Dry Tortugas to the Marquesas (keys)

Ft Jefferson – Garden Key Dry Tortugas


Howdy Folks,

As I write this, I’m sitting in the cockpit as we head East from Ft Jefferson.  We’re motor-sailing East towards the Marquesas Keys in about 4.5-5knots of SE wind and about a gentle 2 foot swell.  We spent 3 incredible nights anchored at Ft. Jefferson on Garden Key in the Dry Tortugas National Park. To say it’s an absolutely amazing place, just doesn’t really do it justice.  This is one truly remote and beautiful place.  If we didn’t need to keep moving and head north for H-season, we’d probably still be anchored there.

Really the only way you can get to the Dry Tortugas is by boat or float plane.  There is a ferry that comes in once a day around 10:30 with a load of tourists.  The ferry stays until around 2:45 to allow them some time to check out the fort and do a little snorkeling.  Then they load up and the place is really peaceful.  There’s also a pair of float planes that make 3-4 trips a day each for folks that don’t want to deal with the ferry.

Once you’re in the Tortugas, the only options for overnight are to either camp on Garden Key near the fort, which looks pretty cool.  Or of course to be on your own boat.  Want to guess which option we took?  Either way, you must be self-sufficient once there, no water is available and you’re required to pack in and out all food and trash.  There are some very basic toilet facilities available and you can pick up things like shirts, books and sunscreen/bug spray at the store in the fort, but not much else. That’s what makes this place so great it’s only about 60 miles from Key West, but feels much further removed from the hustle of daily life in the “real world”.  The place is quiet and beautiful and an amazing monument to government waste.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to get all preachy here, but the fort is absolutely huge.  imposing old red brick walls enclose 16 acres of land in the middle of nowhere and since it was never completed it never  really served it’s intended purpose for the US.

Defending the harbor
Never completed but truly massive
Not a bad view from the top of the walls

But man, is it a cool place to visit now.  A massive crumbling brick fortress, surrounded by a salt water moat.  It covers Garden Key almost completely and is surrounded by the bright blue waters of a naturally protected deep water harbor.  The harbor is the reason the fort was built, to protect ships that patrolled the gulf and straits of Florida. The harbor made for a perfect supply base and safe harbor during storms and allowed the ships to maintain a vital trade route along the Gulf coast.  Anchoring in the Dry Tortugas was a new experience for us.  It was so cool, to be in calm water surrounded by reefs that break the waves from the Gulf but almost nothing visible on the surface.  This leaves you with the feeling of anchoring in the middle of nowhere.  There’s no real wind protection, so most nights we had a great breeze blowing through the boat and keeping our SilentWind wind generator singing as it kept the batteries topped up. Even when the wind really piped up, the water was calm thanks to the surrounding reefs and shallows.

Bush Key is off limits this time of year due to the nesting terns…1000s and 1000s of them

Again, we’re very glad to have added the wind gen option. Many of the days have been overcast, since getting to Florida which of course impacts our solar production.  Without the SilentWind, we’d likely have had to run the motor to charge a few days.  With the combo of wind and solar, we’ve been able to return the batteries to 100% state of charge pretty much every day but 1-2 and have never been forced to run the motor simply to charge up the house bank.


So, as Kara and I kick back in the cockpit to enjoy a fairly lazy passage the Marquesas (not THE MARQUESAS I keep dreaming about…but the Marquesas Keys) we’ve been chatting and just realized we’ve now been cruising for 3 weeks as of yesterday.  We haven’t been in a Marina since our initial landfall in St Pete.  So, for about 2 ½ weeks we’ve been anchored out, or on a mooring ball.  Many places in Florida don’t really want you to be able to anchor for free (Sarasotta and Ft Myers Beach are the ones we’ve been through so far).  It’s their solution to the derelict boat problem they have to deal with in most of the more convenient anchorages.  We’ve seen the problem first hand in many anchorages, with old unmaintained boats that just sit in one place and dump their head waste directly overboard.  It’s easy to recognize the problem, but prohibiting anchoring altogether, just seems heavy handed.


For the last 2 ½ weeks, we’ve been sans Air Conditioning and have relied almost entirely on wind and solar for our power and have cooked most every meal aboard Vela.  It feels like we’re finding our groove and that’s been awesome.  Don’t get me wrong, we still do things like drop the anchor 3 times at Ft Jefferson before we find a place we’re happy with.  Or forget to secure the dinghy well, resulting in one of our neighbors saving it for us…talk about embarrassed but SUPER thankful.  But then we also get to pay it back to the cruising community when one of the other boats got their rigid dinghy swamped in the surf at Loggerhead Key yesterday.  Kara and I were able to land our dinghy in the surf, slide it up on the beach and then jump in to the water and, with the help of several other cruisers, wrestle the dinghy up onto the beach…over the course of about 90 minutes.  Result dinghy and 20hp outboard where saved.  Eminding us of something heard early on in our sailing live …  “Somedays you watch the show…somedays you are the show.”  The important thing is to learn from those experiences, not let them get you too down and embrace the constant state of change that is cruising.  Sometimes it’s crazy squalls at 2 am, that have you rushing around the boat securing all the hatches in a sleep induced haze.  Other times it’s kicking back on top of an old fort, near a massive old cannon in the middle of nowhere, with frigate birds soaring past at eye level, as the sun descends into the bright blue water…with an ice cold beer and your chicky beside you.

Frigate bird riding the thermals above the fort
Sunset above the fort with Loggerhead Key in the background.
Not a bad way to end a day


All in all…yeah I’d say I’m enjoying this new experience.


Now, bring on the Marquesas…(keys) and tomorrow hopefully Key W

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *