The small craft warning that was announced on the local news should have been sufficient. We heard it as we scurried around our hotel room preparing for the day’s outing, but we chose to selectively ignore it.
A half hour later, while standing in line at the Cuban Coffee Queen just blocks from the marina departure dock, the warning was reinforced. I overheard one of the Yankee Freedom III crewmembers chatting with the barista schlepping lattes at the window. I believe the specific words mentioned in reference to the return voyage to Key West were, “It’s going to be a rough one today.” But my stubborn ears tuned them out.
Back at the designated ferry boarding area as we waited for our boat ride out to Dry Tortugas National Park, we were given one last opportunity to cancel our tour. A windy afternoon was forecast with the prediction of some very high sea swells. Despite my wife’s apprehension, I could not be dissuaded. We bummed some Dramamine pills off a cute couple sitting next to us and hoped for the best. A few minutes later we were seated next to two other couples as we motored away from the pier.
The 70-mile ride out into the Gulf of Mexico aboard this 110 ft. long state-of-the-art double decker, high-speed catamaran started out smooth as could be. We skipped along at about 30 miles per hour, twin Caterpillar engines quietly digging through the relatively docile milky blue-gray seas. The overcast skies kept us a little skeptical of what our time on the island would bring, but the lively company of the other National Park enthusiasts seated around us made the time pass rather quickly. A handful of passengers stood on the open bow, and only once did the captain have to summon them into the interior cabin due to the appearance of menacing waves.
As we finally approached the main island (Garden Key) 2-1/2 hours after launch, the sun burst through the clouds to welcome us. By the time we docked, an outpouring of warm southern sunlight dominated the sky, brightly glinting off each approaching wave and illuminating the now beautiful azure water color.
Fort-ifying Our Trip
Once on land a 45-minute guided tour was available to explore Fort Jefferson, complete with cannons, military “window platforms” and impenetrable brick walls. This old fort was built in the early 1800s as a base to help protect the southern border of the U.S. The Fort also served as a prison, housing military prisoners, mostly Army privates who had deserted during the Civil War. In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt designated the area as a National Monument and in 1992, President George Bush upgraded the place to National Park status.
After exploring the fort and the accompanying gift shop, it was time for lunch. We filled our plates at the sandwich buffet aboard the Yankee Freedom III and sat at a picnic table along the shore to devour our afternoon nourishment. Then we picked up some snorkel gear (free to use for the passengers of the tour) and headed to the smooth, white sand beach on the back of the island.
Time to Hit the Beach
The turbulent waters made it difficult to see around the base of the fort, but I did manage to spy a couple of bright yellow and black tropical fish as well as some bug-eyed silver swimmers darting away from me. The warm sand, complete with runaway hermit crab, was very relaxing and was definitely a highlight of the trip.
We capped off the afternoon with a long stroll around the peninsula shoreline, waves washing away any traces of our footsteps shortly after the imprints were made. As we peered out across the water we could see some violent whitecaps, hammering relentlessly at the horizon. It was at that moment that we both got a large, dry lump in our throats. Maybe that’s where the “dry” part of the park’s name came from? Unfortunately, it appeared that the early morning warnings were going to be frighteningly accurate.
This is How We Roll
Back at the boat we carefully selected a pair of front-facing seats as close to the center of the ferry as we could find. My wife’s experience on a cruise ship had taught her that being near the middle of the vessel was the very best place to ride out a series of rough waves.
As soon as we cleared the shelter of the islands the trouble started. Things went from choppy to roller-coaster-like in minutes. The first 8-foot swell raised the front of the boat at a sharp angle, like we were taking off in an airplane. Just as quickly we were slammed back into the sea with some major brute force. A handful of passengers let out high-pitched screams as everyone around them gripped the tables tightly. The up-and-down extremes continued, with frequent side-to-side rolling thrown in for good measure. Everyone on the crew scrambled into action, somehow traversing the length of the boat to pass out seasickness bags before all lunch was on deck!
It was quite the sight to see these young men and women of the crew navigating the aisles like balancing pros trapped on a runaway tilt-a-whirl. They managed to remain on their feet and tend to every passenger in need, clearing away used barf bags and bringing water or ginger ale to the poor souls who needed to rinse their mouths or settle their stomachs.
The rough ride lasted for a good portion of the 2-1/2 hour return trip, settling down briefly from time-to-time, only to batter us with another round of sea violence a few minutes later. Our progress felt as slow as a Tortuga (that’s Spanish for turtle, like the park was named after).
Looking out the window we watched in disbelief as our other transportation option, a float plane, whizzed right by with no apparent effects from the wind. At this moment the thought of paying approximately twice the price for the trip didn’t seem like such a silly idea! But as the plane became nothing but a tiny spec on the horizon, our ferry boat powered on. Wave. After. Brutal. Wave.
Throughout this whole time the crew members were the epitome of professionalism, never complaining and always putting the priorities of the 175 passengers at the top of their list, even though some of them looked completely exhausted and a little green around the gills themselves.
By the time the catamaran finally reached the leeward side of Key West, almost everyone aboard was exhausted. Whether it was from battling 2 hours of dizziness and upset stomach, hanging on to a table for dear life, trying to serve the frantic guests, or just trying to ignore all of the pain and suffering surrounding us, each passenger had their own individual trials. My feet were never happier to touch dry land than they were at 5:28 PM that January afternoon.
Pros and Cons
Looking back on our trip to Dry Tortugas National Park, I’m not convinced that I would do it again. The adventure was definitely there. The location was interesting and unique. The water was beautiful, the snorkeling was fun, and the beach was relaxing. The crew members of the Yankee Freedom III were fantastic and treated us all like royalty. I never felt like we were in danger at any time, but the uncertainty of the return trip definitely did take me aback. The fear of getting sea sick (fortunately neither my wife or I ever blew chow) and the 5 hours spent sitting inside a boat in exchange for only 4 hours spent enjoying the island, are a few of the main factors that would make me think twice about another visit.
Now you may be asking yourself, “Hmmm, with this new info, should I go?” I can’t answer your question with a yes or no reply because everyone is different. All I will say is: If you have a strong stomach, rock steady sea legs, a full day of time to commit to the exploration, and a penchant for relishing in whatever adventure awaits, “Go for it!” If not, there is no shame in sticking closer to the mainland.
For pricing and more information on the trip to Dry Tortugas National Park, visit the Yankee Freedom III website. No matter what happens, it’s a trip you’ll never forget!