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by Dan and Jan Ahart
"The best laid plans of mice and men gang aft aglee (go oft awry)." So said Robert Burns, Scotland’s greatest poet and gifted songwriter in his poem, To a Mouse, published in 1786. Yes, the same Robert Burns, who wrote Auld Lang Syne, A Red, Red Rose, Tam o’ Shanter and other classics everyone studies in English 101. I assume Guy Lombardo was a fan of his also. Our best laid plans to sail to the Dry Tortugas and Key West, were changed due to some unexpected adverse weather. We waited in a bay across from Cabbage Key, which is just off the Intracoastal Waterway, North of Ft. Myers and South of Charlotte Harbor. This was a convenient location, because of the ready access to the Gulf from Charlotte Harbor.
Cabbage Key is noted for its restaurant (no, we didn’t see cabbage on the menu) and proximity to an area of mangroves called The Tunnel of Love. The tunnel is a natural stream that runs from the bay through some mangroves to a smaller bay that is adjacent to the beach on the gulf. Mangroves completely enclose the stream, giving the illusion of a tunnel. The stream is shallow and can only be accessed at high tide by wading, which we did some, or paddling a small boat. We used our 10-foot inflatable dingy. The Tunnel was very interesting in that it twists and turns for about a half mile and while in it, nothing can be seen except mangroves. It is very primitive and gave us the impression that we were in a primeval area a zillion miles from civilization.
Waiting for the right weather, we also had an opportunity to conduct some highly scientific studies of the fishing techniques of various birds. We observed four distinct approaches birds use to obtain a meal. First there are the dive-bombers. This category includes pelicans, sea gulls and some other small but as yet unidentified species. The dive bombers fly anywhere from one foot to 100 feet above the water looking for fish close to the surface, when they spot one, they dive head, correction, beak first into the water with a tremendous splash. If successful, they sit there for a few seconds getting the victim turned correctly for easy swallowing. This amounts to getting the fish down the gullet headfirst.
The second technique involves underwater pursuit. This is pretty much limited to the cormorants. These versatile birds swim on the surface until ready to submerge and then use their feet and wings under water to chase and catch fish by either grabbing them or stabbing them with their beaks. They then surface to turn the fish for proper swallowing. We saw one cormorant with eyes almost larger than its mouth or throat. It brought up a fish that we were convinced it could never swallow, but after about five minutes of work it actually got it all down, but the extra weight of the fish rendered the cormorant incapable of flight. It was so heavy it could not get airborne even thought it tried mightily. So, partially submerged, it paddled away to some discreet haven to sleep it off.
The osprey or fish eagle spots fish from the air and dives on them at high speed but instead of entering the water, it grabs the fish with its powerful talons and flies off all in one smooth action. Then there are the birds, like heron, that stand in the shallows and stare at the water like an undertaker waiting for opportunity to present itself in the way of fish slow enough to allow itself to get jabbed by the birds long beak and subsequently swallowed.
There is a fifth technique that I have seen on television where the bird flies low just above the water, with its beak in the water. When it encounters a tender morsel, it shuts its beak and there is dinner. I think it’s a skimmer of some type. Actually, there is a sixth technique that I am aware of where the bird just walks along in the shallows with its beak in the water filtering whatever it finds. I believe they are called spoonbills or dabblers.
The weather finally changed to our liking and we left the West coast of Florida for the Dry Tortugas. Conditions weren’t perfect, but they were acceptable. The winds were out of the Southeast at 10 to 15 knots with clear skies. Our desired course was South by Southwest, which meant we would be tacking slightly into the wind. This is not our best point of sail and we would make slow headway, but we figured we could sail a more westerly course for the first day and then change direction and sail Southeast the next day when the winds were forecast to clock around to the Southwest. Not a bad plan, but of course the weather never cooperates that well.
