Cruising Stories

Dry Tortugas - A Grand Adventure

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September 2020
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By
Lisa
Carruthers

CRUISING TO THE Dry Tortugas National Park by boat can be the most challenging part of this amazing destination. Locals warn about two seasons: Winter Storm (December-March) that features high winds and rough seas, and Tropical Storm (June-November), that features more of the same. April and May are known to be delightful.

We'd talked about and hoped to visit the Dry Tortugas for the last couple of years, as we spent time cruising Florida and the Florida Keys. With its wide-open waters and nowhere to seek safe harbor nearby, that cluster of islands in the Gulf of Mexico always ended up feeling a little out of reach. But as our experience with the boat and comfort with the shallow Florida waters grew, we decided it was time to head there.

Starting Point:

Ft. Pierce, FL

We left Ft. Pierce City Marina on M/V TAPESTRY, our Kadey Krogen 58, in early January to head to the Dry Tortugas before our arrival at Stock Island Marina Village in Key West on February 1. The weather and ocean were unsettled enough that we spent the day on the ICW rather than suffer the wave action outside. Once it all settled down, we were expecting to head outside the next day from Lake Worth.

Lake Worth to Ft. Lauderdale, FL

Estimated Mileage: 45.6 NM

The winds and waves did not abate as predicted. Instead the foul weather intensified, and we needed to find somewhere to ride this storm out safely. Most everywhere was booked, but we finally secured a slip at Bahia Mar Resort and Yachting Center in Ft. Lauderdale. Surely this would soon blow by, and our adventure to the Dry Tortugas would continue. After several days, which turned into 10 days, we had to admit defeat. The Dry Tortugas would have to wait; we were out of time. Suddenly, the weather improved, and we headed to Key West. Maybe there is something to this Winter Storm season.

Key West to the Dry Tortugas, FL

Estimated Mileage: 67.8 NM

During the last week of our stay at Stock Island in Key West (so named because that's where the Navy and Key West kept their livestock), a window opened up to cruise to the Dry Tortugas before arriving at our final destination in Marathon Marina on April 2. Our friends aboard Day Dreams, Lauryl Anne, Waterford and Sea Dweller agreed and joined us.

The passage itself was an easy 70-mile cruise by trawler. The north passage to Garden Key is shoaled in, but the south channel is straightforward, taking you past Fort Jefferson and then circling around the fort heading south, then east. The inner harbor is snug and secure, but on our arrival, it was full.

The outer harbor seems wide open but is somewhat protected by the continuation of the barely visible reef. This reef lies at the end of the Florida Reef System, the third largest reef in the world. We rocked and rolled the first night, but it didn't stop our friends from joining us for a Low-Country boil and sunset conch blowing.

Garden Key, home of Fort Jefferson, was our first stop the next morning. While boarding our dinghy for the short trip over, we were startled by a huge goliath grouper hanging out in the shade under TAPESTRY! We beached our dinghies and headed to the fort after registering with the National Park ranger and purchasing Dry Tortugas wear in the gift shop. The fort's history brought full circle what we learned about maritime history the year before in New Orleans, and along the way cruising the Florida coasts over the last four years.

Dry Tortugas | Cruising Stories | Marinalife
Dry Tortugas by Lisa Carruthers

The remoteness of Dry Tortugas National Park is pretty extreme. There is no cell service or internet, no water, and no provisions to be had. You can watch the daily arrival and departure of the ferry from Key West as well as tourists coming and going by seaplane. We felt that the seaplanes took great pleasure in buzzing the anchored boats and landing close by. The ferry also brings a National Park ranger who conducts tours of the fort. We were entertained and educated by a wonderful guy named Hollywood! He's a good storyteller. It's definitely worthwhile to tag along on the tour.

