Slooooowest Passage Ever
03 March 2016 | Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida, USA
Beth / sunny days and cool nights, little wind
The forecast was for a benign trip – not much wind – maybe even boring. Well, it was benign if that means no wild wind and waves. I suppose it was boring for a while, but there was a key element in that forecast that we didn’t fully appreciate, and that eliminated the “boring” part. It was a long trip and there was not much wind. Madcap is a sailboat. It carries 50 gallons of diesel.
Looking back, it was a fuel thing that started this trip. We pulled away from the dock at Puerto Isla Mujeres after getting all our papers in order and tied up at the fuel dock just down the way. But … no diesel! Delivery at 3 o’clock - we could get some after that. It was now 12:30. Jim dinghied to the Pemex dock downtown to see if they had some. “Yes,” but there was no room on the dock for us. Back to Madcap to ask again. This time a fellow said, “Well, there is some in the bottom of the tank.” Jim ran the first bit through our filter and declared that it looked clean, so he proceeded to pump in 100 litres, filling our tank, while I fretted that we’d have dirty fuel and pay for our hurry later on. Fortunately, that didn’t happen.
Off we went, picking up a bit of current flowing northward, but also finding that we couldn’t point close enough into the wind to be able to move by sail alone. We had hoped to sail that first day, switching to motor-sailing as the wind died the next day. But as in so many of the best-laid plans, it just didn’t work out that way. Because of the combination of wind direction, and then hardly any wind at all, we had to motor sail the whole 300 + nautical miles.
For the first 12 hours it didn’t seem so bad; we were making 6 knots with the engine at 2400 rpms, but then the speed began to drop and our foresail was just flapping around. Jim did a fuel measurement; we dropped our rpms to 2000. We plowed along, sometimes doing 3 knots, sometimes 4 or 5. We put foresails in and out, sometimes the yankee, sometimes the staysail, trying to keep some wind in them. We tacked a bit but were loathe to do too much of that since it would add on miles without making a big difference in our ability to sail without having the engine on.
Wednesday morning dawned and we knew we would never make Key West that night and even Thursday was looking unlikely. Jim kept measuring fuel levels; we kept dropping rpms. By Thursday, when we could count on one hand the gallons left in the tank, we decided to pull into the Dry Tortugas.
What a gorgeous little group of keys! (Now that we are in the USA, cays have become keys.) We were sorry to miss them on our way south in 2012, and I had been secretly hoping to stop there on the way back. Juan Ponce de Leon gave them their name in 1513 after discovering both an abundance of turtles, and a lack of potable water. After the US acquired Florida from Spain in 1819, they decided some fortification might be in order to protect shipping lanes between the Gulf of Mexico and Europe, and they started construction of Fort Jefferson in 1846 but it was never completed. The 16 million bricks built on sand and coral shifted and cracked and although the walls still stand, it was never an active fort. Now, the group of seven keys and surrounding waters are the Dry Tortugas National Park, accessible only by boat and seaplane.
After seeing nothing but sea and sky since leaving Mexico almost 72 hours earlier, spotting land on the horizon was a wonderful thing! We watched the 167-foot lighthouse on Loggerhead Key come closer and closer, gorgeous white sand beaches beckoned investigation. Excellent navigational aids led us around to Garden Key almost totally taken up by the rambling sand coloured fort. More beaches around the fort and on nearby Bush Key sparkled, and we were happy to join the 4 boats anchored in the tiny anchorage off the ferry dock.
We soon dinghied ashore to discuss our “issues” with park staff, hoping to find some assistance that would allow us to continue our slow progress toward Key West with a little more peace of mind.
Unfortunately, our first encounters with folks in Florida were less than happy. We already knew there was no fuel station in the Park, but it has been our experience that solutions to problems can usually be found. When we asked the first park employee what other cruisers do in similar situations, he shrugged his shoulders and replied, “Plan ahead.” I could see Jim’s eyes widen, his jaw tense and his whole body go into “What the hell are you talking about?” mode. I wanted to slap him (the other guy, not Jim). But we remembered we are guests in his country and he has more power than we do. We moved on to an employee on the ferry that brings tourists from Key West. His response? “Nope, can’t help you. Can’t bring fuel to you either (and with shrug of the shoulders) … You’re a sailboat, right?” Again, significant restraint on our part, although I gave him the evil eye. (Our children would recognize that look.) Seriously, we would not have travelled all the places we’ve been without planning ahead, and without wind, sailboats cannot sail.
Why on earth do people think it is acceptable to be this rude? Did they forget about common courtesy somewhere along the way? In all our travels throughout Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Cuba, Bahamas, we did not ever encounter this. Officiousness and cumbersome bureaucracy sometimes? Yes; just plain rudeness? No. We talked with another Park employee who had a suggestion for us that helped us out, but even as he was willing to assist us, he remarked that since we were coming from Mexico, “It must be nice for you to hear English on the radio, talk to a white guy.” Gulp. Again, he was in the power position. We were not here to argue. But I just couldn’t quite let that one go without a challenge. “Yes, it is very nice to be back in the US, but we have found people to be very helpful as we have travelled in other countries.”
I must say, in all fairness, these individuals are certainly not typical of people we have met in our travels, either here in the United States or elsewhere. It is just unfortunate that our first encounters here on our return from the south were with rude people. We very much appreciated the assistance we were given as we engaged in more conversation.
We had deliberately not put up our Q flag yet, hoping not to draw attention to ourselves until we raised it as we entered Key West harbour, but no such luck. We were definitely told that since we had not yet checked into the country, we were not supposed to be ashore (even though just a few miles away in Key West, we must go ashore and get ourselves to the Immigration office at the airport – and presumably can have lunch, take a walk or whatever on the way there, since after making one phone call, we have 24 hours in which to do it.)
We eventually found a way to resolve our issues, stayed on board overnight and headed out again in the morning. It just drove me crazy to watch the birds and beaches from afar without being able to explore, but we had to content ourselves with this brief look at a truly beautiful place.
And then we were off again into calm seas and little wind on the next leg of our long slow Mexico to USA passage.