Thursday, May 22, 2014

Dry Tortugas to Key West

Posted by Sara

Well, never a dull moment on a boat.  We arrived at Key West on Friday.  It was midnight, pitch black with winds gusting up to 30 knots.  Don't we have a rule never to arrive somewhere in the dark you ask?  Yes!  So something went wrong.   As you can imagine we are delighted to now be all in one piece and comfortably tied up to a dock in a nice marina in 'the land of plenty.’


First impressions of being back in the states……hopefully this doesn’t sound too provincial, but… aaaahhhh - clean docks, clean washrooms, actual toilet paper in the washrooms & nice toilet paper at that!

They speak English here, all the water is potable, we can eat anything from anywhere and not worry about a stomach bug and all the people are nice and act like they appreciate our business.  You can’t miss the super sonic fighter jets that fly over in pairs at regular intervals.  We got buzzed in the boat at about 4 pm as we were sailing toward Key West – it’s a uniquely American experience.  Oh and the food portions.  We went to grab some dinner the day we got here.  We all ordered something and when the food came, our eyes bulged –  it was enough food to feed a football team.  Oh yeah, we are definitely back in the States.  Yum.


Here is a quick rundown of some of our first thoughts on returning to the states:
  • Alexander came back to the boat after his first trip to the nice clean washrooms with soft TP and announced that he was back in heaven.
  • Christopher has been Googling for a mall with big stores (mainly electronic) since he hopped onto the WiFi.  He likes his internet and his toys.  He is also looking forward to a Subway.
  • Katie is looking forward to going to an Olive Garden.  It’s Alexander’s birthday in a few days so hopefully we can accommodate.
  • I am just looking forward to replacing my $3 Guatemalan flip flops.  My lovely Sanuks, which had held up impressively from 24/7 wear for over 8 months, finally gave up the ghost in the Rio Dulce.
  • I asked Scot what he liked about being back in the U.S.  He said he just wanted to turn around and sail south to Panama.  But I think secretly he is happy to be back where things all work a little more efficiently.
So how did we end up coming into Key West at Midnight?

It all started in the Dry Tortugas.

We had finished our crossing from Isla Mujeres mid-afternoon on Thursday, motoring in little to no wind.  This fit in with the weather forecast we had when we left Mexico.   From this point, the winds were supposed to come up to 15 knots from the north during the night on Thursday and slowly clock around to come more from the east by Saturday in the day.  We really wanted to get to Key West before they clocked around to the east as that would mean sailing directly into the wind.

The distance from the Dry Tortugas to the marina we had booked in Key West was about 75nm, so we guessed it would take between 10 – 17 hours depending on our speed.  We weren’t exactly sure how the current would effect us for this section.  So our plan was to leave the Dry Tortugas on Friday night after a day of rest and arrive into Key West on Saturday morning (in full daylight) before the wind switched to come from the east.   We had considered the option of leaving early in the morning on Friday but it wasn’t ideal, since if our boat speed was slow, we’d be arriving at the marina after dark.

As it began to get dark on Thursday night, the wind really started to pick up from the north.  Lots of boats were repositioning themselves in the anchorage at the Dry Tortugas.  It felt like more than the 15 knots we had expected.  Several boats limped in after dark, having aborted their trips north, looking for safe harbour.  They obviously hadn’t planned to stop but were probably getting bashed around too much.

By morning, it was really howling from the north, 25+ knots.  Hmmmmm.  We were feeling a bit uncomfortable with our plans so Scot dingyed over to the ranger station to look at their updated weather forecast.  Their prediction was for 25-30 knots winds from the north/northwest during the day, and then dropping to 25 knots from the east/northeast on Saturday.  We really didn’t like the speeds of the winds but particularly didn’t like the switch to the east/northeast.  We certainly couldn’t sail directly into 25 knot winds.  Well technically we could beat up there, but it is really bashy and uncomfortable sailing right into the waves.  Scot, being brilliant, pulled out the sat phone to call Chris Parker to see what his thoughts were.

Chris Parker basically said – go now or you will need to wait a week at the Dry Tortugas as the winds will be strong (25+ knots) from the east starting Saturday morning.  It was 10 am Friday morning.

