize that after 25 knots, the sound of wind becomes unnerving…very unnerving, especially when it blows consistently for days. One front would come right on the heels of the previous one, giving us barely a day of relief in between.

We weren’t alone in our frustration with the fronts. When we’re at anchor, the vhf radio stays on scan, to hear any talk between boats or any information from the Coast Guard. Large commercial shrimp boats were continuously talking back and forth, about how unusual this string of weather was. Many hadn’t even left their docks to go out, and many were anchored on the other side of the reef from us, waiting out the weather and wind for days. Their conversations back and forth were very entertaining for us. They managed to swear in all forms of grammar!

With the waves crashing on the reef in front of them, it appeared as if they were underway.

On our side of the reef, we were surrounded by smaller commercial fishing boats. Our first night at anchor, we had eighteen of them around us..close quarters! Most all would leave during the day to fish, and then return for the evening, except during the exceptionally windy days, when everyone would stay put.

There were only one or two other cruising boats at any given time. At the first 24 hour break in the weather, they would leave (we guessed for Key West, as it was close and reachable before the next front) and one or two more would show up.

So, we’re stuck in place because of strong winds, and have seen all that the fort and the small island that it sits on has to offer. Even if we wanted to go to shore, most days were just too rough to get into the dingy and make the unpleasant ride. Oh, and did I mention that these fronts contained no sun??!!?? Seriously, if you add up the hours of sunshine that we had, it would just total 24..in fourteen days! The temperatures were colder than normal, in the low 70s, but that was the least of the unpleasantness. So what do you do to pass time??

When it was decent to get to shore, we spent a day touring the fort with Ranger Mike, and afterward spent 7.00 each to have lunch aboard the ferry that comes from Key West every day. Scott made the world’s largest sandwich, and I had seconds of both tuna and potato salad, so we got our money’s worth. Another day, we went to shore and walked around on our own, seeing some things that Ranger Mike didn’t cover. Then we joined him for a tour around the fort’s moat, learning about the various fish and coral that surround it. After that, it there wasn’t much to do ashore, and most days it was too windy and bumpy to get in the dingy and make the journey there anyway.

Motivation was nil, so we ended up watching a lot of tv and movies on dvd. I’d like to say we caught up on sleep, but the noise of the wind outside, the water slapping against the hull, and the sound of the water in our full tanks slapping back and forth made for a restless night’s sleep. Wind that sounds like a train, slapping noise and rolling from water (inside and out), cool temperatures, cloud-filled days, and peaks of sun that just mocked us. By day eight, madness was starting to set in.

Thankfully, during our last days, we met and spent time with a Danish couple…yay!…social interaction! Henrik and Signe were waiting for an opening to head toward Cuba. They have been cruising for three years, making their way across the Atlantic and spending time from New York City down along the East Coast before meeting us at anchor in the vortex of crappy weather.

There was a very important silver lining in the two weeks of madness. Our anchor, the Incredible Hulk, held like a champ. Like our windy days spent in the Exumas, it didn’t drag once! When we drop anchor, Scott sets a point on the ipad for both the anchor and the boat itself. If the anchor is holding, we should make an arc as the wind swings us. Scott would set a point every time the boat moved, to track our swing. We would take the ipad to bed with us, checking during the night to see if the boat was moving out of the arc path. We made a 360 degree swing every time that a cold front came through. The hulk held fast through it all. Here is our circle…

I apologize for my initial “Are you serious??” comment, at the size and cost of this anchor. It is now my favorite part of this boat! As the sounds of the wind frazzled us more and more, confidence in our anchor grew with each front.

Here are some photos that we took during our two week stay off of Fort Jefferson. For you non cat people, I apologize for so many of Howard. We were stuck aboard for two weeks, with little to amuse us!

“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”

Cuban Refugees At Fort Jefferson

The fort sees an average of 400 Cuban refugees a year. Since the nearest coast guard is some 70 miles away in Key West, and therefore unable to intercept them, many refugees head for the Dry Tortugas to make their landfall. Technically, it is illegal to enter the US this way, but under a policy established in 1995, having “one dry foot” on US soil allows a Cuban migrant to legally stay and seek citizenship. After talks with the Cuban government, the US agreed that it would stop admitting Cubans found at sea.

They arrive in makeshift boats, called balsa cubanas, or chugs.

Nice rudder!

Scott was amazed at what is used to build an hold them together. Some use cement for caulk..

And this one appears to have used large plastic tubes, filled with shit!!..

The boats carry up to 33 or more people!

 

The rangers here at the fort usually see the boats on the horizon, call the coast guard, and then keep an eye as to where the refugees land. Most often, the boats land on the nearby, small keys. Once they are brought to the fort, the refugees are given food, clothes and water, and a place to stay until the coast guard comes to collect them. On occasion, the coast guard is too busy to come right away, or sea conditions are too rough, so they arrive days later. Refugees from other countries who may have traveled with Cubans are sent back to their home country, as the US only extends this policy to Cuban refugees. It seems likely that in the near future, this whole procedure will be a thing of the past!

“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”

Traveling To The Dry Tortugas

We left Key West on a Friday morning. Our weather window wasn’t big enough to make it all the way to Mexico, so we decided to head toward the Dry Tortugas, shaving about ten hours off of the total journey. Fort Jefferson provided a good anchorage for us to wait for another window to continue on to Mexico.

We needed to come into Fort Jefferson with decent daylight to navigate the shallows. Since the days are shorter now, we decided to break the trip there into two days. We traveled three hours to the Marquesas Keys on Friday. The Marquesas Cays are just a few tiny spits of land. We need too much water depth to anchor inside of them, so we stayed on the outside, using them for shelter against the wind.

Early on Saturday morning, we continued on, traveling another 5-6 hours to Fort Jefferson and the Dry Tortugas. Located about 70 miles from Key West, the Dry Tortugas are a cluster of seven islands, made up of coral reefs and sand. With the surrounding reefs and sand, they make up the Dry Tortugas National Park, an area known for birds, marine life and shipwrecks. Fort Jefferson is the central feature here, and I’ll post more about it separately.

The Tortugas were first named Las Tortugas (The Turtles) by Ponce de Leon. Soon after, they read “Dry Tortugas” on mariner’s charts, showing that they offered no fresh water (dry), but plenty of food (turtles). The area became a wildlife refuge in 1908, and was named a national park in 1992.

Dry Tortugas National Park

Speaking of marine life, as we anchored, we were greeted by some of the local Goliath Groupers whole live here. Goliath is correct, they are huge!!!

We first anchored outside of the harbor area. Scott had read that it was still protected by the reef, but offered more room for us to swing.  As the winds kicked up, we took a beating the first day, with Scott even being a bit seasick from the rolling at anchor. After watching numerous fishing boats take better shelter in the harbor, we headed in and found a spot. Scott was nervous, as the area didn’t allow for us to let out as much anchor scope as he would like. Never the less, we set our anchor and settled in to wait for good weather to travel on to Mexico.

Here are some photos of our trip from Key West to the Dry Tortugas.

“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”