The Florida Keys & Dry Tortugas

We’ve finally made it to the Keys! We’re so excited…clear water…sand beaches…well, not so much. Every new anchorage we’d pump the kids up, “…and this one will have a great beach”…and it wouldn’t. Then a few days later…”well, this one will certainly have a great beach”…and it doesn’t. Come to find out, we were a bit ignorant to the fact that there really aren’t any sand beaches here. Oops.

From Eric:
Looking into the weather I see that we are supposed to get a blow from the NE.  The anchorage we were at has very little protection from the NE so it is time to find a new place to be.  The Keys are split up rather clearly.  There is the inside which runs north of the keys and south of mainland Florida, and an outside route called Hawks Channel and it runs south of the Keys and north of a barrier reef.  The inside route is well protected, however shallow, while Hawks Channel is deeper, but less protected from the ocean.  In both courses there are limited anchorages that are protected, but the inside route will definitely have less waves.  Unfortunately for us there are several bridges that go from Florida to Key Largo that have a 65 foot vertical clearance, so we can’t head down the inside route from our anchorage.

Looking at the charts in detail reveals only one place that we can pass from the outside to the inside.  All the other bridges that connect the Keys are way to low for us to get underneath.  The chart shows one bascule bridge that can open for us, however, right next to the bridge wan overhead power cable is listed that says it has a clearance of 75 feet.  The top of our mast is supposed to be 72 feet off the water.  There is an antenna on top, but it can bend.  I figure we’ll give it a shot.  I know Kelly will be much happier on the inside with smaller waves.  (However, at the time, I didn’t fully grasp how shallow it is on the inside.)  

Snake Creek, with the lift bridge, is about 30 miles down the Keys.  We get up early and head back through the creek and out to Hawks Channel.  The sail down is fairly calm with a light wind from the SSE and we motersail with one engine running.  I bring the sails down as we approach the bridge.  I can see the cable and it looks low.  I call the bridge operator to check for the next opening time.  He informs me that we are just in time and the bridge will open in about 10 minutes.  I then ask him what the cable clearance is just on the other side of the bridge.  He tells me he doesn’t.  I tell him the chart says its 75 feet and he says that sounds about right.  Not comforting.

The current is going with us as we line up to go under the bridge.  If that cable is low, or our mast is high, we are screwed.  I wonder what the expense is for tearing down an overhead cable.  As we navigate under the bridge, I favor the west side because it looks like the cable is higher there.  I ask the bridge operator if we will clear the cable.  He is very informative and replies that he can’t tell.  Then, as we are just under the cable, he radioes back that it looks like we have almost a foot of clearance.  For once I am glad it is low tide. 

It’s at this point I inform Eric that we will NOT be returning this way. WAY too stressful.

From Eric:
My pleasure with the tide is short lived.  Once we are under the cable, the other end of Snake Creek forks and both forks show a depth of 4.5 feet.  Excellent. We draw 4.5 feet, plenty of water.  (Oh boy!) With no better knowledge I take the one to the right and we head out to the designated channel on the inside which is shown to have 5.5 foot depths.  We motor slowly, and the entire time the depth sounder read that there is less than 6 inches of water under the boat.  

When we are successfully on the inside we head for a place called Barley Basin.  The chart shows that it has an incredible depth of 8 feet.  Unfortunately ,to get there the path is about 5 feet deep.  It’s quite amazing that after looking at a depth sounder that reads 1 foot of water under the keel for a few hours you get used to it.  You don’t even get concerned until it reads less then 0.5 feet, and 2 feet is quite comfortable.  Once in Barley Basin we have good holding and good protection from the forecasted weather. 

The wind howls for a few days and I’m able to continue my windsurfing education.  The wind shifts to the SE and I am able to convince Kelly that it will be a great sail to Bahia Honda.  The guide claims that it has a great beach and is a beautiful park.  Looking at the chart there are a couple areas of shallow concern, but there isn’t much I can do about them.  We plan to follow Steamboat Channel all the way down.  The wind is up to 20+ and I plan to sail the entire way.  What I don’t plan on are the lobster pots.  