In the afternoon, we decided to explore one of the other keys that comprise the Dry Tortugas -- Loggerhead Key, named for the loggerhead sea turtles that make their home there. Loggerhead Key is a three-mile dinghy ride through gin clear water. On our way we stopped to dive a wreck off its southwestern side. The park provides mooring balls at dive sites to protect the healthy coral reef. Juvenile barracuda hovered around under the mooring but didn't seem interested in our gang.

We landed our dinghies on Loggerhead Key and were welcomed by a couple who are volunteering there for a month. Now that's something I'd like to do! The island houses the Marine Research Center, and volunteers keep up their housing as well as tend to the island's maintenance needs. We walked across to the northwest side of the island and spread out on the beautiful beach overlooking Little Africa, which is a shallow reef just offshore that's teeming with coral, tarpon, barracuda and lots of magnificent tropical fish.

After a fun potluck aboard Sea Dweller, we went to bed, sad that we'd be leaving in the morning. This was Tortugas 101 for us! We'll be back for more: lots of beaches to walk, other areas and wrecks to dive, and birds to watch.

Thousands of migratory birds stop at the Tortugas in the spring and fall. They begin arriving in late February, and by March you see herons, ibises, hawks and shorebirds. From late-March to mid-May, the songbirds come by, up to 70 species per day for a total of about 300 species.

Dry Tortugas to Boca Grande Key, Marquesas, FL

Estimated Mileage: 50.3 NM

On our way to Marathon, we dropped the hook off Boca Grande Key in the Marquesas. Only one palm tree decorated the island's silhouette. That was enough. The island, the ocean and the sunset were all we needed -- that and time to reflect on our adventure.

Marquesas to Marathon, FL

Estimated Mileage: 58.1 NM

We arrived at Marathon Marina and relished the comforts of shore power and unlimited water. We had finally made it to the Dry Tortugas! The introduction left us wanting to come back and experience more. It was exhilarating to have made the trip to the most remote U.S. national park.

Step Back in Time at Fort Jefferson

In 1821, Spain sold Florida to the United States, and the U.S. Army decided to construct Fort Jefferson to protect the Gulf of Mexico trade route from pirates. Long before that, the trade ships used the outer harbor as a stop en route to and from Europe and New Orleans. Early maps identified the area as The Tortugas (Spanish for "turtle" or "tortoise"), so sailors would know that turtles could be found there for provisioning a protein source.

Snorkeling at Dry Tortugas National Park by Ajith Rajeswari | Cruising Stories | Marinalife
Snorkeling at Dry Tortugas National Park by Ajith Rajeswari

Later charts expanded the name to The Dry Tortugas to warn sailors that they'd find no fresh water on the island. The fort was constructed in 1825, but never completely finished. It was manned with military personnel during the Civil War but soon afterward became a prison where deserters were sent.

In 1865, Samuel Mudd, the doctor who famously sheltered President Lincoln's assassin, was confined at Fort Jefferson for hard labor. However, in the yellow fever outbreak at the fort in 1867, Mudd volunteered to care for the sick. He is credited with saving hundreds of lives and was pardoned by President Andrew Jackson and released. He is the reason for the saying, His name is Mud.

Fort Jefferson was abandoned as a military fort in 1874 due to ongoing hurricanes and yellow fever outbreaks. After that, it was used as a quarantine station by the Marine Hospital Service, as a coaling station by the U.S. Navy, sometimes left abandoned, home to the American Fleet during the war with Spain in 1898, and declared a federal bird sanctuary in 1904. In 1935, Fort Jefferson was declared a national monument, but it wasn't until 1992 that the Dry Tortugas, including Fort Jefferson, was established as a national park.

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Our Adventures between the Great Lakes from Detroit to Port Huron
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My husband Tim and I spent 2021 traveling 8,000 miles around the Great Loop. Like many, we wanted to cruise in Canada, but we didn’t get the green light for entry in time. We were initially bummed, but our mood quickly shifted as we discovered some of our favorite stops on the stretch that kept us in U.S. waters, including our journey between Lake Erie and Lake Huron.

