The Dry Tortugas

Published: January 1994  Mid-Gulf Sailing
© 2014 Troy Gilbert
By Chad Brown

Venture 22

It was a dark and stormy night…., actually it was not stormy, but it was quite dark the night we headed on a southerly course for Key West, Florida, from Everglade City, Florida. We had trailered Royce Porter’s Venture 22 from New Orleans and arrived at Everglade City Sunday afternoon, the 23rd of May. Royce and I had never made a significant nighttime voyage before so we wanted to be sure that we would not arrive at the unfamiliar approach to Key West, 75 miles away, in the dark. For that reason we started our voyage at about 5:30 p.m. from Barren River Marina on the rising tide. The Barren River is a tidal river, therefore the current goes downstream on the falling tide and upstream on the rising tide. We motored through Everglade City via the Barren River and out into Chokoloskee Bay and through the band of the “Ten Thousand Islands” separating the mainland from the Gulf of Mexico. When we reached the lighted marker at the end of Indian Key we set sail and vectored for Key West.

The wind speed was advertised at from 15 to 20 mph. That fact, along with the consideration that we soon would be gripped in darkness, made us feel that discretion was the better part of valor and we raised the 90% jib, instead of the 150% genoa, along with the main sail. This proved to be prudent as the wind increased as the sun sank closer to the horizon. I told Royce that the way the seas were rolling and the winds were in-creasing, I didn’t really want to wait ’till after dark to go forward to reduce sail so we decided to dispense with the jib and enter the nighttime hours sailing on only the main. That also was a good decision as the winds were gusting to 27 mph and seas running at seven feet plus before the night was over. The mainsail on this boat has no reef points and relies on roller reefing, a somewhat more cumbersome method of achieving a shortened sail. Unfortunately, by the time we realized that reefing was called for, it was really too dark and too rough to do safely. We, therefore, had no choice but to proceed with the main eased as far out as possible. This led to a great deal of flapping and noise from the main sail. This bothered us somewhat because the sail is in the neighborhood of 12 years old and we had some doubts as to how much abuse it could take. Since we were on a beam reach we were parallel to the seven foot waves which made for a none too comfortable ride.

Photo Credit: Greg Miller

The darkness came upon us slowly but finally we had to turn on the running lights and the instrument lights so we could see and be seen. When it was as dark as it was going to get, which was very dark, the result of no moon, we became much more inter-ested in being seen than seeing. The boat was crashing along at six to seven knots with the main eased as far as possible. The sky was clear and full of stars and black as pitch. Except for a circle around the boat that was illuminated, very dimly, by the masthead tricolor, we were blind. That, my friends, is a very helpless feeling. We had to hope that everyone and everything out on the water tonight had some kind of light on.

Royce and I both had, by now, put on our rainsuits to minimize the effect of the spray we were frequently getting in the cockpit. I had also put a sweatshirt on undermine. This is late May at latitude 25 degrees north; I did not expect to be wearing sweatshirts and windbreakers in order to ward off the chill. The rolling of the boat added considerably to our discomfort. You couldn’t stay below more than a couple of minutes before feeling the beginnings of seasickness encroaching on your consciousness. The movement of the boat is especially magnified in your mind when you can’t see what’s coming at you out of the darkness. Quite often the only warning you had was the sound of a breaking wave an instant before it would strike the side of the boat – very unsettling to say the least. Eventually, due to the combination of tension and motion, a large and persistent lump formed in my stomach to remain there and taunt me all night. Just as I was feeling so ill and miserable, Royce yelled “Quick, give me the bucket.” I thereby learned that I was not alone and felt a little better about my discomfort. Thereafter, Royce would be serenading me about once an hour until daylight would come to ease our disorientation problems.

