Sailing, Sailing Destinations, Trips and Destinations, USA

Dry Tortugas by Sailboat: How to Enjoy It Even If You Lost Your Engine

“Stories were what frightened people worst of all. Dreadful stories they were- about hanging, and walking the plank, and storms at sea, and the Dry Tortugas, and wild deeds and places on the Spanish Main.” – Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island.

Getting There

Ever since we started sailing, we wanted to go to this remote part of Florida. Other than by your own boat, you can go by ferry, or a sea plane, and even the cheapest option will cost an arm and a leg!  

So, being in Key West with our boat Elysia, we couldn’t resist an temptation to sail to Dry Tortugas for free (or almost so 🙂 ). The original plan was to use the islands as a strategic point for crossing to Isla Mujeres, Mexico. It is good to sail as far West as possible before heading South, so you can compensate for the Gulf Stream, pulling you back East.

Marquesas. Image by NOAA, Public Domain

It took us two rather leisurely day-sails to reach Dry Tortugas. We stopped at the Marquesas for the night. The location of the Marquesas Keys is very convenient, because it is right in the middle on the way from Key West to Dry Tortugas.

TIP: When stopping at the Marquesas, choose the side that is in the lee of the wind.  There are plenty of places to anchor all around the island, but the anchorages are somewhat in the open, so it is important to minimize the impact of wind or swells as much as possible.

In the afternoon of the second day, we saw Fort Jefferson in the distance. We were tired, but we were happy to arrive!

The Disaster

As we approached the entrance to the Southeast Channel, we turned on the motor, dropped the sails, and a few minutes later, a heart-wrenching whistle and knocking sound called out from the engine room.

“Michael!! What is THIS?”  … Michael opened the door to the engine room and there was oil and water everywhere. We switched the motor off. The hoses seemed to be in order, but everything was dirty and covered with a layer of black diesel oil.  

We started the motor again in the hope of discovering the problem and immediately the low oil pressure indicator light came on.  A terrible sound came from the alternator, the belt whistled and the alternator itself vibrated violently. We switched off the engine again and decided to add more oil. Clever! As we started again, the warning indicator came back on and so we had lost all the additional oil almost immediately. There was clearly a serious problem.

With sunset coming in less than two hours, we had to do something quickly. We immediately reached a Park Ranger via VHF radio, but they refused to tow us, saying that our situation didn’t qualify for a towing emergency. However, we got permission to use the banks to anchor. To go to the inner designated anchorage, we would be heading right into the wind (the NW wind was blowing 20-25 kt), and tacking back and forth in an unknown narrow channel in the dark was not very desirable.

We raised the sails again, hove-to for a minute and researched the charts. We found a ledge from 75 to 13 feet, called Garden Key Bank, so we decided to go there.

On the way we discussed how we would maneuver.  It was the first time for us anchoring under sail. We chose a place with all-around clearance depth-wise, turned into the wind and furled the jib. Without the jib we moved ahead only about 1 knot, but nevertheless, the movement was under control. As we were over our chosen place, we quickly dropped the anchor in free-fall mode. After that, the boat held into the wind and we calmly dropped the mainsail.  It was now time to sit down and catch our breath.

TIP: You do not have to anchor at the designated anchorage, especially in an emergency. As long as you are inside the yellow markers (they are all around, indicating the border of the territory), you are okay.

On the picture below the markers are connected with the green line, so you can anchor anywhere inside the boundaries. Let the rangers know on channel 16 what you are doing, so there is no confusion.


On Our Own

It needs to be said, that in the Dry Tortugas (eighty miles west from Key West) there is no communication. There is no phone service, no WiFi and no Internet. This means, there is no help from Google or YouTube, no place to get advice, order parts or talk to anyone. The only device you can use is the VHF. We chatted with the rangers again, and they said they could see us and had no problems with our location.

Dry Tortugas: Historic Fort, Pristine Waters and Dealing With Engine Failure
Elysia out on a Bank

So, what are we gonna do now? Well, for the time being, we decided to forget about the motor, take a break, enjoy the park, and then sail back to Key West.

Soon it was time to settle down for the night.  Michael could not sleep for a long time, because he was afraid that the anchor would drag.  But Elysia hung tight, even though she was riding in the 3 foot + waves. Thankfully, we have an oversized anchor and had put out a long rode, so there was no issue. I was grateful that the movement was from bow to stern, and not from side to side, so I fell on the bed and fell asleep almost immediately.

When we woke up, we prepared the dinghy and set out to explore Fort Jefferson and the island.

The History of Dry Tortugas

Dry Tortugas archipelago consists of seven islands located on coral reefs. The Spanish explorer Ponce De Leon (who, by the way, discovered Florida) discovered the islands in 1513 and named them Las Tortugas (Turtles), in honor of a large number of sea turtles everywhere. Then the word Dry was added to indicate that there was no fresh water on the islands, which was necessary for the sailors.