Stop 1: Belle Isle

Estimated Mileage: 2 NM

Belle Isle is the largest city-owned island park in America, located on the Detroit River between the United States and Canada. The island’s only marina is the Detroit Yacht Club, which has a limited number of transient slips for reciprocal members, so it’s best to explore while keeping your boat at Milliken Marina. 

Roughly 1,000 acres, Belle Isle is home to an aquarium, maritime museum, botanical garden, beach, picnic areas and playgrounds that provide a plethora of options to explore. You won’t find great spots to grab a bite to eat, so we recommend stopping at Atwater Brewery on the way back to the marina.

Stop 2: Harrison Township, Lake St. Clair

Estimated Mileage: 24 NM

Often referred to as the Great Lake’s smaller cousin, Lake St. Clair is large enough to easily keep your distance from freighters yet small enough to explore in a day.

By boat, you can visit several of the lake’s swimming spots in Anchor and Bouvier Bays (or “Munchies” Bay as the locals say), popular for their clear water and hard bottoms. After an afternoon of swimming, cruise through the Clinton River and tie up at one of several restaurants catering to a lively boater scene for a drink and meal. Crews Inn is one of our favorites for their fun atmosphere and great food.

Lake St. Clair Metropark Marina is a popular spot for transients. The marina is located in the park, so after docking, enjoy the expansive park’s beaches, trails, picnic areas and swimming pool.

Stop 3: Port Huron, MI

Estimated Mileage: 44 NM

Port Huron is home to the start of one of the longest fresh-water races in the world called the Port Huron to Mackinac Sailing Race, and the port is a charming and boater-friendly destination.

Ideal for its central location and friendly members, Port Huron Yacht Club is a great place for tying up, sipping a drink at the clubhouse and avoiding the drawbridges on the Black River. Another popular spot is about a mile farther down the river at the 95-slip River Street Marina.

Port Huron is home to the Island Loop Route National Water Trail, a 10-mile loop through the Black River, Lake Huron and St. Clair River. Your dinghy is a must through the Black River and for exploring the town and clear waters by boat.

Walk a mile along the Blue Water River Walk that runs along the St. Clair River. Be sure to leave enough time to watch the freighters go by and delve into the area’s history that is shared along the route. Continue a couple of miles farther to Lighthouse Park, where you can enjoy an afternoon at the beach and swim in Lake Huron’s crystal clear water.

During a stroll downtown, check out the Knowlton’s Ice Museum of North America to discover the history of local ice harvesting that took place along the Great Lakes.

When you’ve done enough activities to work up an appetite, Casey’s is the place for delicious breadsticks and pizza. For a more upscale option, you can’t go wrong with anything on the menu at The Vintage Tavern. Maria’s Downtown Café offers a hearty breakfast, and Raven Café or Exquisite Corpse Coffee House are great options for a cup of coffee.

Kate Carney is a writer and Great Gold Looper who traveled 8,000 miles on Sweet Day, a 31-foot Camano trawler. Learn more about her and her husband’s adventures on lifeonsweetday.com

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Women Take to the Water In Boating Groups & Clubs
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It’s 5:30 p.m. on a Friday. Do you know where your wife, mother, daughter or sister is? She might be at the Chicago Yacht Club, launching off in a learn-to-sail lesson in the summer series that’s part of the Women on the Water Program.  Or, if she’s in the Florida Keys, you could find her relaxing ashore after a day casting about in a Ladies, Let’s Go Fishing! tournament. Or maybe she’s cruising the Intracoastal Waterway in North Myrtle Beach on a pontoon boat with friends, all members of Freedom Boat Club’s Sisters group. 

Nationwide nowadays, many groups and clubs are oriented specifically toward female boaters. Some are exclusively for women, others are clubs within co-ed clubs, and still others are part of century-old all-inclusive organizations that now offer opportunities for the ladies.