At one point during the night we were hit on the port side by a particularly large breaking wave. Foam shot into the cockpit and the boat seemed to come to a complete stop. When we cleared the water from our eyes we saw that the rubber dinghy we were towing had overturned. I had to lean out over the water and pry the reluctant craft back over to an upright position while our boat thrashed along, regaining its speed. I would like to say that, as an added precaution during the nighttime hours, we did wear both life jackets and safety harnesses which were tethered to the boat. While, as it turned out, neither of these were needed, they did give us a much more secure feeling while bobbing around the Gulf on that small a craft.

Daylight finally did appear revealing the empty horizon and the turbulent sea. We had tried to follow the compass headings dictated to us by the Loran-c unit we had on board, but the rolling of the boat made that very difficult. The best we could do much of the time was to keep the compass needle within ten degrees on either side of our heading. Nonetheless, the Loran was still giving us a reasonable corrected course heading and indicated that we were several miles from our next waypoint, the marker at the end of the North Channel into Key West. It is now that you have to make yourself believe the instruments, because we passed markers at some distance which we might have mistaken for ours but turned out not to be. We kept plunging along and at last saw the islands begin to come into view.

After finding our marker and entering the channel we motored to our anchorage behind Christmas Tree Island (local name) opposite downtown Key West. There were many boats moored and anchored out from the island, but because we were such a shallow draft boat we were able to get close to the beach on the lee side – a very calm anchorage. It was around noontime when we dropped anchor. Fifteen hours of hard sailing with no food and very little to drink and about thirty with no sleep. The rest of the day was spent eating, napping and cleaning up the boat. Royce cooked a chicken dinner for us that night which we ate with gusto and then slept the night away.

The next morning, Tuesday, we took the water taxi into Key West and did the tourist thing all day. The bartender at the open air pub said that this was the slowest month of the year. We noticed, with some interest, that quite a few Europeans are now making southern Florida their vacation destination. We took the Conch Train Tour all around the town, stopped at one museum and ate a couple of times. The museum we visited was the one set up by the famous shipwreck salvor Mel Fisher. The display at the museum consisted of much of the “treasure” taken from an ancient Spanish sailing ship, the Atocha, that was flagship of a fleet returning to Spain from the “New World” when they were caught in a storm off the Keys. This ship was lost and sank during the storm and came to rest on the bottom in some 50 feet of water with all its precious cargo still aboard. It remained there until, more than 300 years later, Mel Fisher and crew uncovered the site. Gold, silver and jewels in staggering amounts were recovered from the site. Some of this is on display in the Key West attraction.

The biggest deal in town, according to the tourists, is to see the sun go down from Mallory Dock. Many street performers and sidewalk venders are on hand, along with a goodly number of the professionally unusual who make appearances each night. There was a one-man band who kind of looked and sounded like John Denver, also a man who had a show featuring trained house cats. I didn’t know it was possible to train cats. The sunset was not spectacular or even good on this particular night, but it was fun to be part of the scene. After dark, Royce and I, along with several others, rode the water taxi to our respective vessels. One of the passengers was one of three men that had sailed to Key West from Marathon, Florida, on an 18-foot boat. They had tried to sail back twice but the winds were too strong and out of the wrong direction for them. The winds did not change until the next Sunday. I wonder what they did. They may have ended up taking the bus back to Marathon and then trailering the boat back.

You meet some interesting people on the water taxi. We met a young man from Oregon who had come to Key West for a break from life in the northwest. He decided to stay and bought an old, but well cared for, 35-foot sailboat which he lived on and kept moored off Christmas Tree Island. He worked at different jobs all related to the tourist industry. Now he is a jewelry sales-man. He said he would stay here long enough to pay off the boat then sail it back to Oregon.

After a fairly good night’s rest we had breakfast and got underway at about 8:30 in the morning, to our destination, the Marquesas Keys. We motored through the pass between Tank and Christmas Tree Islands, turned south paralleling the Key West waterfront, raised the sails as we came abreast of a huge cruise ship at the dock and sailed on south to marker #13 where South-west Channel heads off in the general direction we wanted to go. Following this course for a few miles brought us to the intersect with the West Channel that we could follow to the Marquesas Keys. The Marquesas are 24 miles west of Key West, an easy sail with the wind at our back, sunshine in the sky and whitecaps on the water.

