Thursday, June 8, 2017

This Week: Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida

I'm on a boat!

This is not a post about my day trip to Dry Tortugas National Park in Florida. The Dry Tortugas, a group of remote islands and islets 70 miles south of Key West, Florida, is one of the most remote national parks in the US. However, this blog is not about the towering fort the army built on this isolated spot and once held some 400 people. It is not about the history of its most famous prisoner, Dr. Samuel Mudd, the doctor who set the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth after he assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. It is not about the pristine waters and marine life that the park protects. No, this blog is about the two and half hour one-way ferry ride that gets visitors to and from this amazing national park.

Yankee Freedom III is, according to the Dry Tortugas’ website, “a high speed, state-of-the-art, all aluminum catamaran recognized worldwide for safety, performance and passenger comfort.” It was built in New England in 2012 and entered into service in Key West that fall. Also according to the website, it “is powered by twin Caterpillar engines that give her a speed of over 30 miles per hour.” There is an enclosed main cabin with a small deck out front and a topside sundeck for those who want to ride al fresco. The boat is 110 feet long and holds 250 persons, however, the park limits visitors to only 175 persons so the boat is never actually full. It keeps the small island from being overrun with people providing a more pleasant experience. The inside cabin is air conditioned with cushioned seating and dinette tables.

Even though the Dry Tortugas is a US National Park, the ferry is a private enterprise and is the only public transportation to the island. If you have the budget you could charter a private boat or even a seaplane, but not everyone has that kind of money. It is recommended that your reserve your seats on the ferry in advance online. Waiting to book at the ferry terminal means risking the trip is sold out the day you want to go.

The cost of the day trip is $175 per person for adults ($125 per child; military, student and senior discounts available). This price includes the $10 entrance fee to the national park, however, if you have a current National Park membership pass, you can present it upon check in for a refund of that amount. Initially this seems like a lot of money, but there are extra amenities on the ferry. They include both breakfast and lunch, complimentary snorkeling equipment, a 45-minute guided tour of the fort (optional), and, most importantly, use of the on-board restrooms anytime. (More about this item later.)

What is evident on our arrival at the ferry terminal and marina at 7 AM in the morning is that the Yankee Freedom III staff are a well-oiled machine. Without asking for my conformation number or proof of purchase, I simply gave my last name to the ticket agent and he easily found all my information. He then handed me two tickets and said we had to have them to get on the boat because the trip was sold out today. The line moved quickly. We took some seats in the large terminal and watched other families try to keep their kids together and other travelers tap on their phones. Over the din of the hushed voices a male voice rose above.

“Hey everyone, if you could give me your attention, we’ll get started. My name is Hollywood and I’ll be your EmCee for the day,” announced the very tan bleach blonde older gentleman wearing khaki shorts, beige work shirt with the Yankee Freedom logo and wrap-around sunglasses pushed on top of his head. He looked like he should be on a California beach instead of a Florida ferry boat.

Without the aid of a microphone, the skinny-legged Hollywood made the pre-boarding announcements. We would begin boarding at 7:15 and the boat would leave by 7:30. The complimentary continental breakfast was already waiting for us and we could dig in as soon as we boarded. Hollywood also passed out some brochures that included a map, the history of the island and things to do once we got there. When he finished, he said to follow him to Gate 1 for boarding.

As we handed our tickets to Hollywood at the boat ramp, I noticed the name tag on his work shirt really did say “Hollywood.”  We boarded with our beach bags and found a place to sit first. We chose the inside cabin and we came across a family of three who had a booth with a table at the far end. Christian asked if we could sit with them and they obliged. After setting our bags down, we got in line for breakfast. We both had a bagel with cream cheese and fresh fruit. I had a boiled egg and orange juice and Christian had a slice of ham and a soda. There were also single-serving cups of cereal and milk for the kids and cups of yogurt. There were also kettles of regular and decaf coffee and hot water for tea.

While we ate and the rest of the passengers settled down to breakfast, Hollywood returned, this time with a microphone that led to speakers throughout the ship. He announced that we were shoving off from the dock and that we would now begin our two and half hour journey. That’s a long time and I wondered how I would fill it. No wifi on the boat and I didn’t bring any magazines. Even if I had, I doubted I would be able to read on a rocking boat traveling over open water. Little did I know that Hollywood had our morning planned.

The First Half Hour:

Hollywood played tour guide and pointed out the various individual islands that fan out from Key West as we motored by, most notably the Marquesas Keys. He also pointed out the Key West Lighthouse above the trees behind us as we motored away. He then went into more important details.

First he said Breakfast would end at 8:30, so if we wanted seconds, now was the time to get it. That was because, he said, the crew was fast at breaking down breakfast and when it was gone it was gone. Hollywood then announced that the seven people who were camping on the island were to meet with him in the back of the boat to go over some paperwork and the rules and regulations of island camping.

During this break we got to know out table mates. We met John and his wife, and his adult daughter Erin. John grew up in Kansas, but they raised Erin in North Carolina. When we said we were from Colorado, Erin said she had spent a semester at Northern Colorado University on an exchange program. Her parents now live on the Gulf Coast of Alabama, not far from Dustin, Florida. They raved about the beaches in both North Carolina and the Florida panhandle. They were very unimpressed with the beaches of Key West. They also didn’t like Duval Street. They had only been in Key West for three days and were driving back tomorrow. We also learned Erin was a body builder and taught fitness courses at a small college. She was also a vegan and brought her own food. She snacked from a plastic cup of almonds while we spoke.

