Key West to Tortugas, Part 3

My boat glided up onto the beach as I popped open my spray skirt. The dense smell of sweat and urine assaulted my nostrils. I slipped out of the boat and fell into the water, tried to stand, and contented myself with wading. I waded in the water for minutes, looking up on the island at the campers. Occasionally one would walk by and give me a look of total confusion, but the refugee Cubans arriving moments before distracted them from my arrival, at least long enough for me to learn how to walk again.

When I finally regained my ability to stand, I gimped up onto shore and a guy a little older than me asked with a certain combination of surprise and confusion, “Did you kayak here?”. We talked for a couple minutes, but I was nearly too exhausted to seem sane and I moved on to set up camp. I pulled my kayak up next to my tent and began cooking a much needed meal. A group of guys out fishing for a few days invited me to have some of their leftovers and I graciously enjoyed them. A family was camping just twenty meters away and when the mom came over to thank the gentlemen for sharing their fish, she saw me. She saw my clawed and deformed dark red, bordering on brown, wrinkled, arthritic hands. “Are you the guy who kayaked here?” she asked hastily. “Word is spreading! You’re the talk of the island!”

I had seen the glances from the other couple campsites on the island but figured everyone was minding their own business. The gossip spread and my trip became their dinnertime conversation as I quietly ate my own dinner at a picnic table beside my tent.

That night as I laid in my tent in the sweltering heat, trying to sleep, but also just content with being alive and safe, I looked for some revelation, some epiphany that I always crave on these adventures. And I’ll tell you, I got it, but it dissolved with the sunburn and the aches, and has all but faded to a memory. I thought to myself, this isn’t satisfying, these dangerous trips are going to get me killed, and I keep pushing the limit until eventually I’ll find it. It’s not safe, nor is it sane. It is no better than a drug addict searching for that original high.

But as the pain and discomfort faded, and with the realization of how truly safe and actually quite uneventful my trip was, the epiphany turned to just a thought. The trip was awesome, gorgeous, and powerful. I wasn’t satisfied by the thrill, because the thrill was not why I went out there. I went out there to experience beauty in a way that I never had, and I did exactly that. That is the sustained smile that I was looking for, and most certainly found. The best part of it all is that I did it incredibly safely and pretty easily. Sure, there were moments where I shouted at the top of my lungs, or slapped a passing wave out of frustration of severely knocking me off course, times that my butt hurt so badly that I thought it maybe was gone altogether. But I did that trip safely and kept it from becoming an epic. The most worrisome part was the disorientation. I realized how easy it is for an unprepared hiker or mariner to travel in circles. My mind kept convincing me that my heading was continuously becoming more northward, but my compass held me true. Without that navigation aid, I certainly would still be have been paddling for days.

The lady that first noticed my arthritic hands worked to get me free passage on the returning ferry a couple days later. It still took a little convincing but the unrelenting easterly winds convinced me that my motorized return trip would be enjoyable and safer. I hung out on the island for a couple days, did some incredible diving on the reefs around the islands and checked out nearby Loggerhead Key. Fort Jefferson is an unimaginable contrast to the desolation of the open ocean and is powerfully demonstrative of the determination of humanity, partly of that to explore places that we could truly not call home. I can appreciate that. And the magnificent beauty of the architecture is very powerful. I will say though, I highly recommend the ferry.

For all the skeptics, pessimists, and critics, for the people on the island, who even as they saw me easily come ashore and were still disapproving of my trip and questioning my capability, all I can say is I hope you snap out of this illusion of your “safe” lives. I honestly have never experienced so much flak in my life. People told me that I am going to die, that I have a death wish, people looked at me like I am a child, unprepared and naive, informed me of the power of the ocean, they saw me as an inevitable coast guard rescue. This is not arrogance speaking, naivete that I will never need a rescue, that I could never die. But it is courage and possibility. What I learned on this trip is that the currents and the winds of the open ocean Caribbean are challenging, certainly, but not an unbeatable force.

Every trip I hope for some culmination, some closure so I can return to the world and live a “normal” life. I am aware this is likely the last thing I will get from these teases and satisfying these urges, but it is a craving of mine. All this trip did is show me that way more is possible in a kayak than I could ever have dreamed of. What Ed Gillet and Andrew McAuley did in standard sea kayaks is an amazing feat of endurance, but it is (to completely understate it), a series of days kayaking and sleeping. I have yet to sleep in my kayak in the deep, open ocean but am thrilled to try it, to attack that irrational fear, and hopefully continue on to some of my bolder adventures and maybe test the limits myself. As for my totally mundane adventure compared to the feats of real adventurers, I hope it continues to demonstrate that sea kayaks are worthy vessels, and experienced paddlers need not be jaded by the warnings of ancient grumps. I almost let myself do that, and I am so happy I didn’t. As for now I am regrouping, getting some necessary vaccinations for medical school, and then I’ll pack up and head out west to climb some big mountains, with, of course, my kayak strapped on the roof. Channel Islands, Inside Passage, maybe?

7 thoughts on “Key West to Tortugas, Part 3”

  1. I haven’t seen you mention the sail. Did you use it or did I miss it?

    Also, while you arrived safely, and had a safe trip – I’m not sure kayaking open seas can be considered safe. Not sure what differnce that makes though.

    You did it and thats what counts. It’s good to hear you question why you do what you do and find answers good enough for yourself. That’s all that really matters.

    Good luck adjusting to medical school. It may seem a little tame.

    1. I did use the sail. It helped but I learned that stroke techniques aren’t enough to keep me oriented. I need a rudder. I always say that if I could bring the perceived risk down to that of the drive down from virginia to Florida on I-95, then I’d consider it safe enough. But if it were riskier than that, then I wouldn’t go. So not safe, just within what most people consider acceptable risk. Thanks for the encouragement! I imagine you’re right that med school will seem a tame!

  2. DOOD! IF i was there you would have got the beverage of you’re choice!!!!
    & I would of helped you set up camp, if you accepted help!
    Never Stop!

  3. Congradulations on your journey. I can relate to much of this having just returned from a roundtrip journey Key West – Dry Tortugas – Key West. My journey actually started weeks before Key West from Cudjoe Key heading North to Content Key and across rhe too of the back country then down to Key West for some repairs and reprovisioning.

    I am in Klepper Arius 2 Kayak, with 55 sf of sail which makes life much easier then paddling all the time. I have now been living and sleeping aboard the boat for 3 ¼ months spending time to explore nature extensively.

    As for all the floating turds you mentioned I believe they are from the Turtles. Crossing Boca Grande where I saw more then 100 -200 turtles the turds were everywhere.

    At Dry Tortugas I would her out of my boat to snorkle and drift all for hours at a time. With the boat tied to my weight belt I was able to extensively explore underwater and reenter the boat when I had enough.

    As for comments from observers they were all over the board. Either super heroic respect or they were scared of the unshaven guy with a strange looking boat at far away places especially at the Marqueses.

    Crossing Marqueses to Dry Tortugas I had 4-6 foot surf coming from behind as I was running before the wind coming from behind me. I brushed against the esge of a storm cell also on this stretch with high winds and a 8 foot surf for just a bit

    It has been an incredible adventure.

  4. very cool! did the park rangers require you to have a VHF radio since you were kayaking? what kind of radio did you bring? thanks!

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