At one point during the trip that day, I was taking my turn off watch, enjoying the leisure, when the boat did a radical 90 degree turn in the space of one boat length. Both Royce and I knew something serious was wrong. He looked over the stern and said, “The rudder is gone.” Right then I knew that the trip was over. I also knew that getting back to Key West without a rudder was going to be a feat in itself. It turned out that we were lucky in two respects. One was that the rudder was tethered to the boat and two is that the rudder floated. The bolt holding the lower half of the rudder to the top half had fallen out and was lost. After an almost fruitless search Royce found a less than satisfactory replacement bolt. It was bent but, with the aid of a couple of large washers, we were able to get it to work. This wasn’t our only problem. When we lost the rudder the mainsail flogged violently, which resulted in two large holes at the top and middle batten. We had to retire the sail and continue on using only the small jib. With the wind behind us at 15-20, this worked quite well.

The Marquesas is a group of keys that describe a circle, similar to what one would expect in a Pacific Ocean atoll. The water inside the circle averaged a depth of probably two feet. There are breaks between the islands but in most cases these were very shallow. There is, however, a deep channel that goes through the inner waters of the group. It is guarded by a three-foot deep bar on the southern end, so you have to be careful entering when your boat draws close to three feet. We had few worries in this department as we could reduce our boat’s draw to just under two feet. There was some question, however, as to where, exactly, you entered this channel as it was also bracketed by flats with a depth of one foot at low tide. The water was murky from the wind and waves giving us another ingredient to the challenge but, after a couple of miscues, we successfully entered the quiet waters inside the island group. Motoring about a quarter mile up the channel, we dropped anchor and began to really try to relax for the first time in the trip. The wind was still able to affect the boat as it wasn’t totally blocked by the islands, but the water was quite calm due to the fact that it was only a foot deep in most places. Since it was past lunchtime and we had skipped it until now, I suggested that we go ahead and eat our steak dinner while it was light and we had such calm weather, so we did. After that, I think it was nap time again as we still hadn’t fully recovered from the night crossing to Key West. It was then time, at last, to see if the dinghy motor would work. Apparently it doesn’t like to ride, empty of gas, on its side for several days. It took a while to get it started and several attempts at adjusting the mixture in order to get it to run consistently. After that was accomplished, we never had a minute’s trouble out of it.

The first excursion in the rubber boat almost turned into a fiasco. We motored downwind on a falling tide towards a beach that Royce wanted to visit. The water quickly became too shallow to use the motor, but we could drift with aid from the wind towards our destination. It was interesting and entertaining to view the flora and fauna living on the bottom in that shallow water. Most of it was the kind you wouldn’t really want to have to walk over if you were wading. Upon reaching the vicinity of the beach we had to exit the dinghy due to the water depth, and we stepped into the gooiest, yuckiest mess you can imagine. The water was three inches deep, the goo was two feet deep and, at one point, three feet deep. After a quick and disappointing look at the beach we attempted to return to our floating home by the same way we had arrived. It didn’t take long to understand that that would be impossible until high tide, some six hours away. We did not want to wait. This left only one alternative that I could see. The only course we had available was to drag the dinghy through the shallow channel beside us the short distance to deep water on the extreme western side of the island group and motor around the outside of the several islands between us and the original entrance to the deep water channel we had entered some hours before. “No problem” you say. That was almost true, but when you have a seven-foot rubber dinghy with a one-and-one-half horse motor it takes a little while. We arrived back at the boat a little before dark.

The evening was spent planning our next day’s sail to the Dry Tortugas and patching the mainsail. The patch job, since we had no needle and thread, was done with duct tape and epoxy glue. We taped the torn place on one side of the sail, epoxied the joints on the other side then taped over the epoxy. It worked. We had no problems out of the sail from then on. Royce decided to remove all the battens in the sail since the batten points were where it was tearing. The mainsail had taken such a flogging on the way over to Key West that we wanted to treat it as gently as possible for the rest of the trip.

