Sailing to the Dry Tortugas in an Albin Vega, Part 3

Wee Happy leaving Fort Jefferson

We left the fort at first light before sunrise. Our goal was to make a 45 mile run to the Marquesas keys where we planned to anchor for the night. The wind was forecast to be east/southeast, so we were expecting to be heading into the wind the whole way. That meant planning to have to motor the entire time. Returning the way we came would have meant traveling southeast right into the wind, so we decided to take the northern route back. So once we cleared the outer shelf of the Tortugas, we turned northeast in hopes of being able to sail on a close reach with a southeast wind.

Wee Happy en route to the Marquesas Keys

We didn’t have the luck that we wanted, and the wind was more east/northeast than expected. We kept our sails up and sheeted them in as tight as possible. We actually pulled the leeward jib sheet inside the spreaders to get it as close to the centerline as possible, and we still had to run the motor anyway, since we had 45 miles to cover and only 12 hours of daylight to do it in. We didn’t want to get into the Marquesas after dark, as the shoals around them are known as “the quicksands.” They are very shallow and have shifted since the charts were created, so you can’t know what you are going to find until you sound your way in. The prudent sailor goes when the sun is high and behind him so that he can see the bottom. When the sun is low in the sky, all you can see is reflection and glare on the surface of the water, which block seeing the bottom and knowing where the shallow spots are.

The water was as calm as a serene lake. The color was truly astonishing. It just glowed the most alluring vibrant magic blues all day long. It was luminous and enchanting. The winds were present but light, so they kept us cool and maybe added half a knot to our speed. We soaked in the glorious spaciousness of being surrounded by heavenly glowing blue as far as the eye could see in all directions.

Wee Happy arriving at the Marquesas Keys just before sunset

We kept the sails up all day but had to keep the motor going all day too. We arrived at the Marquesas keys and slowly approached through the quicksands from the northwest. We crawled in slowly and dropped 2 anchors in a “Bahamian mooring” style in a 1 knot southward current along the west shore of the southwest Marquesas keys, just off of a lovely west beach. We still had two hours of daylight, so the sun was still fairly high. That really helped us to see and dodge the shallow and shifting and uncharted sandbars that we had to navigate on the way in!

The shore of the Marquesas Keys at sunset

Wes, on Gemini Dreams, immediately jumped into his dinghy with fishing rods and cast off for shore. Then he remembered that he hadn’t put his oars in! He was drifting out to sea in a 1 knot current with no supplies! He tried paddling back with his hands, but they didn’t give him enough power to fight the current. So he took off his shoes and used them as hand paddles and made it back to his boat to get his oars! He went ashore and caught dinner.

We packed up supplies and readied ourselves for a camp fire dinner ashore. Finally! We’ve wanted one for a thousand miles, but all of the islands and beaches along the way are inhabited or controlled.

Cooked up rice and beans and green beans and fish on the coals and watched the sunset and ensuing darkening of the sky and unveiling of the stars. They are so bright out there because of the lack of light pollution. Then after dark had completely enveloped us, Wes discovered phosphorescent / bioluminescent life in the shallow tidal flat just off the beach. We were there at low tide, and the tidal flat extended about 200 ft from the beach. Each step that we took on the flats erupted in a pulse of excited spots of light that radiated out in all directions like a shock wave. Imagine turning on stars beneath your feet with every step. Surrounded above by the stars and galaxies of the heavens while releasing hidden galaxies and starfields in the sand beneath our dancing feet was cathartic. Even paddling back out to our boats, each oar stroke would trigger a dozen bioluminescent sparks in the water around our dinghies. The Marquesas are magic, and are highly recommended! Just be sure to bring bug repellant!

The next morning we were off again at first light for another long run. Our goal this time was to make it to Newfound Harbor just west of Bahia Honda. That meant another 45 to 50 miles in just 12 hours of sunlight. So we expected that we’d have to motor all day again, as the winds were forecast to be “light and variable.” We went southward from the Marquesas into Hawk Channel and then headed east towards Key West. We motor sailed along with just the Jib out for about 15 miles until the wind picked up from the north.

Wee Happy en route to Newfound Harbor

The water was luminous Caribbean blue again. The temperature was in the lower 80’s, and we hauled up the main sail to find that we could scream along at up to 6.5 knots under sail! We shut off the motor and relished our unexpected blessing of good winds for ten miles as we passed Key West. With the Autopilot on and the sails trimmed right, Wee Happy just sailed along happy and bouncing and gleeful. It was perfect sailing. It was the dream sailing that everyone has in the keys, but few find because they stay in the middle and upper keys and don’t make it out to Key West and beyond.

Then we crossed a line in the water where the color ceased to glow any longer. It changed from the enticing enchanting blue to everglade green. Think olive green with a little brown in it, and you’ll imagine it right. Oh well. Welcome back to the middle keys. Just about the same time, the wind went “light and variable” again and we had to start the motor to have hope of making our anchorage before sunfall.

We slowly approached Newfound Harbor just before 6:00pm, and had to fight against a 2 knot tidal current and large fast motorboat wakes to make it into the harbor. It took almost an hour to travel the additional 4 miles to get to the spot where we dropped anchor, and once we were there we realized it would be a 2 mile dinghy ride to any restaurants or grocery stores. By this time we were completely out of ice and most all food that required coolness to stay edible, so not being able to go ashore to get dinner was frustrating.

So Wes came over and we made our last dinner together before we plan to part ways. We swapped photographs and relived stories. He’s going home to northern panhandle Florida from Marathon, and we are planning to continue up the keys to cross to the Bahamas. The anchorage, although remote, was pristinely calm. It was almost like sleeping on land. It was quiet and spacious.

That’s the end of the Dry Tortugas story, but we have lots more pictures that we will post shortly, so stay tuned!

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2 thoughts on “Sailing to the Dry Tortugas in an Albin Vega, Part 3

  1. Tim

    If you guys find you are rolling up your genoa a quite a bit (as in the WH enroute to Marquesa Keys photo), you might think about getting a smaller foresail, as the roller genoas don’t work so well rolled up alot. I’m probably going to go with a light 155, a 135, a 110 and a 70 and switch out sails as the wind changes. I found if I lube the sail and furlex slot with McLube, they slide in and out easier. Also, a prefeeder at the base of the furler helps for sail changes.

    1. wh-admin Post author

      Thanks Tim! We rarely furl the headsail partway. I seriously think we have done it twice in half a year! Usually it is all the genoa or the gennaker or nothing at all. It is rare that we ever have a situation that warrants a small jib. We do have a storm jib if we really want to pull it out, though!


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