Sunday, January 27, 2013

Key West to the Dry Tortugas in a Marsh Cat

Two of Doryman's friends from Maryland completed a trip from Key West to the Dry Tortugas at the end of 2012. This is the second time Mike Wick and Kevin MacDonald have made this voyage, so they're seasoned. The impressive thing is how they did it in a fifteen foot Marshcat catboat! The Dry Tortugas are seventy miles West of Key West, Florida.

Mike Wick tells the story of himself and Kevin in Little T :

Second trip to the Tortugas with a stop at Fort Jefferson
By Mike Wick

I drove to Kevin’s house on Friday night so we could make an early start the next morning. We left Frederick, Md., at 5:00 am Saturday December 8, to beat the traffic around Washington D.C. We drove south 1,240 miles pretty much non-stop and arrived at Oceangate Marina at 2:00 am Saturday and grabbed some sleep in the boat. After waking we settled with the marina and had a quick breakfast. The television told us that the weather window was good for another go, so, before 9:00 am Sunday, we launched and were off. The harbormaster was a little skeptical about the passage but when we told him about the February trip, he just shrugged and said "Timing is everything". He’s right. We were under pressure of time this vacation and had planned for a figure-eight loop around the lower keys, but, really, both of us were primed to go do the Dry Tortugas passage again. As long as we had the weather we really wanted to repeat our February passage.

In a light breeze from the northeast, we rounded Key West and were swept down on Kingfish Shoal by a strong south going current. We just barely missed the shoals around Cut "A" range markers. By reading the water we worked north enough to fetch the gate south of Mule Key that begins the Lakes Passage. There’s a lot of shallow water on Lakes Passage. It is fairly uniform in depth except for Gates off Mule Key, Archer Key, and Boca Grande. The channels are well marked and easy to see. There was quite a crowd at the protected beach on the northwest corner of Boca Grande Key. Most were high speed flats fishing boats nosed up on the beach.
We entered Boca Grande Channel in a light easterly with deceptive visibility. We approached Gull Rocks and were within a mile and a quarter of the Marquesas without seeing any sign of them although they are quite large and high. Then the fog lifted and there was land everywhere to the north of us. There are random brain coral bricks about a half-mile off the Marquesas, so it is good to keep a sharp lookout and maintain some offing. There is a grand archipelago of mangrove islands surrounding a large well protected Mooney Harbor. We were warned about mosquitoes but there is no fresh water, so no bugs. In fact, in two trips we’ve found no bugs anywhere.
It is tempting to anchor inside Mooney Harbor but we were anxious about the second leg, so we anchored outside just to the west. This provided good protection from the usual easterly winds. Key West is far enough south so the tradewinds are well established. The winds vary from northeast to southeast most of the time. We ate quickly and turned in. Kevin said "Whoever wakes first wakes the other. "

It was a beautiful night with great stars. Monday morning I woke first at 2:30 am and then woke Kevin. We had anchored a little too close to land and at low tide had some trouble with grounding on our way out. A nine mile flasher on Cosgrove Shoal guided us to the deeper water and we were on our way in a light easterly. I was steering by Orion to keep us south of the Quicksand but a strong set to the north brought us back on the shallow bank. At one point, I heard the tide rushing over a shoal spot but our catboat had plenty of water everywhere on that bank.

The problem was that the Quicksand is a bombing and strafing range for the Navy boys at Pensacola. There are unlit, rusty targets at random places throughout. In February, we had found some in the dark and again, just at dawn, I saw unlit and twisted pilings close onboard to starboard. Sunrise is always is a comfort, after an early start.

It was a beautiful day for the big push. Wind was from the southeast and mild. Rebecca Shoal was abeam at 9:30 am. We were more than halfway to our destination. At 11 am we sighted Yankee Freedom III, the daily ferry from Key West, passing to the north of us.

We had both my Garmin 76 Cx and Kevin’s more basic GPS. Either set had plenty of information for this kind of trip. We just kept adjusting for tide and observed the set on passing crab pots and the plot on the little screen. By 12:30 pm we had made landfall on Fort Jefferson, the lighthouse on Loggerhead Key, then east and Hospital Keys. By 1:30 pm we anchored off the dinghy beach in the Garden Key anchorage.

Being a bit tired of our own cooking we rushed for our wallets and waded ashore to buy our lunch from the ferry. We had experienced a fifty mile passage at 4.8 knots. We were glad to have left early and were halfway on our journey.

