A few days before we left for the Tortuga's, I was talking to my dock neighbor Bob, picking his brain of the many decades he has under his keel traveling these waters. Particularly, I was asking Bob about a strategy of dealing with the sometime violent thunderstorms that happen frequently in this area almost every afternoon. Frequently these storms produce 40 knot winds and some wickedly violent lightening. Bob's answer was if the wind starts healing the boat over too much or the waves start rolling you around, simply change course and head into the storm. I then asked Bob " what about the lightening?" Bob kind of looked at me, and after a pause, told me there's not much you can do about lightening. He also reminded me that we're a steel boat so there's some safety provided by the steel, and Faraday cage effect, also that a steel boat is better grounded than a plastic boat.
Myself, along with my daughter Carrie, stepson Dakota, and their friends Casey, Tyler, Gabe and Vasil left the dock around 4:00 pm for the 19 hour trip to the Dry Tortuga national park. The Dry Tortuga are a group of five island 60 miles west of Key West with Ft. Jefferson being the center of the park. This particular trip had our route as a straight rhumb line from Ft. Myers to the Tortuga which is a 125 mile off shore passage. Adding the 13 miles we travel on the Caloosahatchee river, our total miles to the Tortuga's is approximately 137 which equates into a 21 hour passage...give or take. Here's a brief description of Ft. Jefferson from Wikipedia: Fort Jefferson is a massive but unfinished coastal fortress. It is the largest brick masonry structure in the Americas, and is composed of over 16 million bricks.
The late afternoon trip down the river was calm as we made quick speed of 8 knots on an outgoing tide. All the mates were on the front deck enjoying the day and the late afternoon sun as we passed under the Sanibel bridge and engaged the auto pilot course for the Dry Tortuga. With the seas flat and barely a breeze, the passage forecast had a good chance of holding true. The temperature was around 90, and a scan of the horizon did show towering thunderheads all around with a particular menacing storm pounding Sanibel now 10 miles in our wake. As the sun set, the seas picked up a little due to the wind created from the thunderstorms that our radar now showed were all around us. Around 11:00 a large thunderstorm blossemed between us and the Dry Tortuga, and our radar showed no chance of skirting around it. As our course and the storms course came together, the wind speed quickly picked up to 45 knots out of the east, and the seas quickly built to a nasty, close together, 4' chop. The healing boat, along with the sporty ride provided by the wind chop, had all the mates congregate in the wheel house with me as I pondered how to handle this. The words of my dock friend Bob came to mind so I quickly changed our course and headed due east into the wind. The boat was now level, and the ride immensely improved as confirmed by the look on the crews faces and the tone of conversation. With monsoon rain pounding us sideways, wind speeds steady at 45 and gusting to 55, our crew seven stood by in the wheel house with only the glow from the chartplotter to light the space. Five or ten minutes into the storm on our new course, lightening began to hit all around the boat. It really came as no surprise that we would experience lightening, but we for sure did not figure it being so close. The bolts came straight out of the sky and appeared to be the diamater of a large tree. Instantly, our storm tossed surroundings were as light as day, as a crazy loud boom of thunder exploded, with the concussion of the explosion thumping ones chest. The kids were now thrilled with the show as chants of "whoa....check it out....that was close" dominated the discourse. The words of Bob my dock bud came back into my mind as he had told me there was nothing you could do about lightening. I decided there was one thing I could do and that was not be touching the steel steering wheel, so I sat in the wheel house setee as the auto pilot held us on course and the show went on around us. Carrie came and sat next to me and quietly asked me if we were OK. I put my arm around her, and said absolutely. Like a large spider crawling across the Gulf of Mexico, ten minutes after it started, the lightening target zone seemed have crept more to starboard. The wind speed had now dropped to 20, and the waves seemed to be laying down a bit. 45 minutes after the first gust hit us, the storm was far to starboard, the course changed back to the Torguga's, and with the wheel house windows and door again open, we were rocking and rolling to our destination on unsettled seas.
A short time later, with Carries boyfriend Casey in the wheel house with me, we watched a another storm on the horizon and on radar. The storm was about ten miles ahead of us, and with Casey's observation of its direction on radar, we decided to change course again to the east and try to avoid it. 20 minutes after changing course, the blob on the radar evaporated, and the lightning on the horizon was gone, and for the last time that night, our course was again changed for the Torguga's. The seas that night remained unsettled as the breeze was fresh, but the sky's cleared and with the Milky way painted above us, the view above was was nothing short of spectacular.
20 hours after leaving Ft. Myers yacht basin the auto pilot was maneuvering us around Ft. Jefferson as we picked our way into the Forts harbor via the only channel available. The harbor was crowded with about ten boats, and with Dakota on the bow manning the now operational anchor winch, we dropped the new 85 lbs Manson 15' into a sand bottom, and backed down hard on it at with 5:1 scope. We had arrived after a successful 135 mile passage and the crews excitement showed with them all diving into the crystal clear water.
All anchorages we've been to during our short lives in Florida have their own inherent beauty, but Ft. Jefferson in the Dry Tortuga's is by far the most beautiful anchorage I've been in. With the view of the massive brick fort surrounded by white sand, crystal clear water, boats from afar anchored and sea planes coming and going, the place oozes adventure. We piled into our 13' dinghy, and made the short ride to the dinghy landing area where the kids quickly took off to explore while I searched for the check in area and procedure. A few hours later, we were all back on the boat watching a spectacular sunset as burgers cooked on the grill.