The first day and night out went very well partly because our autopilot was now working superbly, which makes standing watch much easier. One only has to monitor things as opposed to actually steering, which can be very fatiguing, especially at three in the morning, when those funny little numbers on the compass all begin to look the same. We took two-hour watches and things went very well until the second afternoon, when the wind did not clock around to Southwest as forecast, but came at us straight from the South. To add to the challenge, the wind picked up to 20 knots instead of the forecast 15 and the seas ran consistently at six feet instead of the forecast three to five. We weren’t really too concerned, but we knew it would now take an extra day to get to the Tortugas.
On the positive side, we experimented with "heaving to", which is an ancient technique sailors have used to stop the forward motion of a ship during heavy winds and create a relatively calm environment where the crew can get some rest. It involves “backing” or setting the jib or foresail so it wants to turn the boat down wind, while at the same time setting the main sail and rudder so they want to turn the boat into the wind. The result is a balance, where the boat sits rather motionless in the water and simply rides up and down on the swells without rolling or pitching excessively and also not being blown downwind. It took some adjusting, but we finally got things balanced. It is a marvelous technique and we were very pleased with the results.
Studying the charts, listening to weather reports, and discussing our alternatives, we reluctantly called upon the iron sails to get us to the Dry Tortugas in the most direct manner. The iron sails being our two diesel engines. So we furled our Dacron sails and fired up the twins and set course directly for the Tortugas. We motored all evening and all night. The promised Southwesterly winds finally arrived at 10:00 am the next day whereupon we shut down the twins, raised the sails and acted as a proper sailboat for the final 20 miles to Ft. Jefferson, Dry Tortugas, arriving at 3:00 pm. Dry Tortugas archipelago is really an extension of the Florida Keys. From Key West on Westward for another 70 miles there is a series of shallows and small keys. The Westernmost key is Loggerhead key, which sports a lighthouse. The gulf gets very deep West of the lighthouse. Just two miles East of Loggerhead Key is Garden Key, which is the home of Ft. Jefferson. The water is beautiful and clear. We could clearly see the bottom more than 20 feet below us.
Obviously, the snorkeling and fishing is superb. But the real attraction for cruisers is the safe haven in the form of a designated anchorage on the South side of Garden Key. The second attraction for boaters and the number one attraction for tourists is the fort. Fort Jefferson was begun in 1848 and was supposed to be a heavily fortified safe anchorage for a fleet of ships that would control access to the Gulf of Mexico. The fort was constructed off and on for over 30 years but never quite completed. Some 16 million bricks were used in its construction and most of it still stands and can be toured extensively. During and after the civil war, it was used as a prison, the most famous prisoner being Dr. Samuel Mudd, who treated John Wilkes Booth. Mudd was sentenced to life, but only served four years. President Andrew Johnson pardoned him because the evidence against him was questionable at best and because of his work during an outbreak of yellow fever. His cell can be seen as it was when he was there. Ferryboats, float planes, helicopters and private boats provide access to the fort for tourists from Key West. It is the largest and last great fort ever built by the United States. It is now under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. The park rangers wear hand guns at all times and when they approach a newly arrived boat, such as Sojourner, they wear bulletproof vests. They wanted to know whom we were, where we came from and how many people and of what nationality were aboard. There have been too many instances of drug runners, who play for keeps, using the Tortugas as a rendezvous point. There is also the Cuban situation. Hours before we arrived, two Cuban men successfully crossed from Cuba in a raft and landed on Bush Key, which is adjacent to Fort Jefferson. In talking with the park rangers we learned that if a Cuban steps foot on American soil he or she can stay, but if they are caught in the water, they are sent back to Cuba. Strange, but true. But then the current administration is strange but true.
Commercial fishermen, who spend up to two weeks at sea earning a living, use the safe anchorage by the fort. It seems that after a week or so they get thirsty for adult beverages and are willing to trade some of their catch for suitable refreshment. We obtained fresh fish, shrimp and lobster in this manner. It doesn’t get any fresher or better than that. The Tortugas are really habit forming. The beautiful sunsets, the coconut palms, the old fort, the comings and goings
of cruisers from all over and fresh seafood for the trading. And an occasional refugee from Cuba shows up. Does it get any better than this? Stay tuned.