My husband, Mike and I had many expectations for our short trip to the Dry Tortugas aboard Stacy’s World, our 47-foot Concorde motor cruiser, but rescuing three Cuban refugees in 15-foot seas was not one of them.
Traveling to the westernmost islands in the Florida Keys was a childhood dream of mine. I could remember my mother telling stories about untouched reefs, shipwrecks full of gold and a haunted fort surrounded by pristine waters teeming with turtles and tropical fish. Maybe it was my father’s refusal to travel anywhere he couldn’t reach by car, or perhaps it was the 70 miles of open water between Key West and Garden Key, but the cluster of seven islands seemed as impossibly far away in reality as they were in my dreams.
Rough weather ended two previous attempts to make the crossing during the five months we spent in Marathon, a settlement on Vaca Key. I began to wonder if my dreams were the only place I’d ever see the redbrick walls of Fort Jefferson rising out of crystalline waters.
The stars aligned when fair weather and work schedules gave us a four-day window to try again. Our brief stay in the Garden Key anchorage reaffirmed all the reasons I had for wanting to live aboard. We snorkeled around the western edge of the fort, surrounded by fearless yellowtail snapper. We tagged along on a guided tour of the fort grounds with a group that arrived on the ferry Yankee Freedom. We were treated to a stunning full-moon rise on the final night on the hook.
The morning we left, we checked the marine weather that the volunteer park ranger posted on the dock. The wind was forecasted to be out of the south at 10 knots, with conditions expected to deteriorate over the next couple days. As Fort Jefferson disappeared behind us like a mirage, I felt fortunate that I’d had the opportunity to fulfill a childhood dream.
An hour and a half into our trip, the wind picked up and the conditions deteriorated much sooner than expected. To make matters worse, it was also the opening week of lobster season in the Florida Keys. The horizon was littered with multicolor buoys marking hundreds of traps. Getting a line wrapped around a prop, drive shaft or rudder could disable the boat. In those conditions, there would be no way to safely dive under to cut the line.
Stacy’s World does not have a flybridge, making it even more difficult to spot and avoid the traps. So, I grabbed a life jacket and my work gloves, and positioned myself on the bow to spot buoys.
The sun was warm, and even with the wind blowing a steady 30 knots, I could still smell the coconut scent of my sunscreen. I had only been on “trap duty” one other time, while coming around the Big Bend of Florida from St. Marks to Cedar Key. Other than crossing the Gulf Stream in a north wind, we both considered that day our second-worst at sea.
While I was scanning for traps, I thought about the Spanish wrecks in the Straits of Florida. My childhood was filled with stories of the hurricane-battered ships lost between the Tortugas and the Marquesas, the most famous being the Nuestra Señora de Atocha. I tried to imagine that passage, leaving from Cuba for Spain and running afoul of a storm, littering the treasures of the Spanish Empire strewn across the seafloor. I gazed down at the cobalt water, amazed that I could see bottom.
“How deep?” I shouted back to Mike.
He shook his head. The wind made it impossible for us to communicate verbally, even with the helm window open. I shrugged my shoulders and pointed down at the deck. He held up nine fingers, then three.
I was still smiling at the sight of seagrass when the first of the big waves washed over the bowsprit. I looked back at Mike, knowing that he didn’t see the wave, but would soon see the rush of water draining through the scuppers on the back deck.
I guided Mike around several buoys by pointing. We weaved in and out of strings of traps before the first surprise wave against our beam sent water into the open helm window. The next wave over the bow was bigger than the last. I was forced to kneel on the deck as we crested the swell so that I could keep my balance when we crashed back down and the blue-green water rushed past me.
The deck of the Concorde was 6 feet above the waterline, and waves were regularly washing over it. With communication reduced to pointing and shrugging, we didn’t have the chance to weigh the pros and cons of turning around. We had 30 nautical miles behind us, and we were halfway to safety no matter what.
The sun was still bright in the sky, and I remember thinking that it could be far worse, a thought that the sea responded to promptly with an 8-foot roller to our beam. I was pitched against the fender racks as the boat listed hard to port. Facing south, I could see nothing but sky, and I knew that if I reached behind me, I would be able to run my fingers through the water. I looked back at Mike and through the salty film on the windshield. We were thinking the same thing: It’s getting worse.