Thursday morning we had our usual semi-relaxed breakfast then turned to on the boat and made repairs to the rudder that would be more permanent in nature. A much more satisfactory bolt had surfaced sometime during the night; now all we needed were two large washers to cover the large hole where the old bolt had fallen out. The spare hardware cache did not yield these to us, so we ended up cannibalizing them from the swing keel stop bolt which could live without them. By the time all this was accomplished the old clock on the bulkhead was indicating about 11:00 a.m. The winds were still advertised to be in the 15 to 20 mph range, so we still had plenty of time to cover the 38 miles to Garden Key and Ft. Jefferson. Once more, we kind of felt our way across the sand bar guarding the entrance to the channel then set sail, wing and wing, to the west. I know that I haven’t mentioned the weather much on the trip so far. The reason for that is that, except for the crossing the first night, there was little change during the whole trip. Skies were clear to partly cloudy with wind 10-20 out of the east and no rain.

We made good time for awhile, but then the wind slacked off to about ten mph, slowing our progress a good deal. It was somewhat surprising to me how little sea life we saw during our voyage. On this day, though, we were shadowed for a time by what I believe to be a very large hammer-head shark. It had a large dorsal fin which was not like the porpoise fin and I did not see any evidence of breathing when it surfaced, which was seldom. Three or four sightings of this creature were all we had. Later in the day, if I haven’t gotten my days mixed up, we did see some porpoise as they came for a short romp with the boat. They made a few passes along our course close to us, then lost interest. Obviously matching our speed was not enough of a challenge for them.

Sailing wing and wing, as we were, does restrict you to running pretty much the same direction as the wind and in this case the wind was not going exactly where we intended. Our track was trending south of our destination and the day was starting to wear thin. All of these factors led us to make the decision to drop the sails and fall back on mechanical power to help us get to Ft Jefferson before dark. Once again the inventions of modern man served us well; with Mr. Johnson supplying the forward momentum and the Loran telling us where to point the bow, we were able to make landfall and drop anchor in seven feet of water just as the light was fading away.

We were not alone here. As a matter of fact we had more company than we had seen since leaving Key West. There were about 20 other boats anchored around Garden Key. A few were on the western side of the island but most, us included, chose to anchor just out of the channel on the eastern side between Garden and Bush Keys. Bush Key is unique in the area due to the fact that it is the nesting place for the Sooty Tern. I mean all of the Sooty Terns. You have never heard such a racket as went on there 24 hours a day. I’m sure that some of the birds slept some of the time but there were always a number of them milling around, coming or going and just yakking it up in general. Once you accepted the fact that they were never going to shut up, their constant chatter became a rather soothing background noise which one would miss should it suddenly cease.

Anchoring here was not as simple a task as anchoring usually is. The bottom was sand covered by a very dense carpet of grass. This did not allow the anchor flukes to bite into the bottom very well. After two or three attempts the anchor finally held but I was left with a nagging feeling that it was probably a precarious purchase at best. In order to help allay my fears, I threw out a second anchor. I later noticed that we were not the only ones with multiple anchors out. We had had a tiring day so we hit the sack early that night. When I checked the anchors the next morning I was surprised to see that the heavier, shorter K-Mart anchor was holding us and the Danforth-style one was not. It is usually the other way around.

Bright and early the next morning we were up and at ’em. Actually I think we were up before the sun and it wasn’t because we were so eager to start the day but rather due to the early hour we went to sleep the night before. There was one other reason we wanted to be up early and that was that both of us needed a bath and we didn’t want a large audience. Our usual bathing routine consists of wetting down, then standing on the stern ladder while lathering up using shampoo, then plunging in for the rinse cycle. This accomplished, we were ready for the day. I think that after breakfast Royce went back to sleep and I went snorkeling around the boat. Upon entering the water I made a rather unsettling discovery. We had not been unobserved when we took our baths. A four-foot barracuda, along with a
cloud of small fish, had taken up residence under our boat. It was not aggressive but would not be forced out. I didn’t try very hard.