The lobster pots are relentless.  They are in the channel, and everywhere.  Kelly won’t take the helm for me to put up the sails because of their density.  I finally find a stretch that will allow us to comfortably put up the main and we sail all the way to Bahia Honda at 7-8 knots.  At one point the chart shows deeper water just south of the channel so I head for it because I have grown tired of seeing less then a foot on the depth sounder.  My boldness is rewarded with the depth sounder telling me there is only 0.1 feet, so I promptly go back to the channel.  

We anchor on the north side of Bahia Honda by 2:00, plenty of time to explore the park.  We jump into the dinghy and head to the landing.  We find the landing is closed and most of the park has been destroyed from hurricane Irma.  We end up tying up the dinghy at some ranger dock and have to cross some caution tape to get to the park. Once in the park it is a fairly abysmal failure.  Most of the park is closed off because there is still debris around, and the beach is mostly just rock.  Needless to say, the kids are not impressed. 

We only stay in the area a couple of days waiting for the wind to break.  We get an opening and have a downwind run to Key West.  It would have been a nice motorsail save for the lobster pots.  They are so thick you could walk on the buoys from Big Pine Key to Key West.  The charted course that we are supposed to take would have been 40 miles, but I’m sure that we travel closer to 60 avoiding buoys.  

We finally make it to the NW channel of Key West without wrapping a lobster pot around the prop.  Once in the channel there aren’t any pots.  We motor up to the north end of Fleming Key and drop the hook.  There are a bunch of boats here and at least a third are unseaworthy.  

Looking at the weather, it appears that we will only stay in Key West for a couple of days and then head out to the Dry Tortugas.  I want to go while there is some wind.  The forecast calls for near 20 knots and the seas are down.  The day starts off with 20 knots out of the east and we have a dead run to the Tortugas.  I put up the genniker and we are cruising at 8+ with the occasional 9.  Unfortunately, the waves grow and before long we get into seas that are 7-9 feet.  Kelly isn’t happy.  The waves are from the northeast and we are able to take them on the quarter.  Unfortunately a couple hours out the wind dies on us and we have to continue with the engines.  

We arrive at the Dry Tortugas at around 1530.  With the wind up and the waves a little rough so we anchor at the entrance to Ft. Jefferson.  There are 6 boats here and we are able to use our shallow draft to get up and away from everyone. When I dive on the anchor there is about 10 feet visibility and nothing remarkable to see.  I fail at getting the park rangers on the radio, so the girls and I go check in with the dinghy.  We find the ranger station inside the fort.  

The next day I look forward to exploring the fort because I want to know why it was built.  However my curiosity was put on hold because as I start washing our breakfast dishes off the stern a huge, 6 foot+, Goliath Grouper comes up to meet me.  It is awesome.  I call the girls.  As we watch two more join him.  I am so taken by them I get my snorkeling gear on and sneak into the water from the bow.  Once in the water it is awesome.  The Grouper just hang there in the shade under the boat.  Each one of them bigger than me.  I am able to swim right up to them and they don’t move.  It is a little disconcerting, but great.  After about a half hour I am getting cold and climb back onto the boat and then we go to the fort.

The fort dominates the entire island.  Though its an engineering marvel and I appreciate the effort that went into its construction, it seems to be tactically pointless.  The massive brick structure dwarfs the likes of Ft. Sumter or Ft Clinch.  Its incredible to think about the logistics of the construction.  Bringing over all the brick must have been monumental and then there were huge stone slabs that were used for spiral stair case treads.  Its just amazing, and only trumped by its complete uselessness.  Not only was it tactically useless, but there were some significant engineering failures.  The Dry Tortugas are aptly named because there is no fresh water on the islands, therefore Fort Jefferson had to rely on cisterns for water.  They built the cisterns as the foundation of the fort.  This was a huge failure because they were built of stone and brick on top of sand.  When the sand shifted under the weight, the foundation cracked, as the foundation was under the sea level, salt water contaminated the cisterns.  Of the projected 1.5 million gallons of fresh water capacity over 93% was contaminated before the construction was complete. Another intriguing fact was that nearly all of the labor to make the fort was prison or slave.  It just builds on the question, “Why does Fort Jefferson exist?”  

