18 May - discovering the Conch Republic and the Dry Tortugas

Escapade of Rame
Richard & Julie Farrington
Sun 3 Jun 2018 16:22

24:33.9N  81:48.1W


It’s just 90 miles to Key West and the passage should have been pretty straightforward.  Indeed it was, until daylight on Monday, when a violent electrical storm approached from the west (against the prevailing south easterly wind) bringing heavy rain, huge wind shifts, big squalls and the usual business of putting all our electronic gadgets in the oven!  I turned the boat south west to skirt around the edge of the main part of the storm, which was well forecast on NAVTEX by the US Navy Meteorological Station at Norfolk, Virginia.  We had a few fairly miserable hours before being able to turn back to the north east and allow the wind (now from our port quarter) to push us down into Key West.  The Keys are very low lying and in the poor visibility we did not pick them up until a few miles out.  The water goes from several hundred metres deep to 20 metres in a matter of yards, so it was interesting watching the echo sounder as we closed the coast.  A few yards later, the seabed shelved to around 9 metres and we were in ‘pilotage waters’ running into the harbour.  Needless to say the buoyage is clear and the entry was very straightforward.  We had a berth booked at Conch Harbor Marina (pronounced ‘Conk’ – no idea why) and were somewhat relieved to get alongside without incident in mid-afternoon.



Escapade enjoying a Key West sunset


I nearly fell off my chair in the marina office: they wanted $220 to berth the boat for the night.  This is roughly four times as expensive as anywhere else in my forty years of boat ownership and absolutely outrageous.  But we had little choice: the water depths around the harbour are either impossibly shallow, or sitting in a strong tidal stream surrounded by other yachts and some uncertain seabed conditions.  We decided to swallow the cost for the night; fortunately the package included free laundry, so we took the opportunity to wash just about every item of clothing and linen onboard over the next 24 hours!  We could not take shore power though, as they only offered 110V.


A typical Key West townhouse


Tuesday 15 May was a busy day as we strove to see Key West and get the maximum value out of the marina berth.  The Customs people were a short walk away on Symington Street.  Once we got through the security post (this is also the courthouse and they were clearly set up for some sort of armed assault) the chaps from CPB were absolutely charming.  All the hype about the difficulties of coming to the USA from Cuba turned out to be complete nonsense and we were processed through customs and immigration by cheerful, helpful and genuinely nice people in record time.  The nearby West Marine chandlery had the gas fitting we needed, so when the Camping Gaz gifts finally run out, we should be ‘good to go’.  In no time, we found ourselves on Duval Street sitting in Sloppy Joe’s bar listening to a singer trying to emulate Johnny Cash, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Buffett (who? A Florida legend apparently… think ‘Margaritaville’ soft rock/country and you’re just about there).  He wasn’t very good, but Julie bought a t-shirt anyway.  There’s something about Key West that is soooo laid back, friendly, marketable, gentle, liberal, colourful, tasteful, brash – all in the same breath!


I can’t remember how we got back onboard…


The next challenge was to open the deck fitting for the sewerage holding tank.  Normally, we use the holding tank in harbour and empty it when we get out to sea as there are relatively few places in Europe with pump-out facilities.  But the Americans are quite keen on this, indeed Key West forbids any discharge into the sea at all.  There are no shortage of Law Enforcement personnel all around Florida’s waters and I had no intention of having an awkward discussion about ‘black water’ with a chap carrying a gun. 


Shabby chic?


What I wanted was an engineer with the right tool to open a seized filler cap – I have not been able to gain access from the foredeck since we bought the boat three years ago, but it’s never been an issue before.  A chap called Perry, whose company is called ’Head Honcho’ turned up and promised to get back to me in a ‘coupla days’.  Sceptical, I set about dismantling the pipework and getting the cap off from underneath.  At the expense of several pints of sweat in the heat and humidity, some knuckle skin and the odd bruised thumb, eventually I had the offending parts in my hands, but it was too late in the day to set out and find a metalworker who could apply some heat and brute force.


