Thursday, June 6, 2019

Dry Tortugas, Welcome to the United States

June 6
Dry Tortugas

We dropped anchor in Garden Key Harbor, 500 yards off the ramparts of Fort Jefferson, Dry Tortugas National Park at 1015 yesterday morning (June 5) and enjoyed a day of exploring the fort and snorkeling its surrounding waters. And getting a violation notice from the United States District Court handed to me by an officer of the National Park Service, my first official welcome back to US waters; more about that later.

The final 24 hours of our passage here from Isla Mujeres was not as enjoyable as the first 30. The wind shifted north and we not only lost the favorable Yucatán current that had been pushing us along, we encountered an unexpected 1-2 knot foul southwesterly current. We had to motor sail with both engines running for eight hours to keep up 5 knots of boat speed and run one engine the rest of the way here. Nature giveth and Nature taketh away.

Dry Tortugas is a group of six small keys among reefs in an area about six miles in diameter. The water is a palette of blues, dark blue in the deep channels, lighter blue in shallower water, turquoise along the edges of the reefs, aquamarine in the shallowest waters. The reefs block the ocean swells, so the waters inside them are calm, lake-like. Underwater is full of life- coral, sea grass, small reef fish, big barracudas, tarpons, groupers. The air is filled with birds, mostly Naughty Brown Terns, which live up to their moniker by landing on the boat and using it as a latrine.

Fort Jefferson is a huge hexagonal structure three levels high, the walls punctuated with gun ports for cannons, huge cannons spaced around the perimeter of the roof with thick-walled and -roofed magazines in between them for the ammunition. Construction of the fort began in 1846 and continued for 30 years but was never finished as military technology advanced so as make brick masonry fortifications not strong enough to resist the power and accuracy of naval gunnery. During the Civil War, the fort was a Union military prison. The masonry of ramparts at the top of the fort is a dark red, different than the tan-brown of the walls below, as the brick to top off the walls needed to be shipped from Maine when the original supply from Florida was interrupted by the war. Four men convicted of complicity in Abraham Lincoln's assassination were imprisoned in the fort including Dr. Mudd, the physician who treated John Wilkes Booth's broken leg. Mudd was later pardoned by President Andrew Johnson for his service treating other prisoners.

We did some snorkeling among the ruins of an old dock and below the modern dock in the harbor, an activity we later discovered to be illegal but which we did without being observed. What was observed was our crossing of a closed, protected area of water in the dinghy in search of a wreck to snorkel around. I attribute this violation of park rules and common sense to fatigue after sailing for 54 hours, poor vision from not having any glasses onboard the dinghy and exuberance. The ranger who observed us issued me a citation, which was reasonable and accepted with regrets, not so much for violating a rule but for running my dinghy through an environmentally sensitive area, albeit by mistake and at slow speed and carefully. What does tweak me a bit about national parks is how over time rangers have changed from mostly being guides to and protectors of the parks to a police force, armed and with their citation books at the ready. Despite being clearly cooperative, apologetic and non-threatening, the ranger who cited me told us to all stay in the cockpit where he could see us while he ran my driver's license for outstanding warrants. Today I saw the same ranger walking around the fort with holding his ticket book in the open, dangling from his hand. I'm all for protecting our parks and I take responsibility for my violation of the rules, but this seems a bit much, like a predator hunting for prey.

We're moving the boat so that it is further away and out of view of the NPS Gestapo, close the the reefs where we can snorkel legally. We'll stay here until tomorrow evening when we'll weigh anchor and do an overnight sail to Key West and make our official entry into the USA. I hope we receive a warmer welcome from the government than we did here. For my part I'll try to obey the maritime rules better, despite there being so many more than where we've been sailing for the past 3 1/2 years.