Ft. Jefferson is the main attraction at Dry Tortugas National Park and is open to the public for self-guided tours each day. The dinghy finally started to earn its keep as it carried us to the fort. Two large people and their gear make quite a load for that little rubber boat. I wouldn’t want to go very far on open water like that.

The fort is a massive brick structure built before the Civil War and encloses most of the island within its walls. The structure of the wall is three stories high containing gun emplacements at each level. The interior of the fort is mostly vacant as the bar-racks and other living quarters are, for the most part, gone now. The fort was originally built to house over 400 cannons and a garrison of several hundred men. The cannon were to be placed so that, at any given time, 120 guns could be brought to bear on any one target. I would not want to be that target. The purpose of the fort was to guard the only anchorage south of Norfolk, Virginia, where the Navy could anchor its biggest battle-ships. There is a natural basin here, protected on all sides by shallow water and averaging 50 feet deep. Ft. Jefferson was never equipped or staffed to capacity, though, as it proved to be very difficult to supply the garrison with what it needed to exist in this outpost at the ends of the earth. Fresh water was the main consideration. Even today, since there is no source of fresh water there, that commodity is treated as a very precious one. The original builders constructed cisterns below the walls to collect rainwater through pipes that ran to the top of the walls. The idea was a good one and worked well until, due to the weight of the structure, the footings of the walls began to shift, causing cracks in the cistern walls. This allowed salt water to seep in and contaminate the fresh water. Whereas in modern times that could have been overcome, it proved to be too much for the builders then. One very interesting feature of this fort is that it is surrounded by a moat. While not deep enough to keep a man from approaching the wall, it would certainly slow him down enough to make him think twice about what he was doing. The fort was used as a prison on occasion. Its most notable prisoner was Doctor Mudd, the doctor who tended to John Wilkes Booth after he assassinated President Lincoln. Dr. Mudd spent several years here and helped with the yellow fever epidemic before being paroled.

The National Park Service rangers are in evidence there, but more as guardians of the site rather than educators. Each ranger we saw, male or female, was equipped with pistol, mace and walkie-talkie, and did not go out of his or her way to engage us in conversation. The only words I heard from the rangers was a comment that our boat was smaller that the Cuban vessels they see. Apparently they get a lot of illegal aliens showing up in this area so they tend to be a little suspicious in nature. All that aside, the fort was very interesting and we had fun touring it.

It takes a little time to realize why there are so few other people there. The reason is, of course, that the only way to get there is by boat or seaplane. Seaplanes make unscheduled trips there whenever someone will pay a fee to do so. Most of them are pontoon planes of the Alaska bush plane variety, but there is one full-size dual engine job that came several times. It was interesting to see that thing take off, land (how can one “land” on water), taxi forward and backward. (Yes, they can back up.)

I don’t think I have mentioned the other bird that was in evidence around the island. The frigate bird. Now the frigate bird does two things that I know of. He/she flies and sleeps and I’m not real sure about the latter one. When flying they like to expend as little energy as possible and since their six-foot wingspan is built for soaring, that is riding thermal updrafts, they have found a way to use the fort to suit their purpose. The wind, during our stay, was blowing at 10-15 mph from the east fairly constantly and when it came in contact with the eastern wall of the fort it had nowhere to go but straight up, creating a false thermal updraft. The birds, realizing this, used this updraft to hover over the fort for hours on end. This gave them a safe vantage point from which to fish from, since the fort is right on the water, and allowed them to fulfill their instinct to soar. There were usually twenty to thirty of them riding the wind there. A beautiful sight.

