On Monday, March 7th, Cutter Loose slips away from her mooring at the St. Petersburg Municipal Marina at 7:30 AM for today’s 38-mile run to Sarasota. We arrive at the Marina Jack mooring field in plenty of time to enjoy the sunset over the Ringling Causeway Bridge.
The primary goal of our stay in Sarasota is to position ourselves for Wednesday’s pre-season baseball game at McKecknie Field in nearby Bradenton, winter home of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Public transit whisks us from the transit center in downtown Sarasota to Bradenton in less than an hour for an unbeatable, one-way geezer fare of 60 cents per person. Better yet, the bus stop in Bradenton is located within a 5-minute walk to the stadium.
Today’s game against the Red Sox is a sellout. There are so many unrecognizable minor league players and frequent substitutions in today’s game that it is difficult to judge the relative strength of the team. Our fervent hope is that Clint Hurdle and his staff can guide the team to post-season play for the third year in a row.
On Thursday and Friday, a total of 126 nautical miles pass beneath the keel of Cutter Loose en route from Sarasota to Marco Island, including an overnight stop at Cayo Costa. These are long, challenging days, motoring into 15 to 20 knot winds with 4 to 6 foot waves on our bow. This is the price one pays for travelling north. Eventually, one must return south into the prevailing southeasterlies.
On Friday at 6 PM, the anchor is down in Factory Bay at Marco Island. We have arranged to meet cruising friends John and Nancy of IP 420 Adventuress for lunch on Saturday. After a quick tour of the beach, Chef John prepares a delicious lunch in their freshly-remodeled Marco Island condo. Afterwards, John provides us with transportation to the grocery store for final provisioning prior to our departure from Marco Island. This is yet another example of cruisers helping fellow cruisers.
On Saturday at 4 PM, the anchor is up in Factory Bay. Our destination is the Dry Tortugas, a tiny archipelago located 125 miles to the southwest. With 15 knots of wind on her beam, Cutter Loose romps along on a beam reach, happy to be at sea again after languishing in marinas for several months.
A slight sliver of a moon disappears below the horizon before midnight, lowering the ambient light and magnifying the vast network of directional signage in the heavens. Go Sky Watch announces Saturn and Jupiter as the most brilliant stars of tonight’s sky show. The smaller star Psi Velorum (61 Light Years) is our virtual steering point on the southwest horizon. Vega (25 Light Years) lies directly astern. For the first 8 hours, tonight’s journey remains quiet with little boat traffic. Cutter Loose is alone in the Gulf of Mexico. The feeling of being under sail at night and alone in our small corner of the world is simply sublime.
Midway to the Tortugas, boat traffic increases significantly. Dozens of shrimpers dot the radar screen in the early morning hours, trawling for the delicious pink shrimp that populate the waters of the Florida Keys. Since shrimpers move slowly and change direction frequently, our course meanders like a drunken sailor through the maze of fishing boats.
Still 5 miles from our destination at first light, the 170 foot lighthouse on Loggerhead Key appears on the southwest horizon.
Soon, a faint outline of Fort Jefferson on Garden Key begins to take shape as we cross the boundary into the Dry Tortugas National Park. By 9 AM, Cutter Loose is comfortably riding on her anchor in the park’s central boat basin while her crew catches up on lost sleep.
The first thing that is noticeable here is the vibrant aquamarine color and clarity of the water. As such, the Dry Tortugas are a touch of the Bahamas and the Caribbean right here in the U.S.
One might ask why such a massive brick fort is located in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by water. What is it designed to protect? For the next several days, we explore the answers to these and other intriguing questions.
During our stay, we are joined by cruising friends Sharon and Greg aboard IP 40 s/v Dream Catcher who sailed here from Marathon. We are amongst a total of a half dozen pleasure boats anchored in the harbor.
The Dry Tortugas archipelago was discovered by the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon in 1513. The islands were named for its abundance of turtles. However, the absence of a source of potable water negated the possibility of a permanent settlement. The U.S. acquired the Dry Tortugas from Spain in 1821 as part of the Florida territory. These tiny islands were recognized by the U.S. for their strategic importance in keeping our shipping lanes open and guarding our nation against invaders from the south.
Construction of the fort began in 1846 and continued for 30 years until 1876. Shifting sands caused the foundation to sink which, in turn, caused the fort’s 8- foot thick walls to buckle and crumble. By this time, naval warfare had changed dramatically.