More information about Dry Tortugas National Park

Fort Jefferson. Image by US National Park Service, Public Domain

For a long time pirates were at work here. Then came the Americans, conquered everything and built Fort Jefferson, which was supposed to guard the entrance from the Caribbean Sea to the Gulf of Mexico.

Fort Jefferson
Fort Jefferson
Dry Tortugas
Dry Tortugas

The fort, as it turned out, had not fired a single shot in its entire life, but it gave rise to a small village consisting of soldiers and their families. With time, the government decided to decommission the army. After everyone was gone, the archipelago became a National Park and remain so to this day.

What To Do in Dry Tortugas

Sea Plane
The sea plane

There are several things you can do in Dry Tortugas, with or without the boat:

  • Learn about the history of Fort Jefferson
  • Explore picturesque beaches and snorkel
  • Watch birds, fish and turtles

There are numerous tourists who come on a ferry or a sea plane, so the island is pretty busy during the day. But the most fun begins when they leave. The island is just yours and maybe a dozen more sailors and campers.  So you can:

  • play around the fort or find your own “private” romantic beach.  And at night you:
  • stargaze, and the sky is beautiful beyond imagination, full of sparkling stars and constellations.

TIP: if you are at the anchorage, it costs you only $15 per person for the whole week to stay, so it makes sense to plan for a week. Plus you can enjoy it a lot more if you have no time pressure. There is no water and no facilities on the islands, so provision accordingly. You also have to take all your garbage with you. However, when a ferry comes (it stays from about 11 am to 3 pm), you can have lunch on board, use their facilities and showers.

Dry Tortugas

On the boat in the evening, I mastered a new swimming technique: swimming with a rope tied around my waist. Of course, before going in the water, it was necessary to take an anti-shark drink.  Or two! 🙂 The water was crystal clear, you could see the bottom 20 feet deep.

TIP: the current is pretty strong, so I would discourage swimming without a rope out in the open ocean. However, at the designated anchorage it is safe.

Sailing Back to Key West

We stayed at Dry Tortugas only for two days and thoroughly enjoyed them. We did all the activities above and more! 🙂 But the thoughts of the engine and the uncomfortable boat movement forced us to leave sooner than we anticipated.

The anchor was raised at 4:00 pm of the third day.  We decided to go without stopping, and according to plan we would arrive at Key West the next morning. Luckily, the wind remained steady from the Northwest. We ran at broad reach at 5 knots, slightly heeling, and even managed to cook a real dinner! Steak dinner! This was our first time doing this. Usually during a passage our menu consists of sandwiches, crackers and pre-packed salads.

Dinner on Board

The night was not rich in events, only the speed suddenly dropped to almost 2 knots. It was too dark and we were already too tired and sleepy to try and figure out why, so we just let it be. One of the highlights of that night was the red, almost spooky, eye of Mars, rising over the horizon…

At dawn we saw the line from a crab trap caught on our rudder. Time to go for a morning swim! Michael cut off the trap itself, but the buoy balls were stuck. “Elysia has become a boy,” I said. Buoys did not affect the speed, and we immediately jumped to 4 knots again. I was furious. Due to the reduced speed all night, we probably lost four hours all together! Well, if it happens again, we know where to look and what to do.

We approached Key West at almost 4 pm, so we had a full 24-hour sail. I was at the helm and Michael was waving the phone in the air, trying to get the connection. Finally, he exclaimed: “I got signal!!” The emotion he put into these words was similar to when tired sailors of the past shouted “Land Ho!!”

We called around and found a marina that had a slip available. After we had a slip secured, we called Boat US. The last two hours of this ordeal we were relaxing  in the cockpit under tow.

If you don’t have the towing package with BOAT US, yet, get it!

The Lessons We Learned

In Key West, we thoroughly inspected the engine and one of the best mechanics on the islands took the job rebuilding it. The reason for the disaster was the wrong type of the alternator bracket. Vibration forced the bracket to loosen up and break a hole in the front cover of the engine.

As a result, a brand-new front cover was installed. The mechanic designed a new and improved alternator bracket, to make sure something like that never happens again! While we were doing all that, we decided to service the engine as well and fix everything that could possibly go wrong. We ended up with a great working motor after all, so that was good.

What can I say about this trip? Besides obvious experiences, like seeing a new beautiful place and discovering the islands, we definitely learned several important sailing lessons. We learned how to act in an emergency when the engine fails, we learned to anchor under sail. The repair of the motor took a big chunk of our cruising kitty, so unfortunately we had to cancel the trip to Mexico by boat. We made up for it, though, traveling through Mexico, Guatemala and Belize by car later in the year!

As far as the boat goes, we changed our plans accordingly. Instead of Mexico, soon enough we had a chance to go for another amazing sailing trip for almost three months: The Bahamas! 

Dry Tortugas

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2 thoughts on “Dry Tortugas by Sailboat: How to Enjoy It Even If You Lost Your Engine”

  1. Hey, I googled “Dry Tortugas by Sailboat” and look who I found on the first page! Good article. See you on Facebook! ~Tom


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