Later that day, Friday, we took the dinghy past the “coal docks” to the southwest side of the fort and anchored in about eight feet of water and went snorkeling. The water was clear compared to what we had seen so far. Visibility was probably twenty feet or more. The sun was behind clouds so was not able to light up the various colors for us much, but it was still beautiful there. The sandy bottom was punctuated by clumps of coral of many kinds. Unfortunately, much of the coral, especially the staghorn variety, was dead. There were plenty of other kinds alive and a fair number of fish. We were accompanied by some small number of lesser sized barracuda. This is common when diving on reefs. They kept their distance but always seemed to be not too far away. We swam inshore to the seawall by the coal docks. The undersea life, while not overwhelming, was reasonably abundant. At one point at the end of the seawall, by some rather large rocks, was a cloud of tiny fish. It was quite a strange feeling to swim through the cloud as they moved just far enough away that you couldn’t touch them. Although this was almost the first week of June and the weather was warm, the water was a little on the cool side. We wore trunks and t-shirts in the water but we still had to get out after awhile due to the chill. Shortly after returning to the boat, we had a visit from a couple from Ft. Myers who had sailed to the Tortugas the same night we sailed to Key West. They marveled at the fact that we sailed in that weather in a 22-foot craft. Theirs was probably 35 feet. They said we were the talk of the anchorage and they had to come over and see who these two nitwits were who would sail this far in that size boat. I have to admit that I was beginning to feel the same way to some degree. Having to carry enough provisions to last up to ten days takes up most of the room inside the boat so if you want anything or want to lie down you always have to move several things to accomplish your task – it begins to wear on you after a while.

Our new friends gave us some very interesting and welcome information about a site for snorkeling. They spoke of a beautiful shallow water reef called “Little Africa,” located about 200 yards off the beach on the western side of Loggerhead Key, which was visible a couple of miles or so west of the fort. They indicated that to get there they had to take a two-hour detour around the shoal area to the south of the key. After checking the chart, we decided that we could probably cross the shoals to the north with a few feet to spare, thus cutting down our travel time considerably. The next morning, we raised anchor and motored out of the anchorage to the west toward the north end of Loggerhead Key. The water depth quickly fell off to 50 feet or more and remained like that until we were at the north end of the island. We could see the bottom ahead of us in the shoal area, but our depth gauge was still reading 50 feet. Then all of the sudden, in the space of maybe 20 boat lengths, it went from 50 feet to about eight. From then on, I stood on the bow watching for coral heads as we slowly felt our way across the shoal. The water, which had appeared murky during our trip over, now seemed crystal clear. This made it very difficult to gauge how much water was between us and the undersea obstructions we were passing over. Luckily, I only seriously misjudged once. We struck one coral head with the swing keel at very slow speed and were able to extract ourselves with little difficulty. The water continued so clear that I was still trying to guide us through the coral when Royce informed me that our depth was 30 feet. The bottom still looked as if was just under the keel. Following the instructions given us, we anchored off the beach by maybe 300 yards in about 15 feet of clear, calm water.

The dinghy was pressed into service again as transportation and a base for our snorkeling operations. This proved to be a good plan as periodically we would have to get out of the cool water. The sun wasn’t shining today and we missed its warmth. The sea bottom was filled with coral of all kinds. A little further inshore we found the “Little Africa Reef.” What an exciting spectacle it is—huge rounded coral heads, some coming as close as within two feet of the surface. In some cases, the mounds had grown together, forming a massive reef riddled with nooks and crannies that served as safe havens for many of the colorful and abundant reef fish. Most of the fish we saw were fairly small, under twelve inches. The larger game fish seemed to be absent. Royce and I, at one point, took the dinghy ashore and walked to the southern tip of the island; at that moment we stood on the southernmost point in the United States east of the Mississippi River. The surf that was rolling over our ankles there was almost as clear as the water we had been diving in. We finished the day by motoring back to the fort and witnessing the best sunset we had seen on the trip.