Our first morning in the Tortuga's had me waking the crew of millennials by nine as I didn't want to let anyone sleep this time in paradise away. I was sitting on the aft deck drinking coffee when Casey asked me if it would be OK if he bathed off the swim platform. He went and got soap and shampoo, then jumped in the water only to come flying back out exclaiming that there's three sharks under the boat. Using our snorkel masks, we stuck our heads in the water and quickly determined that the three large fish were Goliath Grouper. The three Goliath's took up residence under the boat for the entire time we were in the Tortuga's. Two of the Goliath's were guessed to weigh in excess of 150 lbs, and the third one , would have tipped a scale of 300 lbs.
We had cut bait on board, and when not exploring or hanging out on the island, the crew spent much time on the roof fishing, partying, and enjoying the short time we had in the park. The highlight of the on board fishing was when Carries friend Tyler caught a 3' Hammerhead.
The fishing excited the crew, and while I'm no fisherman, Gabe, Casey and myself took the dinghy to the far end of the island and decided to try our luck. The bait was so thick on this part of the island that the water looked more like a stew as we threw the cast net into a school of finger mullet. The first successful cast gave us enough finger mullet to try our luck. We positioned ourselves on the edge of a deep channel, while I captained the dinghy, Casey and Gabe hooked some mullet and tossed them into the channel. Instantly, a 4' Tarpon grabbed Casey's bait and began to run. With rod bent parallel to the water and line leaving the reel, the tarpon began it's jumps, and as fast as it was hooked, it was off. This happened three or four times before Gabe hooked into a five pound Jack that after a five minute fight, we landed it to the dinghy. A few minutes later, we tossed the jack back into the water, and the instant it hit the water a four foot Bull shark grabbed the fish and devoured it 20' off of the boat. The Tortuga's were not disappointing us as a place full of adventure.
As a group, the Millenial crew decided they wanted to see Key West, so after two days in the Tortuga's, we pulled anchor at five in the morning and headed east for the 65 mile passage to Key West. The wind was a stout +20 out of the east, and with 4-6' seas hitting us dead on the nose, the ride to Key West was for sure sporty. Four or five hours of this rough beating had us slowly closing in on the Marquesa's where, as we came into it's lee, the seas began to lay down. Not wanting to get into Key West after dark, we decided to anchor for the night at Boca Grande Key. Boca Grande is a great sheltered stop, and with it's white sand beach and clear water, we enjoyed a relaxing afternoon anchored 200' off of the beach.
Boca Grande Key is only 11 miles from Key West. The next morning we pulled anchor early and set a course for Sand Key light, which is a reef and the premier snorkeling area for Key West. We spent a few hours at Sand Key where we saw sharks, turtles and a myriad reef fish in the gin clear water of this special place. Sand Key is five miles from Key West, so an hour after letting go of the mooring ball at Sand Key reef, we were backing into our slip at A@B marina.
While I dealt with the boat at A@B, the crew stampeded for the showers, then quickly set their course for the fun streets of Key West. Key West really is a mecca in regard to a yachting destination, and for this crew, she did not disappoint. The free living, quirky lifestyle of the Conch Republic lets one know that they are in a special place. Adventure and experience pours out of Key West, and I can only briefly describe it in this short post as truly amazing. For me, what makes these adventures so much more amazing is that we get to these places on a home made boat traveling from destination to destination with the freedom of sea travelers of old. The word freedom keeps coming to mind, and it's not to difficult to use freedom as a synonym for boat as this is what these adventures mean to me.
Two days of adventure in Key West, had us leaving A@B at noon in order to time our arrival at the Sanibel bridge shortly after sunrise the next morning. This would have us back at Ft. Myers yacht basin by 10 am and back at our house by noon so the kids could do laundry and enjoy a day at our pool before I took them to the airport the next morning.
The passage back to Ft. Myers was under perfect conditions of no wind with the Gulf of Mexico completely flat. Because of the perfect conditions, we all sat on the front deck in chairs laughing and enjoying life as the auto pilot guided us north at 7 knots. Because of the 7+ knots we were making, I had to pull back on the throttle in order to keep us out of the Caloosahatchee river before sunrise.
Shortly after sunrise we crossed under the Sanibel bridge back into the dark waters of the river. The crew got to work gathering all their gear and cleaning the boat for our arrival at the yacht basin. We effortlessly backed into our slip as a team now experiences with each other, loaded the truck with gear, and 30 minutes after landing the boat, we were headed to our house.
Another trip was successfully in the book, but my heart was heavy as I prepared to say goodbye to my daughter whom I love and miss immensely. While my heart was indeed heavy, I sit here and type this with a smile as I think of our adventure together: Living so close to the weather as our first boat storm together reminds us of just how small we are....snorkeling with Goliath grouper hiding under our boat in crystal clear water... the look on these young peoples face as they hook fish that built the legends of this part of the world... amazing sunsets viewed from places only a ocean going boat can get to...figuring out that boat and freedom can mean the same thing.
The Dry Tortuga's are for sure a special place, and a place every seafarer needs to add to add to the bucket lists. Later this summer will find me again making this special trip so another Torguga post is in the works.