DRY TORTUGAS BLITZKRIEG by Cap't Jim
Due to business time constraints the window for this trip was only 8 days, but because of the opportunity to cruise in company with another M-26X, I decided at the last minute to just go ahead and "GO". After quickly dropping the mast on Saturday, 11/30, I spent about an hour throwing some things into the van and then left for a dinner engagement. I was operating on autopilot from many previous trips and hoped I wouldn't forget anything important.
Up at 0330 and on the road at 0430, (early AM is definitely the time to travel), I pounded relentlessly down I95 @65mph, through constant rain and drizzle, past Jacksonville Fla. and after 18 hours driving was ready for a nap in the boat. Usually I make the bed in advance. This time I had to drag the blankets etc. into the boat from the van but eventually created a comfy nest and crashed for 4 hours. Up at 2am and back on 95 nonstop to the Keys, arriving Bahia Honda State Park @ 11am, after a nice breakfast in Key Largo. By 1:00 PM I was rigged, loaded, sorted, launched and ready to go except for provisioning. Where were the other boats? A short nap after lunch proved too tempting and soon I was making up for lost sleep big time. You can't cheat mother nature for long.
John and Allison Wikle from North Carolina on " Island Girl" came in from a great day sailing and snorkeling and we quickly reconfirmed plans to leave the next morning for the Dry Tortugas ( about 100 miles from Bahia Honda). We all went out provisioning, had dinner at a small local restaurant I couldn't ever find again, put up the mosquito netting and sacked out.
There was a small trimaran docked near us and we met the owner, in the morning. John Patterson is a boat builder by trade and avocation who had trailered his latest creation, a 20' trimaran weighing 750lbs from his home in Michigan. No matter how far you drive (1250 miles) and how far you plan to sail (100 miles) there is someone who has just driven further (from Michigan) and is sailing further (to Georgetown, Exumas, Bahamas @ 400 mi.) and in a much smaller 20' boat yet!
After a leisurely breakfast we set out into a beautiful warm, sunny morning with a light following breeze. I put up my "cheater" spinnaker so called because the M-26 is 3/4 rigged and the spinnaker is masthead rigged from a Catalina 25. With no support at the top of the mast it is a " light air only" sail.
Poor John had to motor constantly to keep up. Later the wind freshened and shifted north and John passed me with his 150 genoa while I was struggling to douse the spinnaker and unfurl the jib. After balancing the boat on a close-hauled course I took to the trapeze ( actually a bosn's chair ) for about 45 minutes, coming in only once for a course correction and a cold beer. We had a ball and sailed for 6 hours, almost all the way to Key West.
After gassing up in Key West amid a demonstration of U.S.Army Helicopter assault troops rappelling down from the helicopters onto a ship (very noisy) we were glad to be away from there and off to the Marqueses Islands, about 20 miles. We motored over at what I hoped would be an economical speed of 13-14 knots, arriving just before sundown to fix a bountiful dinner of steak, potatoes, onions, wine, and "gourmet" chocolate chip cookies for dessert.
Wed. Dec. 4 - Day 4 - Up at 0630, motored out into the calm morning and saw some birds diving on baitfish, so unleashed the trolling rods and began to circle. John Wikle puttered up a little later and went on ahead on a course of 280 degrees. No luck fishing so I flogged the Johnson and passed John. I ran out a six-gallon tank and then it was time to sail. The breeze picked up and a reef in the main became necessary. The course was a beam to close reach, so the boat balanced well. When John finally caught up he couldn't believe it. I was catnapping on the stern in 15 - 18- knots of wind and 3-4' seas while the boat faithfully sailed 280 - 300. Occasionally a larger wave would knock me off course and require a little tweaking of the wheel. John continued to motorsail alongside as we had only about 10 miles to go and he was a bit nervous about going on the tilting deck to hoist the main. This being their first open water passage they did well to stick it out.
After arriving at Ft. Jefferson John and Allison took the tour while I walked around and chatted with some campers. Ft. Jefferson must be the only National Park that allows free camping, and people bring over kayaks to get around between the islands.
The local fishermen sell their wares and will even cook them for you if you want, but we passed up lobster for Hamburger. Moral- don't take meat to the Dry Tortugas, take extra beer to trade.
We filled up, and the cookies were holding up.
Day 5 Said good-bye to John and Allison. The were concerned about getting back to work on time. Hey Mon! What could I do? It was too bad they left. The day started out calm and sunny and very warm, in the 80's. A nice day is exactly what you need after a rough passage, and really makes a difference in your attitude. I chugged over to Loggerhead Key, a "private" Park Service Island where you are supposed to request permission to land, Naturally I found all this out while basking on the beach at the tip of the Island. While basking I noticed a little movement, a small hermit crab scuttled along, and I scooped him up to be my companion on the trip back. Hermit crabs are quite lively and entertaining fellows, but I have never succeeded in feeding one although I have tried meat,cookies,cheese, crackers, apple, sea weed etc. They all die in a few days, so I decided to let this one go when I got back to Bahia Honda. The snorkeling was decent, and I saw a nurse shark, lots of barracuda and a loggerhead turtle.
