Captain's Log: Sailing the Florida Keys

By: Ryan Nance

Dolphins, sunsets, frigatebirds, and stars - our weekend Florida Keys chartered sailboat adventure had it all.

This was the one trip my wife and I had been looking forward to all year - a three-day, two-night adventure aboard a chartered yacht, tooling in the vibrant, blue waters surrounding the Florida Keys. What could be greater? Just the two of us, a beautiful boat, the wide-open seas, the salt air and silence. I had been lucky enough to make this trip once before, aboard my grandparents' 47-foot wooden cabin cruiser, Darmy, but that was 20 years ago. Since I'd met my wife, I'd been telling the same sea tale. Finally, we were going to get to experience it together.

When we started planning our trip, we searched for a yacht charter in the area. Florida Yacht Charters, based in Miami, St. Petersburg and Key West, had a huge fleet of sailing vessels for us to choose from. I'd sailed enough that we chose to get a bareboat charter - just the boat - and we were the crew. Just call me "Captain Ryan." We'd thought about participating in their sailing instruction courses, or even going all out for a luxury crewed charter. In the end, the allure of being alone out on the sea guided our decision.

We stocked up on the foods we imagined enjoying while anchored in a quiet corner. One of my most vivid memories from my first voyage as a kid was my granddad mixing up a pitcher of mango-flavored Tang. I'd never realized how hard it was to find that particular flavor of Tang until we were stocking up for the trip. But we found some.

As the staff showed us around the boat, it became clear that it wasn't bare on amenities. The long list was staggering: our favorites - excluding the TV/VCR, which we knew we'd never use - were the stern-mounted barbecue grill and coffee maker, not to mention the comprehensive safety and navigation equipment.

I couldn't speak for my wife, but I was excited to get underway. On the drive down U.S. Highway 1 to Key West, my wife teased my insistence on re-reading and bringing along my thumb-worn copy of Moby Dick. I was determined, like any good sea captain, to keep a log, an excerpt of which I'll share with you. Be you landlubber or seaman, read on.


0700 hours: Underway through the well-marked channel from the marina, keeping the channel markers to the portside. Once clear of marina traffic, we cut and pulled up the outboard. My wife took the helm, while I ratcheted the broad cloth of the mainsail up the mast.

0715: Glasses of mango-flavored Tang were poured and a sunrise toast commenced. The captain was lauded by the crew of one for his stalwart leadership, and the first mate commended with honors for her thoroughly un-lubberly conduct.

0745: Upon full inspection of the ship's quarters, the first mate happily reported a large aft stateroom, witha queen-size, athwart-ship berth and an adjoining head with shower, as well as a comfortable galley and cabin complete with microwave, range and oven, refrigerator and dining booth. Both the captain and the first mate waved to the shore-bound folks along the southern coast of Key West. First mate took helm while captain raised the jib.

0900: En route to the Dry Tortugas, the Bafo passed a number of other yachts, the captains and crews of each calling and waving when in earshot.

1012: All other vessels dropped out of sight. Conducted speed trials with the ship's knot meter- maximum speed reached, 7.5 knots. The captain and first mate marked the occasion with a huzzah!

1630: Underway, the captain insisted on recounting his boyhood trip aboard his grandparents' boat. "The Dry Tortugas," the captain officiously intoned in between bites of a tuna sandwich, "are so named because in 1513 Ponce de Leon and his ship were replenished by the meat of the many sea turtles, or tortugas (that's Spanish for turtle), in the seas around the islands."

1631: The first mate rolled her eyes.

1632: The captain continued (either unaware of the brewing mutiny or too caught up in the majesty of his own voice), "The Spanish crews, however, had been disappointed by the complete lack of drinking water on all of the seven islands. The name has served as a shorthand guide for thousands of sailors in the hundreds of years that followed."

1633: Mutiny! The first mate doused the captain with a bucket of cool saltwater scooped from over the gunwale. The captain's hat (actually an old, sun-bleached L.A. Dodgers cap) was snatched from his head and placed upon that of the new captain, Captain Amy Nance.