“A boater is a boater; it’s anyone who loves being on the water. Still, for many years and often today, boating is viewed as a man’s sport. That’s changing as more opportunities become available for women to get out on the water,” says Mary Paige Abbott, the past Chief Commander of the U.S. Power Squadrons, rebranded as America’s Boating Club with 30,000 members — 30% of them women. The century-plus-old organization opened its membership to females in 1982.

Women making waves in boating isn’t new. New York-born Hélène de Pourtalès was the first female to win a medal sailing in the 1900 Olympics. Helen Lerner, who with her husband Michael and friend Ernest Hemingway founded the Bahamas Marlin & Tuna Club in 1936, recorded a women’s first record catch of a swordfish off Nova Scotia. In 1977, Betty Cook landed a first-place finish in the powerboat world championships held in Key West. These examples are extraordinary but only exceptions to the rule that boating is a male-dominated sport. 

Today, the tide is turning. Take sports fishing for example. About 36% of Americans who went fishing last year were women, an all-time participation high, according to the 2021 Special Report on Fishing by the Recreational Boating & Fishing Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing involvement in recreational angling and boating.

WHY WOMEN?

Why not? That’s what led Betty Bauman to start Ladies, Let’s Go Fishing! in 1997. Since then, this organization of which Bauman is founder and chief executive officer, hosts weekend seminar series dubbed the No-Yelling School of Fishing, as well as tournaments throughout Florida and abroad. To date, Bauman has empowered more than 9,000 women to sportfish.  

“I attended ICAST (International Convention of Allied Sportfishing Trades, the world’s largest sportfishing trade show) when I had a public relations agency. The American Sportfishing Association’s director asked in a speech why weren’t more women in fishing? After all, as he pointed out, the sport wasn’t reaching some 50% of the potential market. I thought to myself, women don’t want to feel uncomfortable or get yelled out. So, I came up with a way to teach women the basics. How to tie knots, how rods and reels work, and how to make value assessments when fishing, not just following what their husbands yell at them to do or going down in the galley to make sandwiches,” says Bauman.

Women learn differently from men, and that’s the benefit of learning boating skills with and from other women. Just ask Debbie Huntsman, the past president of the National Women’s Sailing Association (NWSA).

“My husband and I were taking a learn to sail class years ago. I saw another boat in the distance and asked the instructor, who was a man, what I needed to do to be sure we didn’t have a collision. He answered that it was just like going down the aisle at the supermarket with a shopping cart; you just know not to hit another cart. That didn’t do it for me,” Huntsman tells. 

The 1990-founded NWSA is a group of national and international women sailors. It supports its members via everything from a library of instructional videos taught by women, for women, to its annual conference, which features hands-on workshops and on-the-water coaching.

“I think women tend to be more meticulous in their learning. They want to know all the moving parts and why they move. They want to do it right and do it perfectly whether men are onboard or not. That’s what I see,” says Karen Berry, VP of operations at Freedom Boat Club (FBC) of the Grand Strand, in Myrtle Beach, SC.

FBC offers free boating training and safety education to all members, including those in the 2017-founded Freedom Boating Diva program, which Berry helped to launch. The group is now called the Freedom Boat Club Sisters group, and 40% of the clubs nationwide now have a Sister component. Members enjoy time on the water together, training activities, social events and boatloads of camaraderie.

CAMARADERIE & NETWORKING

More so than a one-and-done class, many women-centric boating groups and clubs feature ongoing and year-round events. A good example is Women on the Water, a club within a club run by the Chicago Yacht Club’s (CYC) Women’s Committee. The group’s Friday night learn-to-sail series in Sonar 23s only takes place during the summer. The rest of the year, the women (an eclectic group of boating-oriented 20-somethings to 70-plus-year-olds, singles and marrieds, professionals and retirees) meet monthly for educational programs, networking events and happy hours.