We go through the fort and my initial impression of its uselessness seams to be further confirmed.  General Patton must have visited Ft. Jefferson when he noted that, “fixed fortifications are monuments to the stupidity of man”. The biggest guns on the fort had a range of 3 miles.  Just enough range to reach out to Loggerhead Key and not even enough range to cover all of the deep water harbors in the area.  The literature at the fort would have you believe that it was to protect trade routs in the area, which seems ridiculous.  The range of the cannons is 3 miles anyone could just sail around it, heck you could anchor a ship at the Dry Tortugas and be out of range.  It’s like saying that the dog in the house at the end of the street protects the neighborhood.  Forts of that era were built to protect a harbor.  They had interlocking fire, and could deny an enemies access to a harbor. Ft Jefferson, is the most ambitious and expensive Listening Post Observation Post (LPOP) that I’ve ever heard of.   At best, if they saw an enemy armada heading to Tampa or Key West they could get in a fast sail/steamboat and give a few hours notice of the impending invasion.  After spending the morning exploring and reading about the fort, I dismiss the idea that this fort was a tactical resource. So now the question is, what other reason would the government need to have spent millions excavating and building?  If it was built in the 1950’s I would have guessed that there was a large uranium deposit on the islands and the building of the fort was just a facade to extract the uranium, but what could have been so valuable in the 1840s that would justify the cost of millions of dollars for this useless fort?

With few of my questions answered, we go back to the boat for lunch.  As we are prepping lunch, the girls frantically looked over the side for the grouper.  They find them.  The goliath grouper are still under the boat.  I take the GoPro into the water and swim with them for another half hour.  There are now five goliath groupers under the boat, every one of them is bigger than me.  It is cool.  The video isn’t that good, but it is amazing to swim with these giant fish.  

After lunch we go snorkeling and hang out at the beach.  It is a great day at the fort the girls and we are able to talk to the rangers and have fun running around.  As the sun goes down we move out to the boat for supper and get ready to head back to Key West.  

The next morning is calm as predicted.  The trip back to Key West is uneventful…in the beginning.  After a couple hours of a light breeze from the northeast a fog settles in.  A thick fog. Our visibility is reduced to less then 100 yds in a few minutes.  As it settles in, our visibility goes through areas that are down to 100ft.  The light wind and lack of visibility is very disorienting.  I have to constantly check the gauges for reference.  

The lobster pot threat really escalates as our detection time has been significantly reduced.  However, after 4 hours or so of intense concentration, the fog starts to lift just as we get close to Key West.  We are able to get the hook down back where we were just before sundown.  We relax with sundowners and have fun trying to figure out why they really built Ft. Jefferson.

We leave Key West and head back up the Keys with the intent of getting over to the Bahamas.  Our first stop is a small spit of an island called Molasses Key.  It is just large enough to protect us from the 2-4’ waves that we’ve sailed against.  The girls and I explore the island and find a bunch of sponges washed up around the island.  There were thousands of hermit crabs moving shells everywhere.  The best part is that we see a baby hammer head shark, and Cloe nearly walks on water to get away from it. Between the two, I’m not sure who was more scared.  

We make a quick stop over at Marathon Key for some items and head back to Key Largo.  I am surprised by how many boats are in Boot Key harbor.  It is packed.  The real surprise comes when I found no place to tie up a dinghy.  I talk to a couple of people who suggest the city dock but it is $20; are you F’n kidding me?  In the end I end up anchoring my dinghy down one of the little finger canals within jumping distance of the shore.  I figure if anyone gives me problems I’ll fake engine problems.  As beat up as our dinghy looks, anyone would believe it.  It doesn’t seam that Marathon is at all hospitable to transients.  

The long haul from Marathon to the top of Key Largo is a long motorsail.  The crab pots are an ever present danger, and somehow we make it through without getting caught.  After 9.5 hrs of traveling we are ready to set down the hook and have a beverage.  Soon we’ll be heading to the Bahamas.

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