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!”

Loggerhead Key

Loggerhead Key was named for the abundance of loggerhead sea turtles in the area (the Dry Tortugas support the largest green and loggerhead turtle nesting grounds in the Florida Keys). Mariners were often attracted to the area, looking for the natural food source that the turtles provided. However, the shoals and reefs here proved dangerous. Proximity to the nearby shipping lanes of the Gulf of Mexico, make the area a natural “ship trap,” and more than 250 shipwrecks have been documented in the waters surrounding the Dry Tortugas.

When the United States acquired Florida from Spain, they were immediately interested in constructing a lighthouse in the tortugas, to protect mariners in the areas. The original lighthouse built was on Garden Key, the site of Fort Jefferson. It was later replaced by the current iron light that sits on the top of Fort Jefferson. Iron was used because bricks could shatter if hit by enemy fire, and send debris flying into the fort.

Unfortunately, it proved to be too short, too dim and too far from other reefs, so construction began on a taller lighthouse on Loggerhead Key. This light could be seen 53 miles away, and in the 1930s, it was the brightest light in North America.

Significant scientific research was conducted on Loggerhead Key, by the Laboratory for Marine Ecology, which was operated by the Carnegie Institute. The lab studied the reefs and waters of the tortugas from 1905-1939. They took the first underwater black and white, and color photography, and performed the first heart transplant…..on a nurse shark! The lab was destroyed by hurricanes over the years, but there is still a monument to the it’s founder on Loggerhead Key.

The lighthouse was maintained by light keepers through World War II, when the duty was transferred to the US Coast Guard. A single light keeper would stay on site for six weeks, and then have a three weeks off ashore. It’s noted that their main complaints were..lack of women, having to cook for themselves and boredom from isolation. In 1982, the light was fully automated, and all Coast Guard staff left the island.

We have been enjoying the view of the lighthouse, flanked by palm trees, while anchored here.

“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 random 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!”

Fort Jefferson – Dry Tortugas National Park

Fort Jefferson is visited every day by a large, fast ferry from Key West. It travels roughly 2.5 hours to get here, and brings daily tourists as well as those who wish to camp on the island.

Visitors can tour and explore the fort, walk the beaches, and snorkel the waters. While the ferry is here it is part of the fort, so all who are here (boater, park rangers, etc.) have use of it (restrooms, etc., in place of the composting ones by the campsites). You are also welcome to pay for lunch aboard: sandwiches, salads, chips, cookies, etc. We have also heard you can purchase bags of ice from the ferry…a handy perk!

In addition to the high speed ferry, the fort is also accessible by sea plane. Several arrived each day, bringing tourists to the fort.

Scott and I have spent several days ashore, touring and learning about the fort. National Park ranger Mike is very, very knowledgeable and informative on many subjects related to the fort. Here are a few highlights that we learned from him:

The U.S. government built Fort Jefferson on Garden Key because of its natural, deep water harbor, protected by the surrounding shoals. They knew that controlling navigation to the Gulf of Mexico, and protecting Atlantic-bound Mississippi River trade would be possible by fortifying the Tortugas. It was the most remote, but still a vital link in a chain of coastal forts that stretched from Maine to California, complete with a moat! I borrowed these images, old and new, online.

Construction of the fort started in 1846, and went on for 30 years but was never finished. Supply problems and the Civil War delayed construction, and it became obsolete before it was completed. Still, it is the largest all-masonry fort in the United States, and features 2,000 arches.


The lower two tiers are made up of tan bricks that came from brickyards near Pensacola. After Florida left the Union, red bricks for the fort’s top wall were shipped 2,000 miles from Maine. In all, over 16 million bricks were used in construction of the fort. Scott can’t stop commenting on how many bricks there are, and the sheer size of it all. He says that if he were a brick layer here, he’d kill himself!

Twenty percent of the workers constructing the fort were enslaved African Americans, hired from owners in Key West. Owners were typically paid 20.00 a month per slave. The slaves were given some of the more difficult tasks, including collecting and transporting coral rock from nearby islands. The rock was the main ingredient in making coral concrete for construction of the fort.

At its fullest, the fort was home to nearly 2,000 people, made up of soldiers and some of their families; prisoners, who also worked on the ongoing construction of the fort; slaves, who worked along with the prisoners and some of their families, who worked at cooking or doing laundry. There were also shops that sold goods that were shipped in from Key West, as well as those who provided services.

The fort was set up to support 1,500 people for a year. Food consisted of mostly salted meats (including salt pork that often still had hairs on it…bleh!) and dry biscuits. Cisterns were built to collect rainwater, that was filtered through sand. However, the weight of the fort caused it to settle, producing cracks in the bricks along the walls and in the cisterns, contaminating the water. Sections of the fort were intentionally never finished, for fear that additional weight would cause further settling and cracking.

A moat was constructed around the entire fort, which provided several advantages. It protected the external walls from the heavy Gulf of Mexico surf, and also served as a deterrent against invasion.


In the days when Fort Jefferson was constructed, black powder was used for the firing of weapons, and having it remain dry was incredibly important. Keeping the powder dry while swimming across a moat, and avoiding gunfire from the fort, would be extremely difficult. If an attacker was lucky enough to make it across, he’d then have to scale the wall of the fort..again, while most likely being fired upon. End result? Moats are good.

During the Civil War, the fort served as a Union military prison for captured deserters. Some of the reasons for their arrest are quite amusing. One man received a sentence for being a straggler, and another for the charge of “worthlessness!”

Among the prisoners were four men who were convicted of being involved in the assassination of President Lincoln, one of whom was Dr. Samuel Mudd (Dr. Mudd set the broken leg of John Wilks booth, who shot Lincoln). When yellow fever spread through the fort, the doctor on site fell ill and died. Dr. Mudd stepped in, and treated the sick. Afterward, he remained the fort doctor, and was eventually pardoned and released. The area where his cell was located is still intact.

In the 60s, the park rangers took it upon themselves to blow up the enlisted men’s barracks, which had fallen into disrepair. When the government questioned why they would do this, the answer was: “There’s nothing that says we can’t.” As a result of this, the national preservation for historic places was enacted, putting in place guidelines for those who wish to restore or remodel historic houses and sites.

Today, the rangers work for 10 days, and then have four days off.  On their free time, they usually catch a ride to Key West, on eithre the ferry or the sea plane. The ranges live in modern apartments onsite, that have been built into the wall of the fort. There is a water maker on site, and water is stored in a cistern. Electricity is supplied by generator, and gas, food, mail and other supplies come by boat from Key West every few weeks.

Here are more photos of the fort.

“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, and anchor off of Fort Jefferson, shaving about ten hours off of the total journey. This also 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. The days are shorter now,  so we decided to break the trip 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.

Howard surveyed his surroundings, scanning the water for fish.

Early 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!”

Adios USA!

We are shoving off this morning, to make our way toward Mexico!

Last night we spent time in some of our favorite Key West places, and said goodbye to friends here. We also met some new faces..Key West locals, by way of Maryland! Thanks for welcoming us Joe and Provie!

After a five hour run today, we’ll anchor for the night in the Marquesas Cays, and then head for the Dry Tortugas tomorrow. We’ll wait there for a good weather window, to continue on to Isla Mujeres, Mexico. It’s a two day run, and we’ll most likely be waiting close to two weeks in the Dry Tortugas for weather..ugh! Internet will be non existent until we get to Mexico, so I’ll upload posts in a few weeks, when we get settled.

Sea Life won’t see U.S. waters again for a few years! Adios!

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