“We’ve done everything from a sunset powerboat tour to admire the architecture of the Chicago skyline to a cooking class taught by the club’s pastry chef. During the pandemic, we continued to meet virtually. We had the female president of the U.S. Naval War College speak. We met some of the crew of the Maiden Factor, which is sailing the world to promote women’s sailing, and we had one of our own speak — Maggie Shea, who raced in the 2020 Olympics. The fact that our events fill up and sell out almost immediately tells you there’s a need for this,” says Nancy Berberian, head of the CYC’s Women’s Committee.

Similarly, the nearly four-decade-old Women’s Sailing Association (WSA) at the Houston Yacht Club hosts a residential women’s sailing camp. The Windward Bound Camp, one of the first of its kind in the nation, organizes racing, educational and social events throughout the year.  

“Our sailing socials allow time on the water with other women in a non-competitive environment.  Yearly, we organize a ‘Sail to High.’ Yes, we wear lovely hats and gloves on the sailboat and dock at someone’s home for tea and trimmings,” says Jane Heron, WSA president.

More recently, Women on the Water of Long Island Sound (WOWLIS) was born, made up currently of more than 250 women from 14 yacht clubs in Connecticut and New York who love to sail, race, learn and socialize. 

“It started as a Supper Series, as a way to connect women across our venues,” says Cathleen Blood at WOWLIS. “Now, there is regularly held one-design racing on Ideal 18s, team and fleet racing events, chalk talks and clinics, summer regattas, frostbiting in the spring, and an annual winter meeting to plan for the year ahead. 

To participate in most of these events, you must be a member of one of the yacht clubs. In this way, it’s all about getting clubs to commit to training and get more women on the water. There’s a real advantage. Say there’s a race I want to sail. I’m never stuck for crew. I have a pool of over 200 women, whether I know them or not, I can ask. We’re all united by a shared love of sailing.”

A SAMPLING OF WAYS FOR WOMEN TO GET ON THE WATER

Chicago Yacht Club’s Women on the Water


Freedom Boat Club Sisters Program


Houston Yacht Club Women’s Sailing Association


Ladies Let's go Fishing


National Women’s Sailing Association


Women on the Water Long Island Sound

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Exploring Antigua by Land and Sea
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The beautiful island of Antigua was our destination for a short Caribbean getaway. Having visited many of the Caribbean islands, we were looking forward to exploring a new tropical locale and experiencing the wonderful local charm, culture, vistas and beaches. In fact, this Eastern Caribbean island boasts 365 beaches: one for every day of the year!

My travel companions for the week included my husband Jim, brother Anthony and sister-in-law, Amanda. Always a great group to travel with (our last adventure together led us to Greece, Italy and Croatia), so I knew a fun week filled with laughter was in store.

JenJimCatamaran - cruising with members - marinalife
Jim and Jen on the catamaran

As we peered out the airplane window on the approach to Antigua, we were instantly mesmerized by the pure turquoise blue waters and rolling green hills, and eager to get out on the water.

For my brother, this trip was not just an ordinary vacation. While it was my first time visiting the island, my brother has incredibly fond memories of trips to Antigua during the 1970s as a child, traveling with his grandparents, affectionately known to us as Meemah and Deedah. This week was an opportunity to share with us one of his favorite places in the world.

Anthony decided the best way to explore the island was by land and by sea. The first part of our trip was spent touring the island with a local driver and tour guide named Elvis, who is a native Antiguan living in one of the six parishes on the island with his wife and children. When Anthony spotted him on the beach wearing a Yankee cap, he knew this was the tour guide for us. Anthony and Elvis instantly bonded (even discovering they shared a birthday) and together planned our extraordinary excursion.

Our tour of the island started with a visit to St. Johns, the capital city of Antigua. While part of the town is geared toward the large cruise ships that help support the local economy, St. Johns retains its charm, filled with farmers markets, stalls and local restaurants. Amanda was immediately enchanted by one of the young local shopkeepers selling souvenirs with his mom.