The weather for the next couple of days was of great interest to us as we had to cross 115 miles of Florida Bay to get back to Everglade City. Consequently, we had been monitoring the weather channel from time to time. There had been talk of a tropical depression being in the area, but the weather forecasts indicated pleasant weather similar to what we have had ’till now. I couldn’t understand why, if there was a storm brewing, that the weather service didn’t talk about it much. “Oh well,” I said, “if it was some-thing to be concerned about they would tell us.” We on the Island Girl weighed anchor for the last time early on the morning of May 30th, heading out the channel past Iowa Rock (so named for the grounding of that great battleship there sometime in the past), then north by northeast by Hospital Key (where the fort’s yellow fever victims were quarantined), continuing northeast toward the shoals that ringed this area for miles. The wind was blowing at reduced force today, probably five to eight mph. Our speed was a dismal three to four knots. Some preliminary calculations would lead one to believe that this crossing could take more than two complete days. Even though the sailing was slow, it was pleasant enough, but I was not looking forward to two plus days of it. Sometime in late morning or early afternoon we approached the shoal area where the bottom once again came up to peer at the sky through the clear water. It turned out to be a similar situation as rounding Loggerhead Key. A boat with a fixed deep keel could not have gone the way we did. The depth varied from six to 30 feet for a while then, all of the sudden, dropped off to 110 feet of the deepest, bluest water that you have ever seen. It was absolutely beautiful. The depth in-creased to 120 feet and remained there, varying only a foot or two, for the longest time. Quite surprising.

Unlike our first crossing, we were seeing some other boats/ships along the way. Most were of the fishing and shrimping class. The only reasonably large ship we saw appeared to be riding at anchor. Neither of us could imagine why a ship would be anchored this far from civilization. We, of course, imagined some really dark purpose for its actions. Gratefully, we never found out if we were right. Clouds carrying small rain showers began moving into the area during the early evening, but we were lucky enough to miss most of them, save for a few drops. We saw our last shrimpers shortly before dark, passing close astern of one anchored, waiting for night when the shrimp come close to the surface. It was shortly after this that the wind began to pick up and swing from the east to the southeast, a much more favorable direction for us. All day we had been wanting to go on a more easterly course in order to sail to our destination, but the wind would not cooperate, insisting on blowing from the east, so this was good news for us but a little late. We now needed a heading of east by northeast to get there and we couldn’t quite get it, so we resigned our-selves to the necessity of some tacking in the near future.

The night sky was rimmed in clouds but clear overhead much of the time; the moon played hide and seek among the clouds but still gave us the benefit of its light for much of the night. Our course brought the boat to a path meeting the oncoming waves at an angle of 30 to 45 degrees. We were running close-hauled on a starboard tack, the jib and mainsail pulled in as tight as we dared, with winds in the 10-15 mph range. This kept the boat heeled over at a 15-20 degree angle all night long. Only the man on watch at the tiller could get comfortable; the other would have to hang on as he could. Our compass, being mounted on the port side of the cockpit, was on the low (lee) side of the boat making it very difficult for the helmsman to read accurately since we were bouncing around like crazy. If you didn’t keep close watch every minute on the course, the wind or the waves could have you swinging north then west, well away from where we intended. If you overcompensated, the sails would luff or, as happened at least twice, put us into an unintentional tack which would scare the socks off both of us. Coming off my first watch of the night, I searched for a place to get a little much needed rest. I lay down on the lee side cockpit bench, just below a couple of lines in our running rigging. This was a fairly secure spot out of the wind and spray for the most part, and I was able to catch a few minutes sleep here.

