Fort Jefferson

Night arrivals are never recommended especially when they involve unknown anchorages and reefs. That’s why we had timed our arrival for 4 pm. Earlier would have been even better but we didn’t want to leave the Marquesas before sunrise as that also involved a reef passage. Ideally you want to navigate through reefs at noon because the sun is shining directly down and it’s easier to see the coral heads. We calculated that 4 pm would be fine for Fort Jefferson as it’s a well-buoyed entrance according to our charts. Of course Mother Nature had other plans for us.

Twilight found us five miles away with no wind. This is where we start our chant, “we will not do anymore night arrivals, we will not do anymore night arrivals.” Dark set in as we reached the lit buoy known as Iowa Rock 2 miles north of the channel entrance. At this point we’re joined by another sailboat. They’re twice our size and speed but they stay behing us, letting us pick the way in.

We head towards the channel, coordinates in the GPS. Slowing to a crawl we flash our spotlights looking for the Red 2 marker that signals the channel entrance. The spotlight cuts the blackness showing us miles of inky water. Until….a post! Flash back. Nothing. Flash around. There, on the port side, a post. Spotlight jabs and yes, a post. ARGH! It’s not a Red 2, it’s a huge DANGER sign. Argh. Stop boat, the depth alarm sounds. Wait, to starboard there’s a post. Argh. It’s another danger sign. Double argh. Retreat. We turn tail and head out to the safety of 15 feet deep. The other boat follows us. Check the chart, check the GPS coordinates. The other boat goes in, a bit west. Spotlights dancing we see them stop, circle, stop then retreat. We can see the lights of the Fort to our starboard, we can see the mast lights in the anchorage. Theoretically between us and the mast lights is a straight channel. But it’s pitch black, the depth sounder says five feet, we can see the bottom and there’s big Danger signs. Sometimes life is very confusing.

For two hours both boats poke around trying to pick our way across the bottome. Finally we head west to try to circumnavigate the fort. There’s lights bobbing up and down which we decide are flashlights on the beach. We know there’s beach because we’ve just passed the swim markers. At this point we’ve had enough. In seven feet of clear water we drop anchor. It’s a still night so we’re not worried about protection.

Next day it’s completely obvious how to circumnavigate the west entrance to the anchorage. The coral heads are brilliantly visible in the flat clear turquoise. We wave to the three other boats also anchored outside and motor in to the designated anchorage. And then we look to see what went wrong last night. Where the wide eastern entrance is supposed to be, it isn’t. There’s a beach instead. A large beach. Very puzzling.

A chat with the friendly park rangers clears up the mystery. Sand in water is a very fluid substance. Add in currents, storms and sudden elevations in the ocean floor and you’ve got a recipe for creating islands out of nowhere. In the beginning of December 2000 with a series of northers, the channel began rapidly to fill with sand. At Christmas that year, the rangers woke up one morning to find a sandbar six feet wide connecting the two islands of Garden Key and Bush Key. The sandbar is now 40 feet wide and several feet above sea level.

To warn boaters of this, the Red 2 marker has been removed and a danger sign put in its place. Excellent. Unfortunately none of the charts for the area have been updated. Every single night of our two week stay (which was fabulous!), our nightly entertainment was watching the dancing flashlights as another boat making a night arrival found the danger signs. Repeat after me, “we will not do anymore night arrivals”. One of the joys of sailing is the constant learning experiences. Never forget, shift happens.

You see the circle? There’s no water there now.

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