The next stop was Betty's Hope, one of the earliest sugar plantations dating back to 1651. The sugar mills are beautifully preserved, and we learned about the large role these sugar plantations played in Antigua's history. While enjoying the scenery at Betty's Hope, Elvis surprised us with homemade sandwiches and rum punch. A delightful snack to recharge us for the next stop -- Devil's Bridge in the Indian Town National Park.

antigua - cruising with members - marinalife
Jim, Jen, Amanda, and Anthony

Devil's Bridge is a natural stone arch that was carved from the rocky coast by the constant pounding of waves. Locals say its name comes from surges of water that snatch away people who stray too close to the edge. The area around the arch features several natural blowholes that shoot up water and spray powered by waves from the Atlantic Ocean.

While Jim and I stayed far from the edge, Anthony ventured out close to the bridge for a unique photo opportunity. Later in the week, we would have a chance to see this incredible rock formation from the ocean.

We continued to travel up the rolling hills to Shirley Heights Lookout, first used during the Revolutionary War as a signal station and lookout for approaches to English Harbor. It is truly one of the most spectacular vistas I have ever seen.

Having reached the highest point in Antigua, it was time to get back to sea level. Our next stop centered around Nelson's Dockyard, a working Georgian-era naval dockyard, designated as a world heritage site in 2016. We delighted in exploring the dockyard and gazing over the beautiful yachts and sailboats moored at the Antigua Yacht Club Marina.

Driving through the lush dense greenery of the rainforest led us to an Antigua delicacy the black pineapple. On the side of the road just outside the rain forest, we stopped at a local fruit stand and chatted with the proprietor while she carved us a fresh black pineapple, known as the sweetest in the world. It definitely lived up to its reputation.

The final stop on our island tour was my favorite -- a chance to taste the island cuisine! Elvis called ahead of our arrival and requested a platter of local foods for us to sample. We arrived at Darkwood Beach Bar & Restaurant and were immediately welcomed by the staff.

antigua - cruising with members - marinalife
Darkwood Beach Bar

After selecting a table near the beach and ordering the national beer of Antigua, Wadidli (another name for the island itself), we had the privilege of hearing Elvis' story, learning more about his life and family, and even calling his wife to thank her for the yummy sandwiches. Then we feasted on fungee and pepperpot, a hearty meat stew with eggplant, pumpkin and squash, as well as local Caribbean lobster, curries and roti. All in all, an amazing way to end a spectacular day. We said goodbye to Elvis, exchanging addresses and knowing we had made a friend for life.

After exploring Antigua north to south and east to west, we opted for a catamaran tour to circumnavigate the island as our next adventure. The morning was spent pleasantly motoring in the calm blue waters of the Caribbean Sea around the north side of the island. Before we knew it, we were sailing along in the open Atlantic Ocean passing by Long Island, also known as Jumby Bay and a popular destination for celebrities.

After a wonderful morning on the water, we anchored in a protected cove for a stop to swim, snorkel and eat lunch near Green Island. It was a perfect destination for Amanda's first snorkeling excursion. After spotting a large sea turtle, magnificent coral reefs and exotic fish, we enjoyed a lazy swim near the beautiful powdery white sand of Green Island Beach.

Following a traditional lunch of jerk chicken, rice and plantains, we continued our journey around the island down to the southern tip to experience English Harbor and Devil's Bridge from the water. It was even more extraordinary from this vantage point.

As the sun started to dip low in the sky, we returned to the Caribbean Sea on the western side of the island watching a storm brewing in the distance. During the quiet sail back, each of us felt grateful for another magnificent day in paradise.

While traveling with your closest friends is always fun, my favorite memories of our time on this magical island were Anthony's reflections of his previous trips to Antigua with his grandparents, the excitement at sharing his favorite place with his new wife, and the joy that much of the island remained as he remembered it. We are already planning our next trip to Antigua!

STORY BY JEN LEROUX, CEO OF MARINALIFE; PHOTOS BY ANTHONY DESANTIS

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