When I woke I was looking into the cloudless part of the night sky at a field of brilliant stars locked against the black background of midnight. The veiled moon was off our stern, high in the sky, shedding a thin white light around us. The boat, heeled to 20 degrees, was charging through the waves with a constant crashing sound, and over the cockpit rail I could see, dimly in the night, the crests of the whitecaps on the waves around us and the foam of the boat’s wake angling away from our side. I lie there like that, sampling each sensory treat, one at a time, as I drifted on the edge of full wakefulness. The feel of the boat being tossed by the wind and waves, the sound of the wind beating the sails and the water rushing by the boat, combined with the visual stimuli, came together to create an incredible experience. I finally had to force myself to break the spell and re-enter the real world. As I sat up in the cockpit I was able to see the wake of the boat more clearly. There was something different about it. It was brighter than normal. Upon closer inspection I found that it was alight with bioluminescence. Microscopic life in the water was giving off light as it was disturbed by the hull of the boat moving through the water. I leaned out over the side to see it better and was treated to the sight of the keel and the entire bottom of the boat glowing with light and the light streaming out behind the craft to a depth of some five feet. I would have liked to be able to see it from a vantage point away from the boat. What a sight.

Just like on our first night out, the wave action made it very hard to steer a true and consistent course using the compass, and I again resorted to steering by the stars. Unfortunately, these became obscured by the clouds as it got on towards morning. Some-time around 3:00 a.m., as I was taking my turn at the helm, I saw in the distance two very bright strobe lights mounted on some-thing high above the water. I stared at these for what seemed to be like an hour trying to determine their significance. What did they mean? They weren’t running lights so it shouldn’t be a ship. I didn’t remember any large structure indicated on the chart. Was it a warning of a shoal or some other unspeakable danger? I could not tell. These are the kinds of thoughts that race through your mind as you concentrate on the blackness in front of your boat as it crashes through wave after wave in a seemingly blind flight across the sea. The Loran and the compass can tell you which way to go, but neither can tell you what is ahead of you, so you are never 100% sure. We passed about a half-mile west of whatever it was and we never saw it again.

I really think that it was my willing it to happen that caused daylight to finally appear on the horizon. I only wish that it had shown down on a more tranquil scene. The tropical depression that they neglected to mention lately had caught us. The winds were no worse but they turned out of the east again making it almost impossible for us to make Everglade City on our second day out, and then the skies opened up. They opened up and stayed open for the next eight hours. It didn’t take us long to decide that we couldn’t take another day of this and what was to come, so with sweatshirts and rainsuits on we lowered the sails, cranked up Mr. Johnson and headed towards Indian Key some thirty miles to the east. Several hours and a couple of tanks of gas later we made the turn around the end of Indian Key in heavy rain and entered the channel to Everglade City. As we made the turn, we passed a sailboat just leaving the channel and setting sail to the south. I had no envy in my heart for those aboard that vessel. In fact, the last thing I wanted to do was to spend one more cold, wet minute aboard any boat. When we finally docked at the marina I think there was only a six-inch square on my chest that was still dry. Thirty hours out of the Dry Tortugas, we were finally “home.”

The trip was finished with a warm shower, a warm meal in a restaurant and a night in a real bed followed by one long drive, non-stop, back to New Orleans.

This was the sixth year that Royce and I have made a springtime voyage on the Island Girl, but our first time actually being beyond the horizon for an extended period of hours. That is a major step for two middle aged lake sailors. It is obvious from my account that we did not do everything right. We did learn some good lessons from this voyage, as we have from each of our previous trips.

Lesson number one: Do not start an overnight leg of a trip without adequate rest immediately prior to weighing anchor.
Lesson number two: Carry some nutritional snack food which can be eaten during a rough and wet crossing with no preparation. It must not add to stomach upset.
Lesson number three: Expand our store of repair items. You can’t fix everything with epoxy and duct tape.
Lesson number four: Don’t explore downwind on a falling tide and watch what you step in.
Lesson number five: Be prepared to stay warm and dry no matter what time of year it is.
Lesson number six: Give yourself ad-equate daylight hours to reach your next anchorage if it is in unfamiliar waters.
As time goes on I imagine we will realize other lessons learned on this voyage, but for now, let’s start thinking about the next one.


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