To the Edge of the World with Ponce de Leon
May 19, 2008
|24 36.6 North
82 09.3 West
Florida Keys, USA
Where to start?
These keys were actually discovered by Ponce de Leon immediately after Columbus, depending on who you believe, either discovered the Bahamas or North America. The series of non-descript sand-based islands, approximately 65 nm west of Key West, resembled nothing more than the back of the large Loggerhead as it lazily floats on the salty waters of the area. It was easy for him to come up with the name Tortugas for this chain and it was just as easy for him to name them DRY based on the lack of rum, per Capt. Jack Sparrow’s legendary comments in the PIRATES OF THE CARIBEAN. But alas, while the area was a wonderful retreat for pirates later on, that rumour is without merit and the DRY refers to the serious lack of fresh water in the area.
A few hundred years later the US government decides to build a mega fort by the name of Ft. Jefferson, on this sand bar, in order to protect the shipping lanes between the Gulf Coast and the east coast of the US. After spending an exorbitant amount of money to import over 2million bricks to construct the fort, and before actual completion, the military experts of the day, much like today’s geniuses, concluded that masonry walls were defenseless against the long guns on that days foreign fleets. If nothing else, a visit here confirms that poorly thought out government spending is a tradition unto itself and is well-oiled and refined to this very day.
My bow shot at the engineers of the day and today. Don’t build castles on sand foundations as they wiggle around and collapse.
But this is not a political blog.
Fortunately for the wags of the time the Civil War presented itself and Ft. Jefferson became a very expensive but secure military prison. As you read the letters from prisoners and guards alike one wonders who really were the incarcerated and what terrible stroke of misfortune found any enlisted man on this sandy atoll on the western edge of nowhere. What kind of prison is this when there are no bars to keep you in?
But finally, a prisoner worthy of such grandiose found himself, innocently it turns out, shipped under cover of stealth and darkness to Ft. Jefferson. Dr. Samuel Mudd, the physician who treated John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg after his infamous jump into history, is highlighted in all literature rationalizing this monstrosity as its most famous resident.
That having been said the fort is absolutely fascinating. My only question is why do we need Guantanamo Bay in Cuba when 90-miles to the north we have a pre-fabricated air conditioned facility that would serve a safer and similar purpose?
But as a cruising destination it is worthy of very high marks. The combination of history, romance and raw nature just cannot be beaten anywhere. The water here is not as clear and blue as the Bahamas but that having been said the coral is more vibrant in color and variety. The fruits of conservation are shared throughout this area daily. We see 300-pound turtles, swim with 300-500 pound goliath groupers, marvel and swim around pods of 50-100 pound tarpon and watch the resident dolphins roil in the waters of the bay. Less than ½ mile to the east of the fort’s anchorage is a tornadic turmoil of endangered terns that darken the sunlit sky. These terns are so protected here that the entire island is a no access zone for their nesting. This is also where our friend, Wes Pratt on svEOS, also known as the Sharkman of the Dry Tortugas did the research that won him such acclaim in National Geographic in March 2007. Yes, conservation wins!
We are so lucky to be here under a full moon as it lights up a path all of the way to Cuba only a days’ sail from our anchorage. Again, this is not a political blog but talk about a ridiculous piece of US foreign policy. We go to war with countries, leaving the souls and lives of fallen sons and fathers on those lands and normalize relations with those enemies within 10 years but not in Cuba.
We see first hand how small this world actually is. There are a number of Cuban refugee boats that have become part of the fabric of the fort over the years. Last year I wrote of the desperation worn by Haitian refugees as they sailed away from their homeland to the Bahamas. The sight of these washed up, junk ridden flotillas of freedom on the shores of the Dry Tortugas brings home that same sense of frustration and sadness for me.
And as we look to the south we see a looming electrical storm that is actually caught on our XM Weather monitoring system. For the first time in our lives we are directly impacted by weather coming, from all places, Cuba.
Sadly, but understandably, we do not see any familiar boats of the 20 or so that are anchored around Ft.Jefferson. There are none of the familiar sunset beach get-togethers. Few people actually take the time to say hello. Interestingly, one that does say hello, is a husband and wife on SOUTHERN SKIESfrom Louisiana who actually looked at MILANO MYST I our Beneteau 411 that we traded away nearly 4-years ago. This weekend warrior of the cruising world is still learning the how to approach an anchorage, select the proper place to put the anchor and then set an anchor. One thing leads to another and SOUTHERN SKIES re-anchors immediately off our starboard side and I begin to fret in the cockpit that he is way too close to us. Carole, the ambassador we all love, gives me the ‘look’ and I don’t say anything to him
At about 1AM I am up for my age-consistent visit to the head which in this case is the back of our boat. Well, I nearly used his forward hatch as my head as SOUTHERN SKIES was now banging against our starboard stern quarter. After much mild verbal nudging I was able to rouse this crew and they eventually pulled anchor and rest much further away. As they slink out of the anchorage early the next morning they never took the time to apologize or ask about any damage. The real irony would have been if it would have been
One boat in the anchorage that we know is the catamaran SCUD who is single-handing to Isla Mujeres, Mexico and then on to the Rio Dulce for the summer. There comes that dang name again and we all think of our friends on the big cat and wonder if they are home safely yet.
For the crew of MILANO MYST arrival at this mythical destination is the culmination of all of our cruising dreams and ambition. Some of you might say that if this was our star we did not reach high enough into the sky. To us it represents everything we could ever have envisioned in this trip. We feel like we are standing at the edge of the world as we follow the sun to the west. No other place in the US, except maybe the western coast of Hawaii or some frozen chunk of tundra up in Alaska, offers the essence of stepping off and out of our own world. Here we look out over that edge, marvel at those that actually were brave enough to step off and wonder if we will ever take that defining step ourselves.
Visit DRY TORTUGAS
MILANO MYST Monitoring 9 ( and SSB 4045 weather)