Masonry fortress walls once thought to be impenetrable by cannon balls of the 1840s are being reduced to rubble by improved naval artillery in the 1870s. The project was abandoned in 1878 without a single shot fired in defense of the fort.
Fort Jefferson served as a Federal (Union) prison during the Civil War. Its most famous prisoner was Dr. Samuel Mudd, convicted as an accomplice in the escape of assassin John Wilkes Booth.
Each day at 10:30 AM, the fast ferry from Key West arrives with its payload of tourists. In addition, a single engine seaplane makes several trips to and from Key West each day. By mid-afternoon, the tourists have departed, leaving only the sights and sounds of waves breaking on surrounding reefs and squawking birds performing aerial maneuvers above their nests.
Here in the Dry Tortugas, there is no cell phone service, no television, no Internet service, no roads, cars or restaurants. The only way to arrive here is by boat or seaplane.
As such, it is an excellent escape from the outrageous behavior and media frenzy that dominates the civilized world. Rather than staring aimlessly into electronic devices, people here seem happier, genuinely interested in exploring the outdoors and more engaged with their fellow human beings.
Springtime visitors here in the Dry Tortugas also include over 300 species of migratory birds. Some 80,000 Sooty Terns are currently nesting on nearby Bush Key, the most important breeding colony in the continental U.S. Nearby Long Key is home to 100 nesting Magnificent Frigatebirds, the only current nesting colony of this species in the continental U.S. These islands are designated sanctuaries. As such, they are off limits to humans, other than the NPS researchers who band and keep tabs on the migrants.
Two miles from Fort Jefferson on Garden Key is Loggerhead Key, the largest island in the Dry Tortugas. Named for its abundance of loggerhead sea turtles, Loggerhead Key is a haven for wildlife, including turtles, migrating birds and coral fish on its outlying reef.
Snorkeling on the reef on the west side of Loggerhead Key is made easier by strategically placed dinghy moorings. Our snorkeling expedition with cruising friends Greg and Sharon of s/v Dream Catcher provides a glimpse into the underwater world of coral, colorful reef fish and crustaceans.
A picnic lunch and a stroll on the picturesque west beach makes for a memorable visit. Other than the two NPS volunteers that live on Loggerhead Key, we are the only humans visiting this pristine natural setting today.
Because they are so remote and isolated, the Dry Tortugas in general and Loggerhead Key in particular are popular destinations for Cuban migrants. Under current U.S. policy, Cuban migrants seeking to escape Cuba must have one “dry foot” on American soil in order to remain in the country.
Two days prior to our arrival, a makeshift boat known as a “chug” landed on the beach at Loggerhead Key with 19 Cuban passengers on board. This particular chug is about 22 feet in length with an open cockpit and a rudimentary marine engine.
In order to fit 19 people into 22 feet of space, the passengers were packed into this chug like sardines.
NPS staff housed the migrants until the U.S. Coast Guard arrived on the scene. The Coast Guard transported the migrants to Key West, then on to Miami for processing.
NPS staff is responsible for cleaning up the remains of Cuban chugs that wash ashore on the beaches within the National Park. According to one Ranger, Cuban migrants face a 50/50 chance of making landfall when setting off on a passage to the U.S.
On Wednesday, the anchor is up at the Garden Key boat basin at 8 AM, marking the beginning of our journey east to Marathon. The objective is to arrive in Marathon well before the forecasted cold front that is expected to pass through the Keys this weekend.
By 3 PM, the anchor is down in the Marquesas atoll, located about 20 miles west of Key West. The Marquesas are uninhabited and out of cellular range. The atoll is a shallow inner lagoon surrounded by a circle of small, low-lying cays. Here we enjoy a calm overnight anchorage while shrimpers work the surrounding waters.
Wishing to extend our visit to some of the more remote areas of the Florida Keys, our overnight anchorage on Thursday is at Sawyer Cay in the Great White Heron National Wildlife Refuge.
Sawyer Key is located on the northern side of the chain about midway between Key West and Marathon. This is yet another remote anchorage far away from the heavily trafficked Overseas Highway. During our travels this week, we have come to better appreciate the hidden beauty of the Florida Keys.
On Friday, the anchor is up at 9 AM for the final leg to Marathon. By 2 PM, Cutter Loose is docked at the Harbour Cay Club. This closes the circle on our 84-day exploration of the Gulf Coast of Florida that began here at HCC on December 26, 2015. We will remain in Marathon until our departure for Cuba in early April.