Matt and Britney Weidert

Matt Weidert

Sailing from Key West to Dry Tortugas: What to Expect?

A trip to the Dry Tortugas should be on everyone’s bucket list. History, seclusion, and pristine natural beauty are top reasons to go.

Each year, this National Park only gets around 55,000 visitors - most of them arrive by daily ferry aboard the Yankee Freedom. Some visitors also arrive by exclusive sea plane tours.

But there is a better way to visit! Take a private boat to the Dry Tortugas enjoy the multi-day adventure. Don't have one? Charter a yacht as a bareboat or crewed charter instead.

There didn’t use to be many options for crews wishing to bareboat charter a sailboat from Key West to the Dry Tortugas. However, recently Florida Yacht Charters has partnered with the Moorings and maintain a Key West base. The cruising grounds to the Dry Tortugas are now available to us all!
I took advantage of this last year to during a 5 day adventure to go boating to the Dry Tortugas and back. It was an incredible trip with several of my closest friends. You can check out the details on my trip report post.

Planning on sailing from Key West to the Dry Tortugas? Here’s what you should know:
  • When should you go to the Dry Tortugas National Park
  • How many days to plan for on your sailing trip?
  • Sailing route from Key West to the Dry Tortugas
Year round you can expect to dodge an isolated squall or two

When should you go boating to the Dry Tortugas National Park?

I did this trip in August...and I would not recommend boating to the Dry Tortugas this time of year (doable maybe if you have reliable air conditioning aboard). South Florida is then very hot and the wind is also at it’s weakest and most variable. I slept on the catamaran trampoline every night it was that bad!

I think the Spring or early Fall are the best time to take a private boat to the Dry Tortugas. Why?
  • Less risk of tropical mischief
  • The heat is less intense and the weather is more settled
  • There is less risk of cold fronts which can barrel down with intense winds and squalls
  • Fishing in the fall as the water cools offers great chances at catching wahoo along the drop
Weather is the biggest factor to plan for. You want your best chance of a settled weather window. Aside from the anchorage at Fort Jefferson, there are really very few protected anchorages along this route.
Our catamaran at the pool dock at Stock Island Yacht Club before heading out for the Dry Tortugas

How many days to plan for on your boating trip?

Unless you have a speed boat, I think the minimum number of days to plan for is a week. Here’s what that sailing itinerary looks like:
  • Day 1: arrive to Key West and overnight on your charter boat in the marina
  • Day 2: early am departure for Boca Grande. If you have time, grab a mooring ball for some snorkeling at one of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary sites along the way: Western Sambo, Eastern/Western Dry Rocks, or Sand Key are good options.
Sunset over the Marquesas Keys
  • Day 3: sail the rest of the way to the Dry Tortugas and explore Fort Jefferson at Garden Key after most of the tourists have left for the day on the ferry.
  • Day 4: head over to Loggerhead Key for the day. Snorkel the Windjammer wreck. Return to Garden Key in the evening (you aren’t allowed to stay overnight at Loggerhead).
  • Day 5: early am departure to head back east. Overnight anchorage at the Marquesas Keys.
  • Day 6: final leg back to Key West. Anchor close to downtown for some nightlife or spend the night back in the marina.
  • Day 7: checkout and travel day.

Sailing route from Key West to the Dry Tortugas

How far is the Dry Tortugas from Key West?

It’s approximately 80 nautical miles to the Dry Tortugas from Key West. If you are on a sailing charter vacation, plan for two days to get there and the same for the return. Yes, that can be done with a very early am departure, but don’t plan on checking out until mid morning. You know the drill with those check-out briefings.

It’s a great sail! The water is beautiful and the fishing is excellent.

With prevailing winds, you are most likely to have a downwind sail on the way there. Returning to Key West, you might be beating to windward and it might make sense to throw in the towel and motor.

As far as planning guides go, I picked up a copy of the Water Way Guide for the Keys. We also relied heavily on Garmin Active Captain for anchoring advice.
The anchorage at Garden Key | We were one of two boats on this visit, when it is quieter, but also hotter

Anchorages along the route

Main anchorage near downtown Key West

I like this anchorage at the end of the trip. Celebrate your final night and share stories about your adventures boating to the Dry Tortugas during a night on the town.

Boca Grande Key

Boca Grande is next up. In settled conditions, you can anchor in ~10 feet to the west of the popular beach (Boca Grande - 2 on Garmin Active Captain). You will swing some on the tide here as it flows between the Gulf of Mexico and the Gulf Stream at about 1 knot.

You can also anchor further up the channel that leads to the interior of the key, but be prepared for 180 shifts and swings on the tide.
Great sunset over the Marquesas Keys as we anchored at Boca Grande

Marquesas Keys

The final anchorage before you reach the Dry Tortugas (and you still have about 50 miles to go) is the Marquesas Keys. It is less protected than Boca Grande, so keep that in mind if you are planning around some weather events.

Anchor within a few hundred yards of the beach. If the bugs are bad, you can venture farther out - look for the Brown Pelican anchorage on Active Captain which is about a mile offshore.

Fishing on the way to the Dry Tortugas

You have great chances at catching fish boating to the Dry Tortugas. Depths range from 40-60 feet along the way - expect to catch king mackerel, little tunny, and barracuda.

I also like the idea of fishing the drop which will take you on a slight detour south if you can afford the time. Here you’ll have better chances of landing tuna, mahi, and wahoo.

There are also several spots to bottom drop, such as at Rebecca Shoal - here you have decent chances of hooking snapper and grouper.

Before you enter the park boundaries, make sure you stow away your equipment. Park rangers also ask you to report any catch that you are bringing into the park. You can do this on Channel 16.

Dodging lobster trap buoys

For me, the most frustrating part of this sail is the obstacles created by the lobster trap buoys. They are everywhere and you will find them along the length of the entire route. Perhaps this was because I visited at the start of lobster season (early August through March), but I’ve heard they are out there year round.

Unless your yacht has excellent visibility from the helm station, you should plan to post a bow watch to help you identify them. Unfortunately, frequent course adjustments was required for us. Not fun!

If you really want to avoid dealing with some of them, your only option is to venture farther south to the drop.

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