1645: The mutiny was halted and the hat restored when three dolphins crested in the water off the starboard bow. The dolphins followed alongside for nearly an hour.

1800: Frigatebirds traced corkscrews in the sky above. The ship approached the Dry Tortugas, whose main three islands are Garden Key (the site of historic Fort Jefferson), Bush Key (a nesting site for the Snooty Terns and Brown Noddies) and Loggerhead Key (the largest of the group).

1945: Anchored in the protective shoals between Garden Key and Bush Key. Rising up on the flat seascape was Fort Jefferson, the third largest seacoast fort the U.S. constructed, with six sides, a moat, bridge and sallyport. The fort was an active duty base during the Civil War, but saw, as my grandfather once put it in his army way, "negligible action." It was a prison for many years after that, and struggled through yellow fever epidemics and the consequences of its remoteness. Bush Key served as pasture for the animals that fed the soldiers at the fort. By the time we arrived, ten-foot nurse sharks had swum into the moat, the walls were softly decaying, and birds were now the fort's only wards. From our aft deck we could watch the take-offs and landings of huge flocks of terns, gulls and herons. We grilled up some chicken we'd been marinating.

2145: Still at anchor. Thousands of stars took the nightwatch as the captain and first mate retired.


0745 hours: Captain overboard. First mate overboard. Morning coffee and juice served to dripping wet crew on aft deck.

0915: Crew took rigid-bottom inflatable dinghy across a small stretch of open water to Loggerhead Key, guided by the island's lighthouse. The leeward side of Loggerhead Key offered one, long, unbroken stretch of gently sloping sand sliding into crystalline blue waters. We could clearly see the bright fish, rays and, yes, even a sea turtle swimming while we stood on the beach. The other side of the island, facing the open Gulf of Mexico, had high sand banks and dropped quickly into deep azure water. We walked a circuit around the island, a long, but not unpleasantly so, stroll in late spring sea breezes.

1135: Crew returned to the Bafo, weighed anchor and got underway. These islands at the very edge of America are conveniently remote; the Dry Tortugas National Park is one of the least visited in the country. In fact, we had these gorgeous islands almost to ourselves.

1245: Crew took the dinghy to the dock at Fort Jefferson and were given access through the heavy
iron portcullis.

1545: Crew returned to the Bafo for an afternoon nap.

1715: Cocktails and shrimp toasts were prepared by the Captain.

1745: First mate commended the captain for his "cooking" skills.

1915: Supper served.

2115: Captain handed command of the ship over to the first mate. The first mate turned over command to the bright full moon.


0745 hours: Up anchor. Underway for Key West.

1245: Grilled chicken salad sandwiches and mango-flavored Tang were served underway.

1730: First mate sighted Key West on the eastern horizon.

1845: Captain struck the jib and mainsail and engaged the outboard motor for passage through the harbor channels.

1945: The Bafo was moored starboard side in the slip of the Oceanside Marina. Command of the ship relinquished to the staff of Florida Yacht Charters.


For would-be captains and mates, the Doris & Steve Colgate's Offshore Sailing School, headquartered in Fort Myers Beach with sailing programs on Fort Myers Beach and Captiva Island, offers comprehensive vacation sailing courses that include classroom and on-the-water training. Offshore provides sailing courses certified by US SAILING. Courses vary from day sailing and basic cruising to live aboard training for coastal cruising and passage making for blue water sailing and offshore passages.

Outside of the Keys, you can explore one of America's top-rated cruising waters in your own chartered pleasure yacht, power or sail. Cruise through Pine Island Sound and past famous barrier islands like Sanibel, Captiva, Cayo Costa and Gasparilla. See dolphins, sea turtles, manatees and exotic birds in their natural environments. Southwest Florida Yacht Charters has a great selection of sailboats and powerboats - from a captain and crew for your luxury cruise to just the ship for a once-in-a-lifetime bareboat excursion. Southwest Florida is a rich marine environment – where the Gulf of Mexico and Florida Bay meet.

Sponsored listings by VISIT FLORIDA Partners

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