Instead, we slipped our mooring at Conch Harbour and headed out around Fleming Island into a wide but shallow area of water to the north west of the city called Garrison Bight.  The channel is narrow, but well marked.  It’s also very shallow, so I turned off the depth alarm and edged forward gently for about three miles, with the depths varying between 2.5m and 3m (we draw 2.3m).  The US Army Special Forces have a base on the island covered in insignia and advertising – how different to the low profile generally adopted by our own Special Forces!  Round in the Bight we found the mooring field and a suitable buoy with 3m all around it.  At $19 a night, it looked like a bargain!



This iguana is about four feet long, sitting calmly in the upper reaches of a mangrove at Garrison Bight


The following morning we found our way into the City Marina at Garrison Bight in the dinghy.  It’s about a mile and a half from our mooring, but the trip is well sheltered, the water shallow enough to paddle in and warmer than your bath!  It’s also crystal clear, so perhaps that ‘no discharge’ policy is working after all?  We hired bikes, did some food shopping, found an excellent coffee shop on Caroline Street, explored the city.  It’s a beautiful place, particularly the ‘old town’, with classic Colonial architecture (is that the right term?), plenty of trees and an addictive aura of self-confidence and wealth. 



Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas from the east


On Thursday, we had a trip booked on a seaplane out to the westernmost point of the Florida Keys, the Dry Tortugas.  Julie had a tummy bug, I sensed a migraine coming on and it was pouring with rain, so we rather hoped the trip would be cancelled.  It wasn’t, so we went ashore ready to get wet, but even as we got on our bikes the weather improved.  By the time we took off at 1200, the sun was out.  It was very interesting to fly low over the shallow waters of the Keys; the pilot encouraged us to look out for sharks and rays, but we didn’t see any.  We did see plenty of turtles though, as well as funny scratches on the seabed where fishing boats had driven at high speed through the sea grass and ploughed it up with their propellers.  The chaps at Poole with their little exclusion zone in Studland Bay would have been apoplectic!  It was a fascinating 45 minute ride, no good for cricked necks, but really interesting to see how land and sea meet and interact on this strategic and geographically critical spot on the planet.


In the 19th century, the US military saw some defensive value in the Dry Tortugas and established a base at Fort Jefferson on the largest of the islands.  There is a good deep water anchorage close by and they set about building a huge fort to dominate the surrounding waters and resupply the ships anchored close by.  The fort looks very similar to the structures surrounding Portsmouth and Plymouth.  Apparently it is the largest all-brick structure in the USA.  It turned out to be a fantastic white elephant: beset with technical problems during the construction, by the time it was more or less complete, it was obsolete.  The foundations settled and the cisterns, vital for storing rainwater (DRY Tortugas should have given somebody a clue…) were contaminated with salt water.  The only use they every had for it was to imprison some damned Yankees during the Civil War and incarcerate the chaps who were implicated in the murder of Abraham Lincoln.  Strangely enough, no enemies ever tried to attack the USA from this part of the Gulf of Mexico/western Atlantic.  But hey, why should politics ever get in the way of a good military idea?


A huge pile of bricks!


On our return to Key West, we both felt better so we headed into town via the most southerly point of the USA, where we posed for the obligatory photograph. Ironically, it’s not the most south westerly tip any more, because the US Navy reclaimed some land just behind it to site a satellite ground terminal.  Another good military idea, clearly!  We cycled as far as Mallory Square, which is the uber-touristy bit where they ‘celebrate’ sunset every night in the ‘Conch Republic’, as this part of Florida is known.  A couple of impressive acrobatic performers were vastly outnumbered by ‘kiss-me-quick’ stalls selling the full panoply of low-end, made-in-China-never-mind-the-trade-war ‘tat’ at Key West prices.  Hastily we retraced our steps to a nice looking pub called the Green Parrot where we settled in rather too easily.  They had a band on later: ‘Water Seed’ were billed as an exciting funk and soul act from New Orleans.  We repaired next door to eat barbecued ribs and returned just as they got going. 


They were GOOD and we left much later…