“Isn’t she lovely?”
Leaving Big PIne Key, we set our sights, and sails, for Key West. That place was an adventure in itself and I will come back to that. All you need to know for now is that we got our fill of beer there, and liquor, and wine. Key West was just a stopping point between Big Pine and our real goal, the Dry Tortugas. With some luck, we’d even make it to the Dry Tortugas just in time to intercept some Wilmington friends who were planning a day trip to the small Key.
Nila Girl and her inhabitants (Ren, myself, Oreo and possibly a small rat, who may have stowed away in Big Pine) raised sail early morning on December 29th. Since Tay Filer and family were going to be in the Dry Tortugas on December 30th we were really pushing it, in true Ashley/Ren fashion. Why get somewhere on time maybe even with time to spare when you can get there by the skin of your teeth, often inconveniencing family and friends who are more punctual than you? It is a flaw I hope we can correct in the future. Too late for this trip though. So we sailed all day and through the night. The wind was down so we fired up the engine for a few hours, technically on December 30th. Our original plan, on leaving NC, was to never run the engine unless coming into port or if emergency requires. This plan is only valid if you are not sailing on a schedule. Something we still have not accomplished except for a few days at a time. The sails were up and the engine roared until about 5:00 am. We cut the engine and silently advanced. Stealth like, but not really with Dinky (our inflatable dinghy. Our car essentially) flapping around behind us! Quiet Dinky, damn you! Garden Key of the Dry Tortugas is home to Ft. Jefferson. An old Civil War era fort which looks particularly menacing in the middle of nowhere, just standing there, cannons pointing right at you. Union soldiers ready to board your boat, raping and pillaging. I digress, it is easy to let your imagination get carried away in the lee of the fort. So, like I said, Quiet Mr. Dink!
Approaching a shoaled complex such as the Dry Tortugas at night is not an easy feat. It’s hard on the nerves. This was evident on our boat by the presence of all three crew members on deck. One armed with a Q-beam (me), another at the helm (Ren) and another licking his crotch in anticipation of landfall (Ren…I mean Oreo). Daylight began to break which was a welcomed friend! Not to mention a breathtaking sight as the red-orange sky rose on the east side of the fort, illuminating the ancient red bricks. The fort is dotted with open air windows from which watch was kept and cannons were aimed. The dawn poured out through these spaces and reflected on Nila Girl and our grateful faces. It is funny how much a sunset, sunrise or blue moon come to mean to you when you’re living on a boat. Without DVDs, Netflix, or anything but books and some writing and chores, the sky becomes an awesome form of entertainment. I have managed to see three green flashes on our adventure during sunset. Before this trip my grand total of green flash sightings came to a whopping zero, in fact, I kind of doubted their existence.
We picked up the channel markers and easily sailed to the east side of the fort where we dropped anchor (silently of course, who knows who’s in the fort watching). A few anchor dropping chores were done. These chores include putting the engine on Dinky and taking Oreo to land ASAP. He deserves a trip to land whenever we are somewhere to manage it. Ren is in charge or Oreo and I’m in charge of getting everyone’s breakfast ready. Did it, ate, then decided to lay down for a nap since we had sailed through the night. But. However. Captain Ren was banging about the cockpit getting all his dive gear ready. At our first sight of “Caribbean Blue” water since leaving NC, he was not about to pass up a dive for a much needed nap. Truth be known, neither was I. It didn’t take much to rouse me and before I knew it, Oreo was cashing in on the nap and Ren and I were in the water, swimming with a ~200 lbs. goliath grouper! I can sleep later!
Dinky was ready for action so we decided to crawl in and go exploring while we were still brimming with excitement. We soon realized that it was terribly hard to pick out an appropriate dive spot. To remedy this situation, we got out of the dinghy and drug it behind us. First stop, underneath a sport fishing boat that was anchored near us. Underneath that boat, seven goliath groupers! These groupers were the puppy dogs of Garden Key. They chilled underneath boats looking for handouts, and who didn’t have the heart to give some to them? Not us! A guy from the boat we were hanging with the groupers under gave us a little jack he had caught earlier. I attempted to, ahem, feed the grouper but chickened out. The mouth on that thing was pretty huge and who knew if he had good eye sight or not. Like an old dog, he may misjudge the end of his treat and the end of your hand. Confusing where one begins and the other ends, the dog chomps your hand a bit. I didn’t want to risk this from a 200 lbs animal. But Ren did. Before Ren knew it, the grouper skillfully chomped the fish, and looking down we realized, he left Ren’s hand. Phew!
Moving on we dove a few more spots. Colorful angel fish and tangs swarmed the huge coral colonies that littered the rocky bottom. We picked out two huge NC sized lobster and three lionfish (which are delicious to eat and make great ceviche). The lobster were hanging out in front of their rock crevices. Not in the holes, outside catching some rays I guess. One reached his antenna out as if to shake my hand. They were not afraid of us, that was for certain. As we were on a reconnaissance dive we did not bring our animal harvesting gear so the spot was mentally marked. We were to return later after a visit to the fort to collect our lunch. Good thing we decided on a recon mission first because later when we reached the fort, and had an interview with the park ranger, who bum rushed us as soon as we got off our dinghy, it came to light that spearfishing and lobstering are strictly prohibited in the Dry Tortugas. In fact, you are only allowed to hook and line fish within a mile radius of Garden Key. There goes lunch, and dinner, and breakfast the next day…
We had collected Oreo after our dive, changed clothes and planned on making an afternoon out of land exploration. Our buds were supposed to be arriving by seaplane sometime that day. We had already seen two seaplanes come and go and the ferry arrive with a horde of people. No sign of any other North Carolinians. This place was also the first place where we found a nice beach to hang out on. Taking advantage of this fact the three of us spotted a nice place in the sand and relaxed, letting the warm sun burn our poor little bodies (which I wish it was doing right this minute. A cold front moved in and I’m freezing right now!). After a few hours we got hungry and decided to go back to the Nila Girl and rustle up some grub. But wait! What’s that noise…a seaplane! Leaning against the dock, we waited in anticipation to see if our buds would emerge from the awesome plane. The plane circled around the fort and touched down in the water between the same channel markers Nila Girl navigated early that morning. We watched the pilot run across the water and back the plane up right next to the beach. This guy was good. The small plane swung open her doors and people began pouring out. We saw three children, two girls and a boy, jump to the sand. Uh oh, our friends have two girls and a boy. We saw a slightly chubby guy handing bags to the kids. Ren pointed to the guy and said, “That’s him. That’s Tay. I can hear him from here”. Now Tay works out a good bit. I see him often at the UNCW pool swimming laps with Mr. Bob Berger. This is how I got to know Tay. I took one look at the gut of the man Ren pointed to and said, “Nope. Give Tay some credit will ya?” Underneath the plane were two more man legs. Also, I saw the legs with a stance just like Tay’s! Yeppers, our friend’s arrived.
They only had two hours to check the place out, not enough time, but we ran through the fort, reading this, questioning that. The children earned their junior ranger badges (they will thank their Mom later for making them do that at all the national parks they visit). The visit ended with a quick snorkel. Ren and I got to spend some time with some NC-ians and also left with one cold can on Lipton iced tea, a blueberry muffin and two, one serving sized containers of cream cheese. Who scored? We did!
After their visit, it was back to the boat for some three hour late lunch and that nap I thought about earlier in the day. The Dry Tortugas proved to be a place where we decided to stay three whole days.