Sailing to the Dry Tortugas, Part 1

We have been planning on going to the Dry Tortugas for over a month. Things kept getting in the way, like work projects, the weather, etc. We were starting to think that maybe we didn’t have time after all to get all the way out there and back before a fire performance gig we had booked for March 26.

Looking at the forecast showed seven days of good weather and nice winds. Sailing for the day from Isla Morada to Key West, where we planned to stay the night and provision for the trip to the Tortugas, we enjoyed the conditions so much that we remarked that “if the whole trip to the Tortugas would be like this, we’d just ail through the night.”

Let’s just GET there already! The Dry Tortugas is about 70 miles from Key West, so it would take us approximately 20 hours to get there. We wanted to arrive in the daylight, so that meant going through the night. We had our buddy boat Gemini Dreams with us, and he too wanted to make the trip but didn’t want to do it alone. It would be the first time for both of us sailing out on the open ocean out of sight of land. A big milestone!

Gemini Dreams

We stopped at a marina on the east side of Key West on Stock Island, Oceanside marina. We filled up with gas and ice. Lala, and Wes from Gemini Dreams, went to the bus and then on to the grocery store and K mart. Capt’n K stayed aboard and researched the weather and talked to tow boatUS about our planned route and any local knowledge they could impart.

The weather forecast was for 7 day of mostly sunny conditions with NE to SE winds between 10 and 20 knots. For the trip out there, the forecast was for E-NE winds around 15 knots, with clear skies and an almost full moon. How perfect! We called friends and family and told them about our plan. We told them our itinerary and route and asked them to wait to hear for us until a certain date and time, and if we hadn’t checked in by then they should call the coast guard and have them send out a search and rescue boat. we always do that when we go out on trips into the wilderness or water. If no one knows where you are going, what route you are going, and when you are supposed to be back, then you have next to no hope of being found.

We have an 8-horse Honda bf8d 4-stroke outboard. It’s supposed to average about 0.5 to 0.8 gallons per hour, but at full throttle into the wind and seas, I bet it could use a gallon per hour. So if we had to motor for 24 hours at 3 knots to make it back to Key West, we’d need 24 gallons. Lala picked up an extra gas can so that we could carry at least 25 gallons on board for the trip. We currently only had two 5-gallon cans and a 7-gallon portable tank, totaling 17 gallons. If we were to have to motor back at full throttle into the wind and heavy seas, we would need more than that.

So Lala got food and an extra gas can and gas, and so did Wes. Capt’n K checked over the boat and inspected all the rigging. He remembered that he still hadn’t put the cotter pins back in the turnbuckles on the stays and shrouds (the cables that hold the mast up), so he got them in before we left. He took the outboard off the dinghy and stowed it on desk so that the dinghy would be easier to tow. We have a 10.6 foot long dinghy, so it’s too big to put on deck. The lesser of the two evils is to lighten the dinghy by emptying its contents and then just tow it.

Wee Happy leaving for Dry Tortugas at Dusk

So even though we were quite nervous, we set out from Key West at sunset. A glorious sunset it was, too. With East winds blowing a steady 10-15 knots, we had a downwind run almost the whole way. Sometimes downwind sailing can be a breeze, and sometimes it can be REALLY annoying. We experienced a bit of both. For Lala, sailing downwind is the most challenging point of sail, and when the boat gets rolly and the sails won’t stay full, it makes her CRAZY with aggravation. But when the sailing is easy, well….she loves that part! The seas were pretty gentle and they rolled us along at a steady 4 knots through the night. We didn’t fly our cruising spinnaker because Wes doesn’t have one, and we wanted to stay close to each other all night. It was a good thing too, because he was sailing solo, and got very tired after over 20 hours holding the tiller. A little chit-chat on the radio and keeping tabs on each other kept us awake and safe.

Capt’n K remembered a lesson that Rene in New Jersey had taught us about towing a dinghy. He put it out behind us and fiddled with the length of tow rope until he got the dinghy riding the crest of waves two waves behind us at the time we were cresting the wave we were on. This stopped the dinghy from being tossed up close on our stern and then falling back away from our boat and being violently pulled forward again by the tow line. If you tow your dinghy in following seas, play with the length of the rope until you get it in the same part of the wave that you are on. Then you can basically forget about it because it’s so easy to tow! What a joy to not have the stress of a lurching and worrisome dinghy!

We passed one sailboat in the night who didn’t have all his lights working and didn’t answer the radio on ch 16 or 68…bad bad bad! Hope he was okay! We learned about Sand Key Light’s different colors for different directions. If you are in Hawk channel the light is white, but if you are too far south and in the shoal danger zone, then the light is red. Cool! We never spotted the 2nd lighthouse of the route however. Being out this far, any lights you can see are a valuable asset, and they are very few and far between. Imagine driving in the dark without street lights or headlights.

We were able to take two to three hour shifts on watch while the other rested in the cabin. We had a working autopilot which meant we didn’t have to hold the tiller the whole time. Wes on Gemini Dreams, however, had to do the whole trip solo and without an autopilot! He sure was exhausted by twilight! We kept chit chatting on the radio to help stay awake and alert. The currents around Rebecca shoal set us to the north, and we had a difficult time staying far enough south to clear the “Tide Rip” on the chart. We’d gotten a bit separated from Wes, so we hove to and let him catch up a bit. Once we got back together it was such an emotional relief. Being all alone out there in the black on your first time out is scary! Luckily we didn’t snag a crab pot because we could see them in the moonlight.

Sailed most of the way but decided to lower sails and motor when we were clearing Rebecca shoal. There were confused waters there because the currents from north and south of the shoals converge there. We didn’t get sick, but we could have. Glad we hadn’t consumed any alcohol the day before we left! After we got clear of the convergence we were able to go back to sail and made a reach for 20 miles to the DTs. We tracked our progress by noting gps coordinates and speed and wind & wave direction periodically on paper charts and a notepad in case we lost our gps for some reason.

This is just the beginning. Most of the story and all of the beautiful photos and video are yet to come. Stay tuned!

7 thoughts on “Sailing to the Dry Tortugas, Part 1

  1. Al Circeo

    Thanks for sharing your adventures. I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned it before, but it sure puts a smile on my face and encourages me as I prepare my Vega (hull#397) for the season up here in Boston. I expect to be pretty much exactly what you’re doing five years from now. Keep sharing please, and stay safe – Al

    1. wh-admin Post author

      Thanks for commenting! We are so glad that our adventures can entertain people like yourself. If you can put up with the Vega’s weaknesses (lack of standing headroom, small size, etc…) then you’ve got a sturdy little affordable boat for your travels! Will you be sailing your Vega this summer? We may be on the Cape or the Vinyard. Perhaps we could stop into Beantown for a Vega Visit!

    1. wh-admin Post author

      Yeah man, it was a really awesome trip, and it sure built our confidence in ourselves and our boat!!!

  2. Aaron

    I love the way you have taken care each step of the way. I’m heading to the Philippines tomorrow ( by airplane). Hope someday we meet up there. I’ll be following you blog eagerly while I am there. Keep an eye on my FB profile for pictures of Puerto Galera.


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