Are you serious?  We, of our own volition, sail out into 25-30 knot winds at 10 am with a 15 hour sail ahead of us?  This will guarantee not only a CRAZY passage but that we arrive in a busy unknown port in the dark in strong wind?  Did you not see all those boats limping into this anchorage looking bedraggled and exhausted searching for a safe escape from the wind and seas?  Never mind whatever is going to be running through all the other cruisers heads as we leave a secure anchorage in this.  But, on the other hand, waiting a week in the Dry Tortugas?  As interesting as they are, we are on a bit of a timeline, and don’t really want to sit here for a week waiting for our opportunity to make it to Key West.

OK – Let’s go now!  Scot called the marina to see what advice they could offer for arriving in the dark.  The reassuring answer came back that they had boats arrive in the dark fairly frequently and that it was an easy marina to get into.  We just needed to come straight up their channel and tie up to their lighted fuel dock, without even making a turn.

We programmed some back-up waypoints into the GPS so if we chickened out of arriving in the dark we could just sail further up the Keys.  We weren’t sure how we would clear customs if that happened, but our main focus was making an otherwise sketchy trip as safe as possible.  Within 10 minutes, our crack team had the anchor up and we were motoring out the narrow shallow channel into the huge winds and waves.

The radio crackled…”Monahsee, Monahsee…this is Manana…ummmm… what’s it like out there?”  Translation “Where the *&^%$ are you going in this slop?”
Scot looked at me…”Are we sure we should be doing this?”…..“Keep sailing!``, I said.

To be honest, I wasn’t nervous of the 25 knot winds especially as the crossing was only 10 or so hours.  My background is dingy racing so sailing in a lot of wind is really just a lot of fun if you aren’t doing it for an extended period of time.  We just reef our sails right down and fly along.  Hey, if you have to sail, you might as well  be sailing fast!  Our boat sails really well and, at this point, our team is pretty much a well oiled sailing machine.  It’s only the big waves pounding the boat which make it uncomfortable and cause the exhaustion.  My main concern was arriving in the dark.
So we reefed everything in and headed off.  The waves were definitely big for the first few hours but with the high winds we were flying along at 8 knots.  Yeah!  As we went, the wind stayed high but the waves became smaller, and as soon as we were tucked in on the south side of the Marqueses Keys we were well blocked from the waves and had euphoric sailing all the way to Key West – consistent 8 knots of speed with almost no waves. It reminded me of sailing behind the reef in Belize.
The only concerning thing as we came closer to Key West and dusk fell, was passing crab pot after crab pot in the water (truthfully I don’t know what kind of seafood trap they were, but they were just plastic buoys in the water  every few hundred yards and we weren’t sure if they were just attached to a single line or some kind of net).  I prayed we didn’t end up coiled in some fishermen’s net in the dark.  The depths had been about 35’ or less since we came behind the Marquesas Keys so there were hours of sailing in prime fish net waters.

Everything went as planned and with the extra speed, we were already threading through channel markers south of Key West by the time it got dark.  Luckily most of the markers near Key West have flashing lights on them and they are precisely pin pointed on our navigation software so we could essentially just sail on the GPS and pray there weren’t any surprises out there.  We made it to the entrance of our channel without running into anything or getting caught in a fish trap.  We roused both of the boys from bed to help dump the sails in the dark.  It was shallow all around so we didn’t have a lot of ‘wiggle room.’  In a testament to the skills we have all developed during the year, it was a full team effort but the sails came down without a glitch and we switched to motors as we puttered down the channel.
Now, where to go?  Fortunately, the marina fuel dock was a lighted 500’ stretch of dock without a single boat on it – resembled a long landing strip.  Love those Americans who ‘go big or go home.’  Even we could get onto that dock.  It was still blowing 20 knots, even in the sheltered channel, but it was blowing right on our nose so we weren’t too worried about getting blown onto the dock or off the dock.

Scot, as usual, managed a perfect landing.  With no one to grab our lines, we came in gently enough for me to jump off the side of the boat mid-ships and the boys threw me the lines.  We all breathed a huge sigh of relief.  In retrospect it was a fantastic sail and a great day. It was just unfortunate that we spent the whole day worried about the last few hours in the dark.  I guess we weren’t going to be allowed to finish our year without a good story to tell.


1 comment:

  1. Awesome story! Got to love it when Parker says "go now!" Sounds like you guys have quite the little sailing team. Welcome back to the US. Both a happy and sad feeling I'm sure...