Refugee Boat Encounter + Exploring Dry Tortugas!

A Week Aboard S/V Sabado: 3/13/2022 – 3/21/2022

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Last Sunday we spent the day on the boat, waiting for the wind to die down from last week’s big storm.

Monday morning was still pretty breezy, but things were starting to calm down so we started planning our next move. We mapped out our route to Dry Tortugas, double-checked the weather, and flipped through a couple of guidebooks so we would know what to expect in terms of anchoring options and rules for the National Park area.

At some point during all of that, we noticed a sailboat heading towards our anchorage. Curious, we grabbed the binoculars. All we could really make out was that there seemed to be a lot of people hanging over the edges as the boat heeled in the wind. We assumed it was a team of sailors racing or something, and went on about our day. 

Once the boat came in a little closer, I grabbed the camera and started filming. The longer I looked at the shot, the more questions I had. The sails looked….strange. Ray was trying to guess what type of boat it was, but nothing he knew of quite matched what we were seeing…

The boat was hauling ass towards one of the private residence docks, until suddenly it wasn’t. I’ve never seen a boat come to such an abrupt stop. They had run aground. I told Ray and he grabbed the binoculars- there’s no way a race team would run aground like that- I could sense his mood change just before he said “Oh, that looks like a refugee boat.”

I put down the camera and grabbed the binoculars. Sure enough, they had a literal log as their mast. Within seconds over 100 people were in the water, frantically swimming to shore. We watched for a minute, shocked. We heard someone call it into the Coast Guard over the radio, and we chimed in with any additional information we could offer since we were anchored just a couple hundred yards away. We decided to take our dinghy over to help. Once we made sure all the refugees were safely on shore, we headed over to the boat to try to pull down the sails and deploy the anchor (to hopefully mitigate any injuries/damages that could occur once the tide came in). At that point, the local police were on shore and a helicopter was circling us. Another boat with a couple of locals came aboard and helped, too. 

It was a very odd experience. We could hear the refugees on shore cheering and see them embracing one another in celebration, all while we tip-toed around their remaining belongings, emergency water packets, and bags of pasta strewn about this DIY’d boat. The other guy who was helping us poked around a bit checking for bodies before helping his wife climb aboard. It didn’t even cross my mind to do that. 

The guys got the sails down and tossed the anchor into the water while the other man’s wife and I grabbed any backpacks we saw and filled them with clothes and shoes to bring to shore. 

I can’t imagine what these people went through to get here. How scared they must have been, especially at night. How awful it must have been where they came from for them to be willing to risk their lives like this to escape. There were men, women, and small children on that boat for who knows how long, in who knows how bad of conditions. 

We took our dinghy back to Sabado with a newfound appreciation for how comfortable and safe our boat is. We watched as the local police, Border Patrol, and the Coast Guard worked together to tow the boat off the bottom and away from the scene. Helicopters circled for the rest of the afternoon before things finally calmed down. The refugees on shore slowly dissipated, it looked like the police were bussing them somewhere- hopefully to determine their eligibility for asylum. We spent the rest of the evening reading up on the immigration policies in place for situations like this (spoiler alert: they’re not great!!!). If you’d like to know more, here is a link to an article about the ship we saw, and a similar ship that arrived nearby last week. It seems like the Florida Keys are a common landing spot for Cuban refugees, but the people on the boat we saw were Haitian. Below are a few stills from what I caught on camera, plus a couple I took on my phone once we made sure all refugees were safely on shore. 

We decided to leave Summerland Key Tuesday morning and head to Dry Tortugas. We were really looking forward to being unplugged for a bit. We motored for a few hours and dropped anchor for the night in Marquesas Key, before making the last stretch of the trip Wednesday morning. I knew we were in for a treat when we lost cell service, and the water started getting bluer and bluer….

We anchored outside of the typical anchorage, as far away from everyone as we could get, and immediately changed into swimsuits. I jumped in the water, checked on our props and took a look at our zincs, then had Ray help me rig something up to tie a floaty off our stern. It was paradise! 

We had some celebratory drinks and fell asleep before the sun even set. 

The next day we set out to explore! We took the dinghy across a huge reef and over to Loggerhead Key. The island is small and undeveloped, aside from a lighthouse and a volunteer house. We walked around a bit, then set up our beach supplies for a picnic. We drank rum, read our books, and took the occasional dip in the ocean to cool off. It was a perfect afternoon. 

Just before we packed up to leave, we met a man named Robert who was wearing a National Park Volunteer shirt. We introduced ourselves and asked him if he knew anything about the fishing laws around here, then got to chatting. Robert and his wife Alice got approved to live on the island for the month of March. They’re staying in the volunteer house, which I guess is open for many types of people- not just park rangers like I assumed. Robert explained that sometimes scientists take up residence on the island, other times gardeners, engineers, really whoever applies and makes a valid case to stay can be eligible! They’re there because his wife is an artist and has been painting small canvases to use as references for larger ones once they return home. “Home” for them is in West Texas, they are cattle ranchers- talk about a change of scenery! Robert said his wife has never painted so many shades of blue before. Here is Alice’s website if you’d like to check her out! I know I’ll be circling back to her site in a few months to see what she painted during her stay. ☺️

We dinghied home and spent the rest of the day sitting in the sunshine, listening to music and having the occasional 2 person dance party (gotta entertain yourselves when you live on a boat!). 😂

The next day we decided we should do the typical Dry Tortugas activity and go see Fort Jefferson. The Fort way way bigger than I thought it would be! Ray and I aren’t museum lovers, so I don’t have any photos of the nitty gritty details for you, but here are a few of the architecture and the view from the top:

We finished exploring just as the ferry full of tourists from Key West pulled up- perfect timing! We climbed into the dinghy and headed home. I was itching to go snorkeling, but the water got pretty choppy that afternoon, so I dipped my toes in and finished the book I was reading instead (I can’t complain). 

Ray downloaded the weather report for the next few days and broke the news to me that we had to leave on Saturday. Bummed, but grateful for our time there, we discussed where we wanted to go next! We decided we weren’t finished with Dry Tortugas, but there is absolutely no protection from any sort of weather there, so we couldn’t stay. That left us with two options- backtrack to Marathon then come back when the weather allows, or venture up the West coast of Florida and hit Dry Tortugas again when we head North for hurricane season. We chose the latter. 

We left Saturday afternoon for Marco Island, a barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico, close to Naples, Florida. We hoisted the main, brought out our gennaker, and made great time the rest of the day. It was absolutely beautiful! We sat up on the bow in our bean bag chairs to keep watch, since being at the helm with the gennaker up is like driving with 3/4 of your windshield covered, and were visited by a pod of dolphins.

The wind died just before sunset, so we pulled in the gennaker, leaving the main up, and started an engine for the rest of the night. We switched off keeping watch while the other one slept, and motored through the moonlight. We arrived in Marco Island the next morning, several hours earlier than we had anticipated, and carefully navigated our way through the inlet in thick fog. We tied up safely in a local marina, plugged ourselves into shore power and cranked up our air conditioning. We walked around a bit in search of fried food and cold beer, and the area looks cute! The waterfront homes with private docks remind me of Fort Lauderdale or Palm Beach, but then they have these little alleys lined with cottage styled buildings that are  boutiques and restaurants.

After lunch we both laid down and caught up on our phones for a bit, having gone several days without service.

We ventured out that evening for some Mexican food and fell asleep the second we got home. We’re feeling well rested and ready to be productive today, though! It will most likely be a cleaning day for us (this marina offers free laundry!!), but maybe we’ll make it out to do some more exploring this evening. 

I hope you all had a great week!❤️

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