It had been more than two hours since we last saw a boat hauling in lobster traps to the north. We were the only fools left out on the water. When another roller collided with our starboard beam, I heard a crash belowdecks. A mental checklist of all the possibilities ran through my head as I spotted the next chain of lobster traps. I could see that we were entering the shallow water north of the Quicksands, a 15-mile stretch of gnarly shallows between Half Moon Shoal and the Marquesas Islands. What remained unspoken between us, what we didn’t have hand signals for, was that the sky was darkening to the south, and the sound of thunder became distinguishable from the swells crashing against the fiberglass hull. We were fast approaching seas too rough for the boat.
That was when I spotted something unusual on the horizon. It looked like a small boat, but that seemed impossible. Through the binoculars, I saw three men in a homemade boat. One was frantically rowing to keep the bow into swells, one was bailing with a small bucket, and the other was waving both his hands overhead. The boat, lined with tarps, was barely big enough for the three of them to sit inside.
They had completely missed all land and drifted into the 50-mile gap of open water that separate the Dry Tortugas from the Marquesas.
Stacy’s World was already listing violently to the side, even with the bow into the wind. We hailed the U.S. Coast Guard and any vessel in our area to come assist or at least standby. There was no response. As we circled the raft, we had to hold on with both hands to stay on our feet. After several more attempts to contact another vessel, we realized we were completely alone.
We weren’t sure how to get the men on board safely. A wave could pick us up and bring us right down on them if we got too close. If we took a wave fully against our beam, we feared that we would roll over.
Mike put our bow into the swells and backed down toward them. We circled their boat, and I threw life jackets to them. One of the men jumped out and swam toward our boat.
“He’s in the water!” I shouted to Mike.
For a moment, I lost sight of him in the swells.
Looking over the stern, I saw that he was clinging to the swim ladder. He had climbed aboard the swim platform with the props turning. He struggled up the ladder and collapsed in a deck chair.
Mike said to our new passenger, “Uno mano!” Not knowing any Spanish, he hoped he was saying “one man.” Unfortunately, tacking an “o” onto an English word doesn’t translate well. He was shouting, “One hand.”
We circled again to get our bow back into the swells. We backed up as close as we could to the raft, and I threw the life ring. The second man pulled himself up onto the swim platform. He barely had enough energy to climb the four rungs to get on the back deck.
On the final approach, a swell knocked us sideways. The wave broke against the stern, and the third man, still clenching the life ring, washed across the swim platform like he was sliding into home plate.
All three men were exhausted. I ventured down below for blankets, warm clothes, water and food. Belowdecks, it was like being in a washing machine. The baby locks on the cabinets had broken, tossing all the contents onto the galley and salon soles.
I stumbled back up on deck. The men changed clothes and wrapped themselves in the blankets. They were badly sunburned, their lips blistered and eyes sunken. They sipped water and stared down at the deck. They didn’t speak a word, not even to one another.
The wind continued to gain strength, reducing our speed to below 5 knots, as we continued our course to Key West. Nearly two hours after the rescue, we neared the Marquesas, and a Coast Guard helicopter hailed us. Its crew had heard our distress calls, but we were out of listening range. They told us that there was a Coast Guard cutter due south of us that was dropping a small boat in the water to come meet us.
The fast boat caught up in no time, and three members of the Coast Guard boarded Stacy’s World, which alone was an amazing feat. Both boats were rolling in different directions in the heavy seas. The guardsmen greeted me on the bow like it was just another day on the job.
One of them spoke Spanish. He determined that the three men had been at sea for 10 days and were completely out of food and water. There was no way they could have survived crossing the Gulf of Mexico for a second chance at landfall. They were given different life jackets and, one by one, helped aboard the Coast Guard boat, leaving Mike and me alone again in what we then deemed the official second-worst seas we’d ever experienced.
As we approached Key West, we decided to tie up at the Key West Bight Marina. Sitting in our deck chairs, drinking a beer, the entire trip seemed surreal. If it wasn’t for the pile of soaking-wet clothes, the unraveled life ring line and the wet life jackets strewn across the deck, it would have been difficult to believe what had just happened. We spent a couple hours cleaning the boat, inside and out, before going to town for dinner.
Still in shock, we told our story to some of the locals sitting at a bar. We quickly learned that there is no middle ground when you’re in Key West and you’re talking about Cuba.
However that may be, I felt like we had saved their lives, and that was what mattered. The experience made me grateful for what I had, and made my bucket list trip to the Dry Tortugas even more memorable.
This article was originally published in the May/June 2022 issue.