The Dry Tortugas and a few keys to the east are the only U.S. nesting grounds for the magnificent frigate bird. In its watery domain, the bird is a pirate, stealing most of its food from gulls and shorebirds. And the Darth Vader-esque black bird can glide for hours without a wingbeatlonger than any other avian.
Any fool living in Maine would seize the opportunity to sail with his family in the Florida Keys in November. Any fool, even if his wife, Lisa, was seven months pregnant and had suffered a near-deadly case of bacterial meningitis a week earlier and had been told by her doctors that she absolutely could not leave the state. Even if this were his crew: Helen, age five, a hellcat whose greatest desire is to own a pig; Anabel and Eliza, six-year-old twin acrobats with no understanding of the word no. And even if he'd be guiding a 36-foot sybaritic catamaran 70 miles west of Key West with only a modicum of captaining experience so his family could fulfill his desire to visit Fort Jefferson, a 150-year-old red-brick monolith set on Garden Key in Dry Tortugas National Park that is known mainly for housing Dr. Samuel Mudd, who was serving a life term for helping John Wilkes Booth evade capture.
We're talking the Dry Tortugas. Even its name sounds exotic. It's been a national park for just ten years and is known mostly to sailors and a few tarpon-chasing sportfishermen. Located on a major migratory flyway, the Dry Tortugas are visited by about 300 species of birds in the fall and spring and shelter the only U.S. nesting ground for the magnificent frigate bird. Its angular, six-foot wingspan is easy for young birders to spot as it glides across this collection of seven islands, the least disturbed and southwesternmost outpost of the Florida Keys.
Vibrant, colorful reefs and wrecked ships lie a mere five feet beneath the surface, almost as if they've been placed there for little kids to see more fish than they ever imagined. Even the guy at the charter-boat place agreed: "There's no finer place in Florida for snorkeling," he bragged. "You're gonna love it."
Clearly, we had to visit Dry Tortugas National Park, and so we set out with an itinerary I'd worked on for weeks. We started by traveling to Key West, the closest bit of developed land to the park, to pick up our vacation vessel at Oceanside Marina. It was then, during a precharter talk with Robin Rule, a partner in Southernmost Sailing, that our voyage began to take an unexpected course. She used the p-word. Yachtsmen love to bandy that word aboutit's a verbal secret-society handshake and is the antithesis of my very being. But Robin used it, and that was that. "This time of year, with the sun setting so early, it'd be prudent to anchor by 4 p.m. And your plan to reach the Dry Tortugas? Not prudent. Five days isn't enough time. You're here to have fun, and if you bite off more than you can chew, it's no fun." Hmmm.
Five hours later, we were sailing downwind in a rolling sea as blue and blissful as my wife's suddenly sparkling eyes. I'd set my sights on sailing to Boca Grande Key, about 18 miles out to sea, with a few small keys en route. From there it would be an easy two-day sail to Dry Tortugas. We were making seven knots and the skies were clear. Never mind the fact that one of the boat's two 25-horsepower enginesused as backup if we couldn't sailhad quit on us as we motored out of the marina. To hell with it! We were bound for the Dry Tortugas, where kids turned angelic and parents felt at peace. I just needed the right time to tell Lisa.
We reached Boca Grande an hour before sunset, near a curving white beach that disappeared into mangroves. Great white egrets and a Helen-size osprey watched us anchor. A gentle wind whirred in the rigging, and mullets leaped like shimmering Baryshnikovs above the Atlantic's surface. We went ashore in the burnished glow of dusk on the edge of protected landmost of Boca Grande is a wildlife refuge. Stingrays stealthed into the sandy bottom, and the girls learned that sponges aren't really fluorescent rectangles manufactured for washing dishes, but are actual living creatures. Dozens lay washed up on shore; Anabel kept one as a hat.
The next morning we sailed on to the Marquesas Keys, a ring of islands about eight miles west and the only atoll in the Atlantic. My plan was to spend the afternoon there, snorkeling above a shipwreck, and then head across to the Dry Tortugas once the kids were asleep at 9 p.m. We could sail 45 miles and be anchored beside Fort Jefferson by 4 a.m. I decided to let Lisa in on my thoughts while we negotiated our way into the Marquesas. "Are you crazy? What happened with being prudent?" she asked, uttering the p-word for the first time since we left Oceanside Marina. I interrupted her, yelling, "Coming about!" She jumped up, cranked in the starboard sheet, andhuffing like a mama bearturned her full attention to me.
"Are you even thinking about the kids?"
"I can handle this boat, sweetie," I answered, and then saw that something was amiss. The sails stalled, backed, and then headed us toward some rocks 100 yards away. "Let the sheet go! We didn't make it." We fell off the wind, sped up, came about, and failed to make it again. I cranked the remaining working engine, but it notched us up only a knot or so, no aid in getting us anywhere. We spent the next four hours trying to get a mile upwind. By this time, the girls were crying for a swim but wouldn't go in unless I did. Lisa wasn't really talking to me.
So I plunged into the five-foot-deep water, entering a forest of turtle grass. I repeated things like "have fun" to myself.
The girls jumped in. Lisa joined us, floating toward me.
"You know I love adventures. If it were just us" she began.
"No, no. You're right. The p-p-p-prudent thing to do would be to return to Key West."
We didn't make it to the fortwe didn't even try. We did, however, do everything the girls wanted to doswim, beachcomb, climb in the mangroves, and eat lots of crackers and goat cheese. We snorkeled in 40 feet of water that was visible to the bottom. And we made it back to Oceanside Marina. In other words, we were prudent andto my surprisewe still had fun.
What did we miss? I don't know this from experience, but they say Fort Jefferson remains a marvel, though its facade of 16 million bricks needs replacing, and that just a mile from Garden Key an outcropping of staghorn coral is flourishingjust waiting for some fool in a sailboat escaping the North.
GETTING THERE There are several ways to reach Dry Tortugas National Park (305-242-7700, www.nps.gov/drto) from Key West, including a charter catamaran, high-speed boat, and floatplane. Two companies offer round-trip boat service; both leave Key West at 8 a.m. every day and return at 5:30 p.m. Both cost about $100 and include breakfast, lunch, drinks, a tour of the fort, and snorkeling gear. For prices and reservations, contact Sunny Days Catamarans (800-236-7937, www.drytortugasferry.com) or Yankee Fleet (800-634-0939, www.yankeefreedom.com). Seaplanes of Key West (800-950-2359, www.seaplanesofkeywest.com) makes the trip in less than an hour. Price is roughly $180 for a half-day trip, $300 for a full day, and includes drinks, a fort tour, and snorkeling gear.
LODGING Seven islands, including Garden Key, make up the park. Some are day-use only or are closed to visitors because of nesting birds and the fragility of the land. The park's 13-site campground on Garden Key, the only accommodation offered, costs $3 per site per night. It operates on a first-come, first-served basis, except for the group area, which has to be reserved. There are no boat moorings or slips for the public; overnight anchorage is limited to a designated area off Garden Key's eastern shore.
OUTFITTERS To charter a sailboat, you have to prove your seaworthiness with a bareboat-school certificate or by listing your captaining history and passing a sailing test. Monohulls cost around $1,200 for a week; catamarans, up to $2,800. Contact Southernmost Sailing (888-352-7245, www.keywest.com/sail). We got a $200 refund on our charter because of the engine problems.
FOOD There is no food service in the park, so stock up in Key West at Fausto's Food Palace (305-296-5663, www.faustos.com), a Cuban market. You must bring everything you need, including water.