The caretaker had mentioned a wreck only a mile away so off I went in search of treasure. Luckily the Ft. Jefferson Divers showed up and led me to it or I never would have found it, even though a teensy bit sticks up above the sea. It looks like a bird sitting on the water. After a fun snorkel around the wreck I was ready to head back but... the anchor refused to budge off the bottom. A fair amount of tugging and swearing later, I decided to let "Big John(son)" try. At about 1/4 throttle the anchor came up, somewhat the worse for wear. A black looking cloud was looming on the horizon so I scurried back to Ft. Jefferson.
Sure enough, the perfect day deteriorated to torrential rain by 4pm when a little squall blew through the anchorage, but I was snug and dry down below. Heated up some leftovers for dinner and turned in early in anticipation of an early departure for Key West.
Day 6 - Underway 0600. Followed a fisherman out the channel, chuckling to myself at what he must have thought when the little sailboat behind him kept up while he accelerated to flank speed.
Passed half-moon shoal at 0730. Out of gas at 8:10. Sailing, light air, no ballast making 3-4 knots. GPS fix says 11.4 miles to Marqueses. 1030, breeze increasing, time to fill the old water tank. Amazing, boat speed actually increased one knot. Saw several cruising boats taking advantage of the window to sail to the Tortugas in beautiful weather. Now doing 5.5 kts, course 90 degrees, boat balanced, stereo on, novel in hand, Bimini sunshade in position, cold soda and sour cream 'n onion potato chips. Is this Heaven or what? Heaven was short lived. Guess I was having too good a time, 'caus the wind proceeded to die and that was when I noticed a nasty little current about 1 knot west. At 6pm I completed the 11,4 miles. that I started at 8:10 that morning. That's right, 10 hours to make 11.4 miles. It was HELL!!
I moseyed over closer to the shoreline, casually checking the chart, Huuumm! Looks like some CLUNK! rocks hereabouts. The centerboard bounced over a brain coral head but happily the rudders missed it. I hit the only rock in the area! I noticed some cruisers anchored nearby and sailed over to investigate. Actually the hope of scrounging some spare gas was what attracted me to the other boats
Managed to beg some surplus dingy gas from some cruisers who were returning to Key West (Actually traded for rum and munchies). Thus fortified with 4 gallons, I putted economically back, tying up to a gas dock @ 9pm, too tired to be attracted by the sounds of revelry from downtown.
Day 7 - Definitely the first customer at 0600, I filled two tanks and went out into the pre-dawn darkness. It was still quite calm and after the frustration of the preceding day I let 'er rip, 20 kts towards Bahia Honda key some 30 miles distant. It was still early as I passed Looe key reef, so I went over and picked up a mooring and fixed a fine breakfast while waiting for the sun to climb high enough for good snorkeling light. Unfortunately a rain squall came along and soon the exposed mooring area was choppy. Oh Poo! Well, may as well end this trip with a ten mile run in the rain. The rain is very local and on the way back I passed in and out of showers several times and raced alongside one where I could steer in and out of the rain along the edge of the shower area at will. Back at Bahia Honda ramp, there were the Wikles, just hauling out. They took the leisurely way back while I am more of the mad dash type. The sun broke out and soon we were all tidied up and ready for the trip north. Having different plans, we said our good-byes , they headed for the hiway and I headed for the shower, a nice long hot one. Some day I'm going to install hot water on the MacGregor, probably a small propane flash heater, or possibly some kind of solar heater. Before leaving, I remembered the little hermit crab "Hermie", who was still in the boat in a bowl in the sink. I got him and found a nice spot for him (her, it) in the sand near the beach. It was slow going back up I95 past Miami and after driving through more rain I stopped at Riviera Beach ( near West Palm) at one of my favorite restaurants, on Rt. 1, the Holiday House where a complete family style buffet is served, a real feast including triple layer cake for $7.99. After that, I couldn't make it much further so a dark lumberyard parking lot beckoned. It's great to be curled up snug in your bunk in the rain, and the trailer is as secure an anchorage, as you are likely to get.
Day 8- In the morning I got the bright idea of leaving the boat in a storage lot in Stuart Fla. ($1/day). As I planned to return over the Christmas Holidays I figured the gas savings would pay for the storage, with less wear and tear on the tow vehicle (and me). Rai Aubrey did this last year with his boat Stuart is right at the cross Fla. canal the goes through Lake Okeechobee to Ft. Meyers, and I thought that would make a fun trip. Then it was back to pounding out the miles on I95, relentlessly pushing on, fortified with coffee at a surprisingly crowded waffle house midnight, arriving home at 2:40 am, much to the "delight" of my spouse.