In the afternoon, we wandered around in the cool shade of the fort, talking to tourists, the rangers, and stretching our legs. One ranger remembered us from our February visit and was interested in general about small boat passages. We then waded back aboard and anchored for a night of wonderful star gazing at the anchorage. Jupiter was close to the Pleiades.

On these trips we always seem to be able to sleep from dusk to dawn, even if it is more than twelve hours. We woke in the morning to find a lovely reaching wind. Feeling the pressure of time we turned to each other and said, "YEP". By 8:00 am we were on our way again. When you are on top of the mountain you shouldn’t turn down a gift from the gods.
It turned out not to be quite the gift we hoped for though. A beautiful broad reach near hull speed brought us most of the way to Rebecca Shoal. The breeze fizzled and leaving us becalmed near Halfmoon Shoal in the late afternoon. We tried our best but knew we had to use the outboard and adjust course north in order to come in on the Marquesas from the north.

That was the best nighttime approach and we aimed to snug in for the night on the northwest corner of the Islands. It was well after dark when we sighted the one second flasher on the tower between New Ground and the flasher on Ellis Rock. We would use this as a turning mark for our approach. We were anxious to anchor for the night with lightning all around us but we had to make a careful approach to avoid various obstructions that were on the chart, such as submerged platform ruins and a mile wide circle of pilings. We got closer to the flasher on Ellis Rock but it wouldn’t appear.

We were within a quarter mile of our waypoint and still couldn’t see the light, so we decided that it was time to believe either that the buoy had been struck or the light had failed. I couldn’t see to steer, (I am scheduled for cataract surgery in a month), and so I held the flashlight and had Kevin steer first east along a latitude line then south along a longitude line to clear all the charted obstructions. Even with this precaution, I still sighted two large rusty pylons close to port, though Kevin couldn’t find them with his light. Still, I knew they were there and they made me anxious. I got my training as navigator of a deep draft navy freighter and this one foot draft catboat was a different kind of piloting altogether.

We were at anchor and in our sleeping bags well into the night, when I asked Kevin what the time was. His reply was" nine thirty." It didn’t seem like nine thirty. Next morning, Wednesday, I woke with the calm of dawn and after looking around called Kevin. No pylons, no pilings, no flasher but a beautiful double rainbow to the west. No rain but high humidity. My obstructions had disappeared with the night but Kevin forgave my anxiety. The strenuous part of our trip was over.

We caught a whisper of a southeasterly breeze through an intricate channel into Mooney Harbor. We sailed as far as we could around the harbor, a chance to breathe now that we are down off the mountain. Once we had found all the parts of that sector that we could float in, we went outside and found a nice beach to swim and explore off the boat for a bit. In the interim, the wind had picked up rapidly and we used the chance to tuck in a single reef on the beach. A fast crab across Boca Grande Channel brought us in a little north of Boca Grande.

We found the lakes passage a little too shallow for upwind work with any centerboard, so we ran off to the north and searched for an anchorage. First we tried Cottrell Key, off the Northwest Channel leading into Key West, but there were dive boats and mooring balls. So we figured they didn’t want any catboats interfering with their diving. We crossed the middle ground and found a nice little anchorage just off Fleming Key.

We had company but nowhere as much company as you would find there in February when the snowbirds had had more time to really flock south. The insurance companies insist they have to stay north of Norfolk until the first of November to keep them away from hurricanes. After Sandy it seems as if that wasn’t the right plan this year. There is something to be said for having boats that can easily be trailered instead.

Thursday brought a calm morning for inspecting the fleet in Frankfort Bight, and a run to the truck for some changes of food and clothing. Then we took advantage of the brisk norther to run east along the weather shore of Stock Island, Boca Chica, Geiger Key and into Saddlebunch Harbor. The wind was quite stiff and Saddlebunch offered little protection from a north wind but we finally found a good lee up next to the Route 1 Bridge tucked under Snake Key. There was traffic noise but no waves. We slept fine.

Friday was overcast and windy; a typical norther, so we made a fast passage back to Oceangate Marina and headed for home. 210 miles in six days.

Photos courtesy of Mike and Kevin. Thanks, fellas!


skipjack1012 said...

I'm thinking of doing this in Helen Marie with Helen Marie. I've been a couple of times and the trip home is always scary. Dave

doryman said...

That would be some trip in the fantail. We're waiting for the story!

eric said...

Great Story! Is the everglades challenge of interest to either of you?

doryman said...

Not this year, Eric. I think Dave stops in to see the start every year. We might be a bit long in the tooth for that event.