The Second Half Hour

Hollywood reappeared at the front of the inside cabin with the microphone. At this time he wanted to get everyone interested in snorkeling organized. Those that wanted to snorkel needed to fill out a release form and then get sized for their fins and mask. Erin stood up to grab a form. We thought about it, but prefer snorkeling with our own equipment, which we left at home because of our short stay. Erin borrowed my pen to fill out her form. Hollywood walked around the cabin picking up the forms and answering questions from other guests as he went. He was fast, efficient and most importantly, friendly. He probably made these announcements every other day and I was impressed at how he could be upbeat while answering the same questions over and over and over again. He then said that a video of proper snorkeling etiquette would be shown on the ferry’s various TV screens. We watched it even though we weren't doing that activity because the video showed plenty of marine life and was a half hour long. We were now over one hour into our journey.

The Third Half Hour:

After the video Hollywood returned to tell us what was probably the most important information of the entire trip:  How to use the boat’s bathrooms. There were two standard toilets and one accessible toilet, but anyone could use it. Called ‘heads’ on a boat, Hollywood said there were only two things that were supposed to go into the toilets. One was whatever we eliminated from our bodies. The other item was toilet paper. No napkins, no tissues, no paper towels and no diapers were to go into the toilets. Those things would clog the heads and that was something no one should ever experience, he said. He also said that the locks on the toilets had to be turned “all the way to the left” to lock. He said even if you feel or hear a click, keep turning the locks to the left until they turn no more. If we didn’t, the locks weren’t actually locked and if the boat hit a wave, the door would fly open while you were doing your business. He said that people on previous trips who did not heed that advice paid for that mistake with their pride.
Other information he relayed to us was what to expect when we arrived. The restrooms on the boat were the only restrooms we were supposed to use while docked because there are no restrooms facilities on the island. (We noticed later there were two port-o-potties at the tiny campground.) We were to take all our belongings with us off the boat. This was so the crew could do a quick cleaning as well as set up lunch. Hollywood himself would give a guided tour of the fort. There would be an abbreviated talk at 10:45 AM just inside the entrance for those who wanted to know the history, but didn’t want to take the full tour. Then the guided tour would start at 11:30. For those snorkeling, it would take a half hour to get the gear offloaded so those people were encouraged to use the dock’s changing rooms or walk around the fort a bit first before grabbing their gear.

The Fourth Half Hour:

After all of Hollywood’s talks, videos and paperwork, there was just under an hour left on the boat. The seas on this day were relatively calm and the boat ride wasn’t bumpy, but there was a swaying from side to side. Christian decided to head to the open deck up front to look for turtles and dolphins. He saw two turtles. Erin, who announced she felt seasick, followed him hoping that being outside would make her feel better. It didn’t work and within five minutes she was back and curled up into a little ball against the window. I then went outside and as the warm sun hit my face realized that the air conditioned cabin was freezing. After several minutes of not seeing any turtles, I went back inside and grabbed a hot cup of coffee to both warm me up and get a hit of caffeine. We had woken up at 5:30 AM for this activity so I was already sleepy and the steady rocking of the boat was lulling me like a baby in a cradle. As I sipped my hot liquid, Hollywood reappeared.

The Last Half Hour:

Hollywood announced that the islands of Dry Tortugas and Fort Jefferson were now visible on the horizon. I grabbed my camera and headed back outside. Hollywood also pointed out a bird sanctuary island that wasn’t much more than a sand bar and barely visible to us on the boat. A lighthouse towered over Loggerhead Key also nearby. The boat then rounded the western side of Fort Jefferson. The red brick fort rose above the water and from our current location hardly any ground was visible. I wondered how this thing could even exist here.  

We could see the shallow moat that encircled the fort. Build between 1846 and 1875 to protect US shipping lanes, the country’s only all masonry fort is made of thousands and thousands of bricks. The years and weather have not been kind. The fort was crumbling. Scaffolding three stories tall covered a large section of this side of the fort. As the boat came around the island to the dock on the south side, the ground the fort sits on came into view. As we circled the island we passed the tiny swim beach. There was a dock next to a sliver of green land that led to the entrance of the fort.

As the crew tied up the boat, Hollywood let us know that lunch, which would be on board, was at noon and that we all needed to return for the trip back starting at 1:30 PM. Finally, we were set loose on the island.


At 1:30 PM we did as we were told and returned to the boat. Hollywood had a ledger and as we boarded, he crossed our names off the list. At 1:50 Hollywood got back on his microphone and began calling the names of people he hadn’t crossed off his list yet. Three of those names were John, his wife and Erin. After everyone was accounted for, the boat engines roared us away. Once at sea Hollywood announced that the bar was officially open! Beer, wine, rum punch and margaritas were for sale. I purchased a can of Landshark Lager and shared it with Christian. 

Hollywood then did a raffle on the boat. We bought six tickets for five dollars in hopes of getting a cool National Park prize. We were one number off from winning a beach towel. After that a documentary that showed the restoration of the fort giant canons played on the TV screens. We fell asleep scrunched up in the booth while other groups around us played cards or chatted. Teens with ear buds bobbed their heads to unheard music. It wasn't long before we woke up to Hollywood’s voice announcing we were again passing the Marquesas Keys and Key West came into view on the horizon.

I’m not going to tell you what we did on the island. I’m not going to tell you its fascinating history. I’m not going to tell you about the bird sanctuary, the soft sand beach, being able to walk on the roof high above the sea or stand in Dr. Mudd’s dark prison cell. I'm not going to tell you how I lost my wedding ring on the swim beach. Some things you need to experience for yourself. What I do want you to know is that the long journey to and from this unique place is in the hands of a capable crew that will make the journey easy peasy island breezy.